Is Technology the Revolution?

Nearly 30 legal professionals – and who knows how many lurkers – participated in Tuesday night’s Twitterchat about legal technology and access to justice.

What if it were this easy, wondered Casey Hall from Thomson Reuters Legal, to pool time to answer those in need?

That strikes straight to the heart of the access to justice conundrum: everyone has lots of ideas about what the basic problems are and what could be done to fix them, but there appears to be more eagerness to discuss the issue than to deal with it.

That there are areas of overlap in the legal futures and the access to justice debates was clear from the Twitterchat, hosted by Monica Goyal, founder of My Legal Briefcase and a member of the CBA Legal Futures Initiative’s Business Structures and Innovation team. Tuesday’s chat, the last one in the business series, drew participants from a number of U.S. states and as far away as Barcelona.

Interestingly, while the legal futures discourse seems to be centred on how changes will affect big firms, the access to justice debate appears to occur within smaller, more focused groups. But it appears the field, when it comes to leveraging technology to address either issue, is being left to the young and flexible.

There are a lot of “comfortable stakeholders” in the legal profession, says Jonathan MacKenzie of Aluvion Law – legal technology won’t necessarily change the way people think about law and access to justice in general.

“Technology will be adopted first by those freest to change – new and small firms,” said Jason Morris, the self-styled “lead legendary counsel” at Round Table Law in Alberta, which he describes as a “virtual, paperless, fixed-fee solo practice.”

“Information is now ethereal. Proximity is not needed for communication. That alone can revolutionize, but hasn’t yet.”

Marc Lauritsen, a lawyer and law professor in Massachusetts, says he’s been promoting “Apps 4 Justice” courses in which students write legal aid software.

In fact, tech education for law students has been a theme running through all of November’s Twitter chats on business and innovation, says Goyal.

As far removed geographically as the participants were, it was also clear that no one believes that technology alone is a silver bullet for the challenges faced by those who can’t get access to justice or by the legal profession as a whole.

Technology can improve access in a number of ways. It can reduce costs for firms who use it as a law practice management tool, for example, and make legal information and forms more easily accessible – at least for those with the access to online tools and appropriate levels of computer literacy.

Lack of access is not entirely about cost.

Robert Richards, joining the conversation from State College in Pennsylvania, identified three themes that need to be addressed in the technology/access question: “better legal design needed; legal procedures must be simplified; non-lawyers must be allowed to practice” including paralegals and other citizens with training. He pointed those interested to M-Sheria, which offers mobile legal information in Kenya and to the United Nations Rule of Law website.

“Technology is not enough,” says Sarah Glassmeyer, director of community development for the Centre for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction in Chicago. “Need more lawyers willing to work in ‘legal access deserts’ – geographically. Loosening of UPL (Unauthorized Practice of Law) rules.”

Karen Dyck, a freelance lawyer in Winnipeg and newest member of the Legal Futures Initiative’s Steering Committee, agreed: “Legal deserts are enlarging even though legal technology has been with us for many years.”

Building on Morris’s idea that proximity isn’t necessary, James Peters, a lawyer in California, suggested there should be some “limited-scope multijurisdictional allowance for legal aid” – for example, a lawyer in California with some available time could help a person in Wyoming who needs legal assistance.

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Comments

  1. As a point of clarification, the acronym “UPL” typically refers, in legal regulation discussions, to unauthorized practice of law. I understood that to be the meaning of Sarah Glassmeyer’s tweet.

  2. Oops – should have tried harder to pin down a definition for an unfamiliar term. We’ll fix that. By the way, nice to see you on the Steering Committee, Karen.

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