We are at an inflection point. The traditional one-on-one model, where one lawyer works in person with one client at a time, has not met the demand. So, what do we do? We can keep plugging away, devising ways to deliver legal services in the same way and funding them by the same methods.
Or we can engage in fresh thinking. More and more lawyers are thinking innovatively about how to close the justice gap while enhancing opportunities to serve clients in their practices.
I would argue that we cannot accept the status quo.
We Need More Martin Coopers. Who’s That, You Ask?
To find solutions to our legal services challenges and to navigate the tides of change, we should encourage the legal profession’s Martin Coopers. Who is Martin Cooper? In 1973, he changed the world. He invented something 40 years ago that none of us thought we needed and, in fact, very few even wanted. Yet no one can live without it today: the mobile phone.
com william.hubbard nelsonmullins William C. Hubbard, president of the American Bar Association, established the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which will make recommendations on how technology and innovation can help expand the availability of affordable legal services. He is a partner with the Columbia, S.C., office of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, practicing business litigation.
These days, it’s hard to find a person without a mobile phone. In fact, according to a United Nations report, there are as many mobile phone subscriptions as there are people on this planet.
Martin Cooper did not establish the field of telecommunications, but the mobile phone is what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen would call a “disruptive” innovation.
The legal profession needs Martin Coopers. We need creative disruptors. We need young lawyers. You have technology in your DNA. When you combine your tech savvy with your legal education, you can become an army of Martin Coopers. We must find innovative new ways to provide legal services. After all, we bank differently, shop differently, get our news differently, and learn differently from years past. Our clients and those who would be our clients expect us to deliver legal services differently.
We must lead the way to ensure that change will increase access to justice while broadening opportunities for lawyers, protecting the public, and preserving our professional independence.
New Models to Deliver Legal Services
Did You Know?
80 percent of people who are poor, and many others of moderate means, do not get the civil legal assistance they need.
In some states, at least one party is not represented by a lawyer in 95 percent of all family court cases.
50 percent of those who apply for legal aid are turned away because of a lack of resources.
This year, congressional funding for the Legal Services Corporation was $365 million – $35 million less than 20 years ago, when the demand for services wasn’t as great.
According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law index, the United States ranks 65th of 99 countries in accessibility and affordability of civil justice.
According to the American Bar Foundation, less than 25 percent of civil justice problems in the United States are taken to a lawyer.
We must open our minds to innovative approaches and to leverage technology – smartphones, tablets, new software, the Internet – in order to identify new models to deliver legal services.
From registering a trademark to drafting a will, the Internet provides the tools to perform many legal tasks that were once reserved for lawyers. While we can debate whether all of these Internet tools actually do a good job, there is no question that technology is already reshaping the delivery of legal services.
Already in the U.S., some courts are making it easy for smartphone users to view documents such as parking tickets, traffic citations, lawsuits, and criminal plea agreements. And why not? Eighty-six percent of those below the poverty line own and rely on smartphones. Innovation provides opportunities to tap into new, latent markets.
Some lawyers operate virtual law firms, or they offer unbundled or discrete legal services to those who cannot afford or otherwise don’t need a lawyer’s full range of services. Some law firm websites provide free legal forms, real-time chat consultations, and secure portals so that clients can review documents and sign forms without needing a physical presence at a brick-and-mortar law firm. This lowers the lawyer’s overhead and makes delivering legal services more efficient and less costly.
Stephanie Kimbro and Richard Granat are members of virtual law firms. They conclude in a chapter of the ABA book titled Reinventing the Practice of Law that “as the ‘connected generation’ matures to the point where they have legal problems, they will expect that their lawyers have the capacity to serve them online. It is only a matter of time before every law firm will have some form of client portal that becomes the primary vehicle for client relationships.”
Indeed, artificial intelligence is here. As you know from watching Jeopardy, IBM Watson is real. IBM has just invested $1 billion to commercialize Watson in several industries – including legal. But we lawyers provide creativity, judgment, and a moral code that machines do not. So we must ensure that the changes ahead broaden opportunities for lawyers, increase access to justice, protect the public, and preserve our professional independence.
Innovating is an Opportunity to Grow
2014 Wisconsin Legal Innovator Urges Out-of-the Box Thinking to Narrow Justice Gap
Last year’s Wisconsin Legal Innovators have a thing or two to say about the legal community’s need to innovate and the positive impact recognition as a Wisconsin Legal Innovator can have on encouraging solutions to society’s access-to-justice problem. Read their stories at ThatsaFineIdea.com.
Mike Gonring: Imagine the Impact You Could Have in Your Community
Milwaukee Justice Center’s Mobile Legal Clinic
“It was great to be part of a project recognized for helping the disadvantaged. That has had more of a profound effect on me than anything I accomplished for a client who could afford to pay.”
“The needs are so great in the area of legal services to the underprivileged. Let’s think out of the box and not be held back by the seeming impossibility of a project. Consider forming partnerships with other law firms or organizations in your area. With the combined financial and manpower resources, imagine the impact you could have in your communities.
“And, if you do find an innovation that narrows the justice gap, submit a nomination for a 2015 Wisconsin Legal Innovator. A win leads to great publicity for the project, which in turn draws clients and volunteers. And, your creativity encourages others to attack an existing problem with new solutions.”
That’s a Fine Idea! Nominate a Wisconsin Legal Innovator by June 30
Know a Wisconsin Legal Innovator? Are you one? Tell us about the people and ideas that are changing Wisconsin’s legal landscape. Nominate a Wisconsin Legal Innovator who breaks with tradition to do it better. The people behind the best examples of legal innovation will be prominently featured in the November 2015 Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.
Learn more or find the nomination form at ThatsaFineIdea.com. The deadline for nominations is June 30, 2015.
Innovating is not only the right thing to do. It is also an incredible opportunity. The lawyers who seize these opportunities see what venture capitalists see. Investors pumped $66 million into legal technology companies in 2012. In 2013, $456 million. In 2014, more than a billion dollars.
These numbers are not only important to remember when assessing our profession’s future. They are a call to action.
The bar must guide efforts to develop new business models that leverage technology to meet the legal needs of the underserved. Some have called this a latent market for legal services. Legal services analyst Jordan Furlong uses the metaphor of an iceberg, with 80 to 85 percent of the ice below the sea line, not seen but ever present – much like the 80 to 85 percent of Americans who have unmet legal needs.
To help our members tap into this latent market and close the justice gap, the ABA formed the Commission on the Future of Legal Services to identify and promote innovations that will create new avenues for access to justice, develop new career opportunities for current and future lawyers, and stay true to our core values of professional independence and client protection.
With the commission, we are sending a powerful signal that it is time not to hide from or oppose innovation, but to identify and promote innovation that paves new avenues for access to justice.
But the commission itself is only a part of our efforts, and this is where folks like you in our state and local bars come in. It was Justice Brandeis, in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, who described how states serve as laboratories for social, economic, and legal experiments. This is why we’re helping to organize community-based, grassroots meetings that include bar leadership, judiciary and court personnel, local practitioners, local businesses, clients, and innovators.
Our profession needs to embrace the changing technology and evolving marketplace. And it is you, our young lawyer-leaders, who will play the starring roles. You can lead us into a future bright with innovation and opportunity.
We know the world changes. As physicist Stephen Hawking said in a famous tweet, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Lawyers possess intelligence, and we will adapt, and we should not leave it to others to define our future.
If we are innovative, and do it right, then we can change what is possible. The bar must play a major role to ensure that our profession and justice system remain relevant, responsive, effective, and accessible, not just for some, but for all.
This article is excerpted with permission from a presentation given at the State Bar of Wisconsin Leadership Summit and YLD Leadership Conference held in March 2015.