How Can Lawyers Better Serve the Public?

To survive and thrive in the 21st century, and to continue serving the public adequately, attorneys can no longer muddle through with business as usual, because the “usual” is changing and lawyers need ti adapt.

George Bellas Chicago Business Lawyer
Access to Justice

One are of current discussion is the question of access to justice by a large segment of the population.  Wide swaths of the public are unable to get their legal needs met. Innovations in technology and other changes in society continue to shift how legal services can be accessed and delivered. Bias, complexity, discrimination and lack of resources undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the justice system.

These were the top concerns raised a couple years ago by the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which also made several recommendations on solving these conundrums that seem well worth considering. Doing so, the commission wrote, would bring about the “significant change … needed to serve the public’s legal needs in the 21st century.”

Although there have been sustained efforts to expand access, most of those in poverty and the majority of moderate-income people cannot afford representation, the commission found. This means the public fails to obtain effective assistance and litigants come to court unrepresented, which adversely impacts all parties involved. At the same time, many lawyers, especially younger ones, are unemployed or underemployed, hemmed in by the traditional practice business model and the profession’s resistance to change, the ABA noted.

Technological and other innovations to assist the public in meeting their legal needs include experimental projects on the part of courts, bar associations, law schools and some lawyers, in areas like artificial intelligence, alternative billing and unbundled legal services. Against this backdrop, new providers of legal services continue to proliferate and create different choices for consumers and lawyers, the commission pointed out.

Public trust and confidence is undermined by the facts that the profession fails to reflect the diversity of the public, conscious and unconscious bias stands in the way of fairness and justice, the system’s functioning remains opaque to the average person, the criminal justice system is overburdened by mass incarceration and inadequate resources, and inadequate funding of courts on behalf of federal and state governments, the commission wrote.

The ABA Commission put forth a series of a dozen recommendations to help solve these stubborn challenges. For lawyers and law firms, these include supporting the goal of providing some type of effective assistance for all “essential civil legal needs” regardless of a person’s ability to pay, keeping abreast of relevant technologies, partnering with those in other disciplines and the public to gain insights about innovations in service delivery, and working to advance diversity and inclusion through updated policies, standards and practices.

To reform the court system, the commission recommended considering regulatory innovations such as exploring how legal services are delivered by Internet-based platforms and through alternative business structures. Courts also should become more accessible physically and virtually, through streamlined processes, multilingual materials and alternative dispute resolution systems, the ABA recommended.

Elsewhere in the public sphere, the commission recommended reforming the criminal justice system by decriminalizing minor offenses and adequately funding public defender offices, among other changes; vastly expanding resources to support longstanding efforts to successfully address the public’s unmet needs through legal aid and pro bono efforts; and measuring the outcomes of any established or new models “to evaluate effectiveness in fulfilling regulatory objectives.”

As for the ABA itself, the commission recommended that it establish a Center for Innovation, create guidelines for state bar associations and others to develop and administer “legal checkups” for attorneys and law firms, and, along with other bar associations, to “make the examination of the future of legal services part of their ongoing strategic long-range planning.”

Which seems wise, because however thoughtful and well considered, one bar association report is not going to singlehandedly change legal services delivery in a way that solves the access and trust problem while assisting unemployed and underemployed attorneys. But a persistent, strategic effort just might stand a chance.

 

Will Robots take over the Practice of Law?

Robots in the Practice of Law?

Nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be performed by robot employees within the next two decades, according to report by PwC, with the effects varying by industry and job category.  Artificial intelligence provides a rapid way to analyze data and identify trends, but AI currently offers little of the creative thinking or originality required in most areas of the law.

The use of AI in the law dates to 1999, when Jay Leib and Dan Roth created “Discovery Cracker,” a tool that helped lawyers manage electronic documents for litigation in an age when they increasingly were sifting through terabytes of data instead of mountains of paper. The pair later in 2013 created NexLP, which uses predictive coding—in which a computer searches documents for conceptual information (not just keyboards) to determine which ones are and are not useful to a case—to substantially reduce the time necessary for e-discovery.

Today, computers are processing information at about 10 times faster than the human brain and it is only a matter of time before computers are programmed to assess all of the other factors that go into a legal analysis.

Artificial intelligence in the legal realm has taken another step forward with the advent of IBM’s “ROSS,” touted as “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” blending the voice technology of Apple’s Siri with the cognitive computer of its IBM sibling, Watson. ROSS can perform the preliminary document research needed for some cases in as little as 30 seconds.

“You ask your questions in plain English, as you would a colleague, and ROSS then reads through the entire body of law and returns a cited answer and topical readings for legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly,” according to the website of Baker and Hostetler, which recently announced that ROSS has been “hired” to work alongside its 50 bankruptcy attorneys.

This has a number of both promising and cautionary implications for law firms and their small business clients:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Americans who currently need a lawyer cannot afford one, despite the massive number of attorneys in the U.S., but using ROSS should be able to lower costs since there will not be humans who bill hourly handling some preliminary research for cases and matters.
  • Attorneys who are currently out of work or under-employed could use AI to create a lower barrier of entry into the market by being able to offer more affordable options to their clients.
  • For now, ROSS is available only for bankruptcy and intellectual property law, and the price may be prohibitive for smaller to midsized firms.
  • The volume of work performed by AI could lead to job loss for some attorneys.
  • ROSS could level the playing field between firms of different sizes because it won’t matter as much whether a firm has one or 30 associates available to research a case.
  • Instead of leafing through dusty textbooks or clicking on hundreds of links looking for precedent or an obscure court ruling, human attorneys will be freed to focus specifically on a client’s needs and creative solutions to them as AI handles the grunt work.
  • ROSS keeps updating court rulings so that as a case is being worked on, attorneys will know about up-to-the-minute developments in the relevant area of law.
  • The technology not only narrows down results to the most relevant answers, but it translates those answers from legalese into something closer to plain English, making them more understandable for clients.

Given that artificial intelligence cannot at the present moment compete with humans in terms of creative thinking or originality, the effectiveness of a technology like ROSS in simply taking over an entire section of a law firm remains doubtful for now.

“We believe that emerging technologies like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning can help enhance the services we deliver to our clients,” says the Chief Information Officer of the firm employing ROSS in its bankruptcy practice. “We have been using ROSS since the first days of its deployment, and we are proud to partner with a true leader in the industry as we continue to develop additional AI legal assistants.”

Artificial intelligence will continue to move forward in the legal world, although further implications going into the future remain unclear—including the impacts of robots on revelry and merriment at office holiday parties.

How should we plan to network or go to a Cubs game with ROSS?  Will ROSS ask to attend our office parties?

The Tortoise and The Lobster

The Legal Profession Is Losing the Technology Race Faster Than You Think

robo-lawyer The legal profession continues to move at its traditionally measured tempo even as the winds of change blow past us like a rocket plane passing a Piper Cub. Unlike the relentlessly unhurried tortoise of Aesop’s Fable fame, however, the established legal profession is not necessarily going to win the race in the end. In our tale, we may be more like a lobster tossed onto the rocks in the sun: too lethargic to move the few inches back to the water necessary to survive.

To some degree, it is the very nature of our legal training and traditions that keep us from competing aggressively in a modern business world that sometimes seems to morph every few minutes. Lawyers are taught to be risk averse from the beginning. Our education requires us to assess problems and recommend conservative solutions that pose minimal legal exposure both to our clients and ourselves. Furthermore, our primary business models are antiquated. The partnership form of ownership requires consensus, but unanimity and compromise requires time that we don’t have. And at an even more fundamental level, we have been institutionally isolated and virtually free from competition. Court rules, laws and regulations have created what once amounted to a monopoly on the practice of law, and now that monopoly is being eroded by commoditization of the practice by online services

These are among the reasons we have been so slow to adapt our business practices to the tech driven revolution that is defining virtually every aspect of civilization. While we dawdle, cyclical economic forces and globalization are putting downward pressure on the demand for lawyers in the United States and the fees we can charge for their professional services. Indeed, some employee benefit packages now include limited coverage for legal services, allowing insurance companies to negotiate legal fees in the same way they dictate costs for medical services.

But the most powerful force of all is the relentless march of technology, and this is where the legal profession has historically struggled to keep up. I’m not talking about office technology here: certainly we have adopted desktop publishing, accounting and communication tools as well as anyone.

What is stalking our profession (at least as we know it) is information and data technology that is rapidly approaching the level of artificial intelligence. Internet-deployed software and databases combined with astounding computing power have made many routine legal services more widely available at a cost significantly less than what lawyers have charged. Routine (but billable) tasks have been increasingly offshored to places with educated work forces but far lower labor costs. Increasingly advanced search engines provide instant support for paralegal staff in far off locales that compensates for lack of a law degree.

Yet we have not yet begun to feel the full impact of algorithm-driven legal services. We are now seeing the legal equivalent of Deep Blue computers analyzing massive amounts of data relevant to law cases and spitting out evaluations and opinions in the same way a team of lawyers has always done. The difference is the computer can analyze far more data, far faster and far cheaper. The computer’s assessment is then turned over to a team of lawyers who can apply their knowledge and experience to the case. At least for the time being.

I am using the present tense to describe this scenario, because it is happening now. There are now litigation consulting firms offering analytical services based on complex proprietary algorithms. They are helping big corporations assess strategies and litigation alternatives and eliminating a lot of lawyering positions in the process. As big firms dump personnel, those unemployed lawyers will become sole practitioners practicing out of their basements, which inexorably means more competition in a shrinking market.

Will all this lead us to a legal profession dominated by Robo Attorneys? Will cars really be self-driven within a decade? Will stores disappear as Amazon takes over the retail world? Will people inhabit a virtual reality dictated by their eyewear? These answers are unknown.

But beyond question there is a potentially hostile reality waiting for lawyers who have not faced the onslaught of technology and what it means for anyone resistant to innovation.

As technology catches up to the slow moving legal practice, our challenge will be to find out how we can apply technology to our practices and remain relevant to the public. There will be drastic changes – just as Richard Susskind in his two books The End of Lawyers and Tomorrow’s Lawyers has predicted– and the challenge to lawyers will be to find a way to survive and thrive in the new legal landscape. Each of us needs to move into the tech waters or – like the lobster in our story – remain stuck on the rock and perish. How each of us does that depends on your unique situation.