Helping Low-Tech Lawyers Embrace High-Tech Service Delivery


Professor Gabe Teninbaum is the director of Suffolk Law‘s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation and also the director of Suffolk Law’s academic concentration in legal Technology and innovation. Gabe’s teaching and scholarship focuses on leveraging technology to solve difficult legal and social problems.

What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?

I spend almost all of my time teaching people about using technologies to improve the delivery of legal services. Sometimes this means showing students how to automate documents or build expert systems; at other times, it’s speaking at bar association meetings about how to build a virtual law practice.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about how to use the internet to get more lawyers engaged in learning how to use the technologies that would make them better at their work. We teach our students these things at Suffolk Law, but the reality is that most people (including students at other schools and the hundreds of thousands of lawyers who didn’t have a chance to learn legal tech in school) don’t have easy access to this information. So, as a service project, I’m looking at ways to curate a set of learning resources and training materials for people who would like to learn these tools.

Additionally, I spend time on an edtech/legaltech project I created, It’s a learning tool that uses a cutting-edge algorithm that lets users remember about four times as much as if they just crammed. It’s had a really dramatic impact on users’ outcomes on the bar exam and other tests so far, and I’m working on increasing its reach.

My most important, satisfying and fun project isn’t at work, though: it’s chasing my two young kids around with my wife!

What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?

Lawyers should look at computers in a new way. Even technophobes should learn enough to be able to identify the tasks computers do better than humans, as well as to know the tasks humans do better than computers. With this knowledge, lawyers can do a form of outsourcing to decide what they need to do and what their computer can do for them. Being able to draw these distinctions requires a small bit of training, but pays dramatic dividends.

What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

No one went to law school to fill out the same boring forms, motions and letters, over and over. They don’t have to, either. I want legal professionals to be able to spend their days making judgments, strategizing and using their brains for what they’re best at doing: being creative problem-solvers. The way to do that is to give people tools to outsource rote tasks to machines, leaving the fun stuff—judgment and creativity-based work—for themselves.

What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

I’m excited about a shift toward a client-centered approach to delivery of legal services. I’m in Boston, so let me reel off three local examples. Think of Goodwin Procter: they want clients who are high-end, sophisticated businesses. So what did they do? They started Founder’s Workbench to give startup founders free legal forms that they’ll need to become the big clients they want to represent. Isn’t that cool? Their goal is to represent businesses, so they’re helping people get into business. Another example is a personal injury firm, Sugarman & Sugarman, which is automating motor vehicle crash report forms for everyday people. Now, if a person is in a car crash, they need to fill one of these confusing, ugly, multi-page forms out, then mail it to a bunch of places. All throughout are landmines that could impact their ability to get compensation if they write the wrong thing in the wrong place. By contrast, Sugarman’s tool is online and streamlined. They make the process simple and clean. And once it’s filled in, there’s no pressure or obligation – but if you need a lawyer, they’re demonstrating that they’re able to provide you with value. A third example is the work of Todd & Weld, another high-end litigation firm. They’ve built a free expert system to help lawyers untangle a thorny insurance issue that arises in one of their practice areas. They give it away. Talk about an easy, inexpensive way for a firm to cement itself as a “thought leader” within a community of lawyers!

What technologies, business models and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?

It’s a combination: loosening regulations on unbundling legal services, coupled with web-based platforms to offer those unbundled services online. It’ll change the way law is practiced and, if done properly, will make legal services more affordable and better for clients, as well as to make work more satisfying for practitioners.

What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?

I’ve recently been fascinated by fee-shifting law practices, which do a really amazing thing: they let lawyers represent people who couldn’t otherwise afford attorneys, they make the lawyers real money, and they affect positive social change. They do this by only taking on cases that, if they win, have a statute that shifts the costs to the other side. The good ones also leverage technology to keep costs down. We actually have a clinic here at Suffolk Law that works as a real, live law firm that uses this model and they’re doing amazing things to train the next generation. It’s called the Accelerator, and even though I don’t directly work on it, I am constantly at their office and talking to the people who do because it’s so cool.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is a member of the Editorial Board of Law Practice Today and is a veteran public relations practitioner in San Francisco.

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