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March 2017

Legal Innovation 101: Get with the program or get left behind experts say during Midyear Meeting

Catching up with legal technology is no longer a luxury in a tough market for legal services. While sorting through options may seem daunting at first, firms that embrace technology and new methods will be at a huge advantage.

That was the consensus of five panelists at the “Legal Innovation 101” discussion held during the Midyear Meeting in Miami.

“It is very difficult out there,” said Jordan Furlong of Law21 in Ottawa, Canada. It’s a buyer’s market for legal services, he said, so “this is a keystone moment in the legal profession.”

Fortunately, Furlong said, the market offers new tools, methods, markets and models that can give law firms a leg up on the competition – if lawyers are willing to embrace them. “This is not lawyer-replacement technology,” he assured the audience. “It’s lawyer-augmentation technology… These are force multipliers for your law practice.”

Start with when and where your law firm is open for business. Monday to Friday 9-to-5 no longer cuts it with clients who are at work during those same hours. Furlong cited a Canadian law firm that sees clients inside Walmart stores. The firm has completed 20,000 wills and generated no complaints to the local bar. “Walmart law is a reality,” he said. “Why are they in Walmart? Because that’s where the clients are.”

Furlong also urged lawyers to seek partnerships with legal service companies that are often viewed as competitors. 

The key to innovation is to think like a client, said Margaret Hagan, who leads the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University Law School. She offered two case studies in which students shadowed lawyers at one firm and walked through the divorce process in one court to see where client hang-ups occurred. Then they quickly brainstormed solutions and created apps to help.

Speed is essential, Hagan said: “If the system is broken, we can’t wait for a two-year horizon. We have to build things now.”

Chad E. Burton of CuroLegal in Dayton, Ohio, demonstrated two technology tools that are already paying off for lawyers.

One is ABA Blueprint, a new service that kicked off in November, offering back-office help to lawyers who say administrative tasks are cutting into their time practicing law. The service is aimed primarily at solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms, and is available at a deep discount for ABA members. It leads lawyers through a series of questions to determine what tools would help most.

Burton also showed off the New York State Bar Association’s Lawhub. The portal offers members a wide variety of legal resources on a single page – case law, discussions, statutes, case preparation plans, marketing, finance and more. “I think ultimately this replaces bar web sites down the road,” Burton said.

Judy Perry Martinez, a recent fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard, offered a glimpse of the ABA’s new Center for Innovation. Created last summer, the center is already working on several projects, including a hate crimes app, and recently helped launch a website to coordinate volunteer lawyers assisting immigrants with the new travel ban.

The center offers a safe space for creative thinking “where no idea is too off the wall,” Martinez said. It is recruiting two classes of fellows – a one-year fellowship for recent law school graduates and a 60-to-90-day fellowship for more experienced lawyers. Both offer opportunities for creative thinkers to work on projects and push the boundaries of legal methods and technologies.

The panel was moderated by Ramon A. Abadin of Sedgwick LLP in Miami and was sponsored by the ABA Center for Innovation.

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