It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of our technological era. Much of the modern experience, brought to us courtesy of the internet, feels miraculous: one-click same-day delivery, distributed cryptographically-enabled currency, on-demand video and audio content, and much more. Beyond that, innovators and entrepreneurs pitch their visions of a future that seems even more fantastic every day.
Those attempting to follow the legal-industrial-hype complex will find no less noise: AI and robot lawyers, blockchain, etc.
But there’s good news too. First, as usual, legal is about five to 10 years behind society at large. Second, and this is true inside and outside of the legal profession, the power of the internet is in its simplicity—specifically, the ability to connect disparate people and resources.
This can be hard to wrap your brain around, so below are three examples of forces that have remade the broader cultural landscape, and how they’re poised to remake the legal realm, all with the central theme of connecting disparate people and resources.
Communication is one of the most obvious areas of radical change in broader society. We take email for granted due to its ubiquity and persistence, but the ability to send messages and larger files instantaneously over the internet has significantly disrupted old-guard institutions like the Postal Service and has broader implications as well.
Lawyers readily adopted email when it burst on the scene in the late 80s and early 90s. This forced the ABA to grudgingly concede that despite email’s inherent lack of security, among other problems, it had become a too-widely adopted means of communication to ignore.
Looking to the future, opportunities to improve on client communications abound. Many practice management systems have built or are building client portals to facilitate better client communication, document sharing, bill tracking, financial management, and much more. Others have tried to grapple with the ethics of communication using new and different media (text, social media, etc.) and still others are trying to understand how to ensure that all of this communication is captured so that it can be properly used in formal legal proceedings.
This is to say nothing of the fact that communication is the source of the vast majority of consumer complaints against lawyers. As just one example, a promising but now pivoted or currently dormant startup built technology to translate lawyer-speak into plain English. There’s still lots of room for improvement in communication to increase revenue and decrease risk (both in terms of ethics complaints and more broadly) and to enhance customer service.
Another early and obvious use of the internet was connecting disparate buyers and sellers. Like email, modern internet users may take resources or sites like Craigslist or eBay for granted, but a marketplace that facilitates commerce between individuals across state and international boundaries was pretty amazing in its early years (no less than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written about how eBay empowered one particular small business seller to declare “eBay restored my faith in humanity”).
Marketplaces are not new to the legal profession, but they certainly remain undeveloped and controversial. As far as controversy, look no further than the birth, growth, and resistance faced by one of the best-known legal marketplaces, Avvo, to see that the price and service transparency that marketplaces introduce is far from fully embraced in the legal world—at least in a consumer-facing context. While it is not necessarily a marketplace per se, LegalZoom has definite marketplace elements and has worked recently to expand them and taken its share of arrows along the way. More recently, Off The Record, an online marketplace for consumers to find a lawyer to fight their traffic tickets, faced and overcame some resistance in Washington state.
If consumer-facing marketplaces are controversial, lawyer-facing or lawyer-to-lawyer marketplaces are undeveloped. In many cases, the tools and resources to find freelance legal help today are the same that have been used for the past two decades. Looking forward, there is significant opportunity to help lawyers easily find freelance or flexible legal help. On the corporate legal side, witness the rise of companies like Axiom Legal Services or Elevate. On the solo and small firm side, services like Lawyer Exchange, Hire an Esquire, and LAWCLERK have emerged to bring a digital experience to an otherwise analog arena.
Democratization of information
A final undeniable change that the internet has brought to our modern existence is the democratization of information. Whether it’s general knowledge in the form of Wikipedia, medical knowledge from WebMD or patientslikeme, special interest knowledge as can be found on places like Reddit, or breaking news provided by the likes of Twitter, information of all kinds is readily and inexpensively available to those for whom it was previously too expensive or difficult to procure.
The democratization of information is coming to the legal profession as well. In just the last few months, we’ve seen Supreme Court battles to democratize legal information, and legislation enacted to limit how democratized legal information can be used. The first case is a dispute about who owns the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. In an unusual move, both the state of Georgia and the party it sued, Public.Resource.org (and a handful of its allies), asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, saying that the question of who owns the law is an urgent one. In the second, the French government recently criminalized the analysis of judicial decisions. A lot can be said about this development, but the fact remains that the perceived threat of the analysis of otherwise publicly available legal data was so significant that lawmakers passed legislation to criminalize it.
More simplistic but no less provocative examples of the democratization of legal information exist in the rise of form sites, legal advice forums like the Avvo Q and A or /r/legaladvice on Reddit, and many others. These also represent a more ready availability of legal information to individuals who previously did not enjoy such access.
It’s not just consumers who can or might benefit from the democratization of legal information. Lawyers will get immense value out of judicial analytics, and open case law will provide a wide variety of new legal research platforms and innovations.
“The future has already arrived—it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
This quote, attributed to Neuromancer author William Gibson, is often cited to remind people that much of the technology that will change our lives has already been invented and may even be in use. It just may not have reached everyone.
We can apply this same quote to the legal profession, but tweak it some. Much of the technology that will radically transform the legal sector is already in use in our broader society. While it can be said that that technology is not “distributed” in the sense that it’s not in widespread use in the legal industry yet, it’s definitely inaccurate to say that the miracle of that technology is not in “distribution.” Quite to the contrary, the hallmark of what makes the modern internet ecosystem so valuable to the legal world is the ability to connect people and resources, whether it’s improved communication, tapping into previously prohibitively costly legal expertise, or greater access to what would otherwise be disparate legal data and information.
The legal future is here. And that future is distributed.
About the Author
Dan Lear is a technology-focused business lawyer, blogger and legal industry gadfly, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Board of Editors. Contact him on Twitter @rightbrainlaw.