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This article was originally published on December 22, 2017, on Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites (lawsitesblog.com). Reprinted with permission.
Why would I end this article’s title with a question mark? Of course, 2017 was a year of change. All you had to do was turn on your phone (for those who ever turn them off), and a stream of rapid-fire news greeted you, reminding you that change was ever prevalent—whether good, bad, or indifferent.
But what about for attorneys and the legal industry? Again, the knee-jerk answer is an overwhelming yes. We have had change—from an increase in incubators and non-traditional law firms to quickly developed apps and websites for helping people deal with abrupt changes (e.g., immigration). These examples are in addition to proposed changes to the rules that govern how we practice and in some states a “lessening” of the standards that once prevented or hampered “outside” companies from providing atypical legal services.
Let’s also not forget great strides that were made this year in changing how we provide legal services and information, such as the Legal Checkup for Veterans online tool, which walks veterans through a brief series of questions to help them identify whether they have a legal issue and the resources available to them. Another great example of using technology to provide legal services is LawDroid, a bot development company created by attorney Tom Martin to help other attorneys incorporate chatbots into their practice.
In fact, arguably change has never before happened at such a rapid pace in the legal industry, and there is no slowing down in sight. But who is paying attention? At first glance, it seems to be predominately leaders and influencers in our market—from bar associations, institutions such as IAALS and 2Civility, businesses such as CuroLegal, publications such as Lawyerist and Above the Law, and attorneys who are developing technology solutions within their practice. Most definitely, companies providing legal services through technology are paying attention and many times influencing the change. But is that all?
When I read about or talk to influencers about the changes in our industry, it seems like, the vast majority of the time, the changes are coming from the same people mentioned above. What about the rest of the more than 1.3 million attorneys in the United States? Is it a situation of “it won’t impact my practice” or “I don’t need to change as my business is fine” that leads the majority of attorneys to not want to join the ranks of the influencers? Or is it that the constant recital that technology is the solution for all, including access to justice, so attorneys must implement technology now or their business won’t survive that keeps us from being a part of the change?
As I talk to attorneys across the United States, it appears to be all these things. In fact, I spent most of this year talking to thousands of attorneys about change: how studies show the very nature of who we are and what we are taught as attorneys makes us somewhat adverse to change, and how we can understand how to be a part of change, even if we may not embrace it, to help the legal industry change—because it most definitely needs the help even if our practices do not.
When having these conversations, I always bring it back to why the majority of us became attorneys—to help people in need. Not to mention the fact that we have gone down in the rankings for overall affordable access to civil justice, ranking 94 out of 113 countries in 2016 (tying with seven countries including Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania).1 The fact that only 24 percent of Americans use attorneys for civil legal matters2—because they don’t see how an attorney could help, they don’t see value in the legal system—shows we definitely have a need.
So what can we do to get the majority of attorneys to find these statistics so appalling that it spurs them to be a part of the discussion about change? How can we get our industry to make the changes that other service industries (e.g., medical) have made to be more consumer-focused and service-oriented (which, yes, is often through technology)?
How can we get attorneys to be so incensed by the very fact that the vast majority of Americans don’t find them or the legal system of value? Even if we are not persuaded by access to justice, don’t we at the very least want to collectively seek out change that alters Americans’ perception of us? The fact is that change is happening and will impact you at some point. If we don’t seek out change, those outside the legal industry will be the ones who take control and help consumers meet their legal needs.
So how can we, as leaders in the industry, make it easier for our colleagues to join the discussion? What can we collectively do to introduce technology and client-focused service processes into your practice to make you more efficient and able to focus on what you went to law school for—helping people?
I realize this article is full of questions and not many answers. But the truth is that it’s going to take all of us together to come up with the answers.
So how about this: As we make goals for 2018, let’s make one together: Let’s support one another and make changes in our practices and the legal industry that allow us to be more client-focused, efficient, and affordable so we raise our view in the eyes of the American public and lessen the access to justice gap . . . not to mention show the value we, as attorneys and our legal system, provide.
With your help, I will continue sharing answers that we have found in 2018. Stay tuned.
1. World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2016. Washington, D.C.: The World Justice Project, 2016.
2. Sandefur, Rebecca L. Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study. American Bar Foundation and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: 2014.