Despite its considerable promise, technology hasn’t transformed legal services in a fundamental way – at least not when compared to other industries. Here at Banville Law, our White Plains personal injury lawyers are always looking at how we can improve access to justice for injury victims and all plaintiffs. We are hopeful it is through technology. At our firm, we are enabling communication via Twitter.
But that’s not because the legal industry isn’t ripe for improvement. In matters of civil law, at least 50% of people who seek out legal assistance are denied representation because of insufficient financial resources, according to the American Bar Association.
Studies on a state-level have illustrated similarly wide gaps in the accessibility of counsel. Only one in five legal problems faced by low-income people are tackled with the help of an attorney, either private or non-profit.
“We have a legal system that doesn’t work,” according to James Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation, a civil legal aid agency. Sandman served as the keynote speaker at Stanford’s CodeX FutureLaw Conference in May, which I attended.
How can we connect low-income people, who have been largely left out of the legal process, to legal services at a cost they can bear? Increasing efficiency, Sandman suggested, is the key – and that means encouraging law firms to adopt technologies that haven’t yet penetrated the industry.
Currently, lawyers aren’t paid to be efficient. Hourly billing is still far and away the dominant model. That means attorneys want to work more, not more productively. As a result, the prospect of even contacting one is barred to people without money. “Sure, they might offer a free consultation, but how can I possibly hire them to take the case?”
Lawyers are standing in the way of change in other ways, too. Sandman pointed to the decentralized power structure most law firms employ, where each Partner (and there can be many) has a significant degree of control over how they work. Top-down solutions, like forcing the adoption of robust data analytics programs on a firm-wide level, are difficult, if not impossible, to implement in this environment.
On a similar theme, attorneys have a natural inclination to treat every client’s case individually. There are obvious, and good, reasons to support that outlook, but it makes Big Data solutions, which are predicated on thinking in terms of aggregates, groups rather than individuals, unattractive.
Some large firms have already implemented programs that can effectively search through legal documents, extracting data from contracts and performing rudimentary research. But “finding stuff,” as panel member Khalid Al-Kofahi put it, is one thing. Analyzing those inputs and deciding what should be done next is a decidedly different task – one that machine learning isn’t good enough to handle yet.
Before that can become possible, however, we’ll need standardize the way courts and regulatory agencies digitize legal documents. Until then, the real implementation of technology in legal services can’t get off the ground.