Our profession is faced with an unprecedented conflict. At the very time that attorneys are struggling just to maintain an income that will keep our heads above water, we are deluged with worrisome reports of an access to justice crisis – the majority of our citizens already cannot afford attorneys. As officers of the court, we cannot ignore our responsibility to the public, despite the seemingly intractable problem of providing more legal services for less compensation – all without sacrificing the economic wellbeing of ourselves and our families.
Many have looked to technology as the means of making lawyers more efficient so they can serve more clients. Most attorneys already leverage their overhead through everything from simple word-processing programs to sophisticated client portals or so-called virtual offices. These innovations, however, tend to replace the jobs of paralegals and staff without bringing the fundamental change to the lawyer-client relationship that is needed to avert the access to justice calamity.
To resolve this problem of the underserved general public, something more than the traditional approach of providing software for the attorney’s use is needed. Programs must be developed and implemented for the client’s use – what is known as client-facing technology. When used to address the access to justice problem, such technology concerns itself with empowering the client rather than the lawyer.
An example is software that facilitates unbundling. With unbundling, the lawyer breaks down the tasks associated with a client’s legal matter and provides representation only pertaining to a clearly defined portion of the client’s legal needs. However, to appreciate what tasks the lawyer should perform or what might happen if certain tasks are skipped requires a deeper understanding of the law and legal procedure than what might normally be had by a consumer of bespoke legal services. Unbundling, therefore, presupposes a certain amount of do-it-yourself advocacy that requires clients to have a greater knowledge of their rights and the judicial process than that of the average non-lawyer. Empowering the client to make these choices and perform these tasks means educating the client about the law, and sometimes revealing the secrets that are the lawyers’ stock-in-trade.
The very-near future holds a seachange in the relationship between lawyers and their clients. Knowledgeable clients will be more involved in their cases, will make informed choices about the discrete services the lawyer will perform, and will advocate for themselves in court. The firms that succeed in providing such clients with guidance and instruction – by turning legal technology to face their clients – will become the law firms of the future. Amanda Lundergan