The Next Five Years – Predictions for the Future of eLawyering

Volume 37 Number 5

By

Richard S. Granat and Marc Lauritsen co-chair the ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force. Mr. Lauritsen is a lawyer, teacher and technologist who specializes in document drafting and decision support systems. Mr. Granat is the founder of Granat Legal Services, PC, one of the first virtual law firms in the United States, and also President and CEO of DirectLaw, Inc.

The possibilities afforded by the Internet have exploded since 2000, when then-ABA president William Paul created the eLawyering Task Force within the Law Practice Management Section. The task force has been operating quietly ever since, issuing guidelines, offering seminars, visiting law schools and supporting active discussions among the hundreds of lawyers who have joined its listserv—all with the goal of helping lawyers learn how to deliver legal services online.

1. Firm Services Provided through Client Portals. Larger law firms have been using extranet technologies for years, but few solos and small firm practitioners have incorporated client portals into their websites. Recently, however, the cost of this technology has come within reach of even the smallest firms. Think of a personalized web space for each client, giving the firm an online platform for offering a wide range of functions that ordinarily would be provided by telephone, fax, snail mail or in-person meetings. We predict that within five years almost all law practices will use such a portal.

2. Web-Enabled Document Automation. Document preparation is one of the most important legal services that can be delivered online. This technology is being used successfully by non-law firm providers like LegalZoom to compete against law firms, and we see its use growing among law firms, too, as it becomes easier for lawyers to automate their own documents and deliver online intake questionnaires through client portals. These systems generate a first draft of a document instantly, making it ready for the lawyer’s review, analysis and revision. The efficiencies and service quality benefits of web-enabled document automation have been well documented elsewhere. It is only a question of time before widespread adoption by law firms of all sizes, but particularly by solos and small firms, occurs.

3. Interactive Advisory Applications. As with document assembly, online advisory applications enable clients to answer questions through an interactive questionnaire. But instead of a legal document being created, the application generates conclusions by manipulating a series of if-then statements, providing a legal answer to the client immediately. While not easy to program, once they are in place, advisory applications can be used for a long time without major revision. Importantly, such applications can include a trapdoor to alert the lawyer to potential problems that require more sophisticated analysis and direct legal advice. Look for them to become widespread both in private firms and in the public sector. The U.S. Immigration Service already has several such advisors on its site, which make a determination, for example, of an immigrant’s eligibility for citizenship.

4. Nationally Branded Networks Delivering Services Online. Because small firms often have difficulty marketing themselves and gaining visibility for their websites in an environment of intense competition, they will band together into nationally and vertically branded networks to aggregate their marketing resources. Designed around vertical specialties, these networks will provide free legal information to consumers to attract traffic, may have free question-and-answer services from lawyers in the network that may or may not be true legal advice, and may offer free legal forms as a traffic generator. Examples of emerging networks include www.ezlaw.com, www.lawpivot.com, www.totalbankruptcy.com, www.smarterwill.com and www.directlawconnect.com.

5. Courses on Sophisticated Law Practice Technology. Few law schools offer courses in which students learn about cutting-edge practice technologies, let alone how to develop them. Yet such technologies are increasingly central to effective practice, and more lawyers are finding careers in knowledge management and application development. Law schools are natural centers of research and education on those topics, and promising developments are afoot. Institutions such as and are engaged in joint efforts to reinvent legal education. The LawWithoutWalls project at the University of Miami Law School is pursuing a part-virtual, collaborative academic model that unites students, faculty, practitioners and entrepreneurs from around the world. And Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Apps For Justice initiative seeks to catalyze courses elsewhere in which students build online tools like interactive questionnaires and document generators, both as a learning experience and to expand access to justice. We expect that by 2016 such courses will be found in dozens of law schools.

6. Extensive Use of Cloud Computing to Augment In-House Resources. Skepticism about cloud computing will dissipate and its use will become widespread—not only to store data and documents online, but to deliver complex legal applications to firms at an affordable cost. Client-facing applications such as client portals, web-enabled document automation and interactive advisors, will be offered by a growing industry of software as a service (SaaS) providers. Also, traditional back-office practice management solutions, such as timekeeping and billing, case management, calendaring and accounting applications, will be more widely available over the web.

As a culmination of these developments, we’ll see an accelerated movement toward mobile computing, less demand for traditional firm office space, and an ever-growing number of lawyers free to move about to conduct their practice “anytime, anyplace.”

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THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC OF VIRTUAL LAW OFFICES

 

Although the terms elawyering and virtual lawyering are often used interchangeably, it’s worth noting that a virtual law practice may more properly be thought of as a subset of elawyering. As the ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force defines it in its “Suggested Minimum Requirements for Law Firms Delivering Legal Services Online,” it involves providing a secure web space for clients that is accessible only with a user name and secure password. So, unlike having a simple, traditional law firm website that describes a firm’s practice, with lawyer biographies and some legal information, a virtual firm incorporates a secure client portal into the architecture of its site. This secure client space is the defining characteristic of a virtual law office. Importantly, it enables the law firm to comply with the rules of professional conduct that deal with unauthorized practice, client confidentiality, establishing the lawyer-client relationship, and conflict of interest issues.