How Will Technology Change the Practice of Law?

“It’s hard to take law and technology seriously when they still have a typewriter at the courthouse – and a pen remains the judge’s weapon of choice.”

That statement from Ottawa lawyer Bryan Delaney neatly sums up the paradox faced when talk turns to incorporating new technology into legal services – some may be riding technology’s cutting edge, but other parts of the profession are still tootling around in granddad’s jalopy.

Tuesday night’s CBA Legal Futures Twitterchat, hosted by My Legal Briefcase founder Monica Goyal, featured participants representing a full range of practitioners, from traditional to tech-based. There seemed to be general agreement that technology is bringing change to the profession – and that change will force a rethinking of the profession’s essential value proposition.

“If a thing can be replaced by technology, it will,” said Sarah Glassmeyer, director of community development at CALI, the Centre for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, in Chicago. “The legal industry needs to take a long look at itself and see what those are.”

For Glassmeyer, it’s not simply a matter of the profession needing to harness technology to cut costs or better serve clients. She suggests that asking clients to pay humans to provide a service that can be done more efficiently through technology is “not fair to clients, and I dare say unethical.”

Seattle’s Dan Lear, who blogs at Right Brain Law, just celebrated his fifth year as a licensed lawyer. He agrees with Glassmeyer, but says “there should be some incentive for figuring out how to do legal work more efficiently through technology.”

Some firms aren’t waiting for an incentive – for example, PCK in Toronto is a completely paperless IP firm that automated many of its processes and found efficiencies through better workflows. The resulting decreased costs have been passed on to clients.

A lawyer from the firm, who identified himself only as “Sam” for the purposes of the Twitterchat, likened PCK’s efficient workflows to the way a fast-food restaurant manages orders. “We use workflows to enable seamless transition between professionals on a file. No need for frequent email.”

Technology has an impact on the way legal services are delivered, and the ways lawyers interact with clients, from virtual law practices, free online legal help, productized and packaged legal services, participants suggested. “There’s a lot of room to automate legal work,” commented a tweeter from DiligenceEngine, a lawyer automation software company. Other Twitterchat participants suggested technology makes outsourcing easier – and junior lawyers more efficient.

All of which opens the question of whether lawyers are changing fast enough to keep up with the competition provided by tech companies offering cheaper, faster services.

Technology can assist but can’t replace lawyers, said Halifax’s Amy Sakalauskas, when Goyal asked whether technology will be the “end of lawyers.”

“Not sure about the end, but it’s certainly a disruption the likes of which hasn’t been seen recently,” said Lear.

The tasks lawyers do themselves may change due to technological advances – lawyers may be able to spend more time on high-value legal work, suggests Corinne Boudreau of Two Certainties Law in Halifax.

“I don’t think the end of lawyers will ever happen,” says Natalie MacFarlane, CEO of Impact Law. “But a fundamental shift, driven by new technology, will definitely trigger new forms of what being a lawyer means.”

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Comments

  1. “[B]ut other parts of the profession are still tootling around in granddad’s jalopy” – don’t knock grandad’s jalopy because obviously it was built to last. That’s quality. Can legal services claim the same or is there something to be learned from the way grandad’s jalopy was built?

    Second, “efficient workflows to the way a fast-food restaurant manages orders” – don’t know if comparing or aiming for the fast-food industry scenario is wise; fast-food workers are today demanding a living wage.

  2. Verna,

    I think that you’re mischaracterizing the arguments here.

    First, granddad’s jalopy may be built to last – sure. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t modern equivalents that are vastly superior, though, in terms of efficiency, productivity, and quality of work. For example, I’m sure many typewriters made 100 years ago are “built to last” and could still be used to produce written work today. Since they’re “built to last”, would you similarly say that we shouldn’t use modern innovations such as electronic word processors?

    Also, with the fast food analogy, I think you’re using the wage argument to redirect away from the actual point that was made. Whether fast food employees make a living wage is irrelevant to the author’s point here. The point was that they apparently have systems in place that allow them to pass “files” (orders) between employees without missing a beat (I say apparently because I’ve never worked in a fast-food restaurant).

  3. Jamie,

    Thank you for your comments. In terms of my point about grandad’s jalopy, I will defer to Steven Matthews’ post “Technology as a pure efficiency driver” above. And, although I’ve never worked in the fast-food industry myself, I’m sure it’s very efficient as some in the industry do use management processes similar to TQM etc. About the wages part, well I’m probably being unfair in that sense. However, reading Bart Cormier’s concerns above, I do wonder. But, I’m always hopeful for the best.