I am part of the generation that came of age when computers became affordable tools for the office or home. Not yet universal but also not a rarity. I grew up using an electronic typewriter and transferred to a word processor on my Apple //e sometime in junior high school. When I started working, just about every law office was starting to give e-mail accounts to every employee.
Over 18 years, I’ve seen the practice of law transformed by the expansion of technology. Document review used to be a manually intensive chore that entailed poring over thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of sheets of paper, sometimes in a remote location. Now it entails using “predictive coding” or other methods to search tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of electronic records. Legal research used to entail going through digests and federal and state reporters to find cases. Now it involves searching on electronic databases.
Technological advances have, in several ways, made it less expensive to practice law. Much of a lawyer’s work can be done from any desktop or laptop with a few key pieces of software and a connection to the internet. In my own practice, I have been able to use technology to significantly lower my overhead. This not only helps my bottom line, but allows me to make my services more affordable to my clients. When I can send and receive documents electronically, I don’t have to charge my client for unnecessary expenses like copying, postage, and the like.
And yet often legal technology creates unnecessary expense. Companies charge a lot of money for software that uses legacy technology with improvement only coming if the company decides to develop a new version. Commercial research services charge hundreds of dollars a month to provide access to caselaw and statutes, information that is in the public domain. The advent of electronic discovery has created firms that charge hundreds of dollars an hour to perform consulting services that rely on either lots of manpower billed at a markup, or proprietary technology that isn’t necessarily all that novel.
Law isn’t the only field that pays a lot of money for expensive technology, of course. But for a profession that is supposed to ensure access to justice, much of the legal technology market instead seems to be designed to further separate the haves and have nots.
Why is this? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, many lawyers, even those who work in areas that rely on technology, don’t know much about the products they use, and they’re afraid to admit that. So instead of asking why things have to be done a certain way, they go along with whatever their IT department or consultants tell them to do.
Second, a lot of lawyers generally like to keep what they do know or have to themselves. Part of this may be grounded in certain ethical obligations. We’re required to keep confidences, and we are supposed to zealously represent clients within ethical bounds to win their case or give them an advantage in negotiatons. This crosses over into how we run our practices. There are several lawyers who do speak about technology and practice management, and various bar association committees that are devoted to such discussions. But there are very few collaborative efforts on a regular basis between law firms to develop effective technology and practice management tools.
What if lawyers collaborated with each other and with technology developers on applications to make document review easier and less expensive, or research tools to replace commercial research services? Some other industries do this. For example, financial services firms, although competing with one another, have developed shared settlement platforms because they need to do so as part of their transactions with one another.
In later entries on this blog I’ll try to highlight some areas that make access to the law simpler and more affordable. It may include highlighting a free or relatively low cost application, or promoting the various “free law” groups that are out there. I would like to focus on “disruptive” efforts as much as possible, where the technology not only does something new, but allows savings to go back to the end users (lawyers and clients), requiring other vendors to adjust their models. I will do this not from the perspective of a technology expert, but as a lawyer who spends more time in front of the computer than I care to. It does help that I have a wonderful wife who works in IT and can help me out in this area. I did promise before that I would not be promoting my own work on this blog, but I reserve the right to promote hers!