technology adoption

GP Solos and Technology Adoption

Over the past couple of years, I’ve talked with countless attorneys and consequently formed an opinion on the diverse rates of technology adoption by General Practice (GP) Solos. I recently interviewed attorneys who were presenting on technology at the GP Solo conference about why technology has not caught on with solos—the group of lawyers that, in theory, have the most to gain. I also asked whether there were any differences in the rate of legal technology adoption by GP Solos.

Allen Rodriguez of one400 said that GP Solos actually adopt faster: “GP Solos adopt faster than other groups because solo practitioners have entrepreneurial drive. It’s why they are in business for themselves. They are natural born risk takers. Competition drives them to adapt to newer technology more quickly.”

Charley Moore of Rocket Lawyer, agrees: “We expect solos to be more interested in adopting technology because their smaller size allows them to improve processes with lower switching costs. Cloud-based technology has become low cost and widely available.”

Jean Clauson of ARAG believes the issue is resources: “Whether it is budget, time, or speed at which technology changes, GP Solos share an ongoing struggle to balance the technical practice of law with managing efforts to run an efficient business model at the pace consumers need and demand to receive legal services.”

Dan Lear of Avvo doesn’t believe there are differences in adoption rates: “If you had a distribution of tech adoption among the general population, I don’t think it would necessarily differ significantly for lawyers generally or for general practice and solo attorneys specifically. What’s challenging is getting attorneys in general to adopt technologies in their practice.”

Perhaps the reasons for adoption problems is illustrated in a recent exchange on Ken Adam’s blog; it certainly identified a disconnect. After Avvo announced new consumer forms, Ken wrote: “That Avvo has the gall to announce this dreck… isn’t simply a failure on Avvo’s part… symptomatic of a broader failure, in terms of quality, of the consumer market for fill-in-the-blanks contracts.” There was more about “hack vendors,” but I believe this highlights the lack of collaboration between users and vendors. As I have said before, the blame is equally shared.

As Avvo’s chief legal officer, Josh King, points out that the impetus is more business for all and access to justice for consumers: “… your post misses the larger point: we believe that many consumers who are currently trying to go it alone would benefit from counseling with an experienced attorney. The purpose of our forms is to give those do-it-yourselfers a frictionless starting point, while also making it as easy as possible for them to step up to a paid legal check-up of what they’re doing… or full-on legal representation.”

Next I interviewed Carolyn Elefant, a solo practitioner with a prominent blog.

Mary Juetten (MJ): Are solos more risk adverse than the small- or mid-size firm?

Carolyn Elefant (CE): Yes and no. I’d estimate that between 5-8 percent of solos are early adopters, and they have more tolerance for risk than most. For example, back in the early days of the web, where there was considerable uncertainty over whether a website constituted advertising or could give rise to an attorney-client relationship, Greg Siskind—an immigration lawyer who then ran a two-person shop—built a global immigration practice out of Memphis, Tennessee, largely through his site’s visibility. Many of the first generation lawyer-bloggers were either solos or lawyers who soon went solo after starting their blogs. Stephanie Kimbro, known as the pioneer of the virtual law office, was a solo trusts and estates attorney when she developed an Internet-based office. I even knew a solo back in the day who brazenly operated his law firm under a trade name, where this practice is banned, taking a calculated risk that even if he was discovered, at best he’d receive a slap on the wrist.

Unfortunately, the larger percentage of solos are risk-adverse. A common phrase is “sounds interesting, but I don’t want to be the test case.” Although perhaps these lawyers are exaggerating the potential risk, it’s hard to say that the fear is unreasonable. For a solo lawyer supporting a family, a one-month suspension could effectively shut him down for five to six months. Meanwhile, even a reprimand can raise flags for a client if he or she doesn’t realize the reason for it. In short, many of solos’ concerns are valid.

MJ: Does that mean that ethical issues are preventing the adoption of technology?

CE: For lawyers, technology raises ethics and data security/privacy issues. With ethics, technology may change the routine, but not the rules. The duty of confidentiality and privilege, safeguarding client property, and responsiveness to clients all still apply. So just as I would not leave my paper files lying around on my front lawn, I am not going to house them online at an unprotected site. Moreover, we also overlook the ways in which technology enables lawyers to meet our ethical obligations more effectively. Back in the day of paper, a client would have no way to check up on whether a lawyer actually filed a document in the court without physically going to the court house or the lawyer’s office. Today, with client portals, a client can log in to check the status of the case and call, email, and text their lawyer if there’s been no movement.

Technology also raises the same kinds of “grown up” issues that any company doing business in the Internet age faces: data security, breach, and privacy concerns. In my view, these are not suitable issues for attorney ethics committees to be weighing in on, but instead should be governed by federal and state law. Although lawyers have long relied on banks to hold client trust funds, ethics regulators never weighed in on whether one bank was more secure than another; banks remained subject to regulation by the FDIC and other agencies because banking issues are beyond the scope of ethics regulators’ jurisdictions. The same is true for the technology we use; my cloud provider should comply with whatever regulations and data breach laws apply to any other cloud-based server. Ethics regulators simply don’t have the expertise or bandwidth to regulate in this regard.

MJ: My position is that legal tech companies need to make their software simple and efficient with either integrations or the ability to operate within another platform. Your thoughts? 

CE: I agree that legal tech needs to be simple and should be compatible with other products—with two caveats. First, compatible with other products doesn’t just mean with Apple and Windows. Likewise, sites that accept credit card payments should support many different payment processors. As for integration, I think that there are some basic, “mission critical” functions. For example, if a system touts itself as offering a client portal, then it should have sufficient storage space to offer that feature seamlessly. Integrating with Box in that situation doesn’t fix one of the core functionalities of the platform.

MJ: What should solos do to learn more about legal technology? Any thoughts for law schools?

CE: That’s a very good question. I find it very difficult to stay current, and conferences, like LegalTech or TECHSHOW, while beneficial are not sufficient. I like user conferences like ClioCon or Avvo Lawyernomics as a supplement, though this does not solve the larger problem. In my case, I have a fairly tech-savvy virtual assistant, and when I learn about a new tech product (usually outside of legal), she can often set me up so that I can check it out or she can evaluate it. It would be nice to have a category of legal tech troubleshooters who could provide the same service—simply a person to call who could suggest options and walk lawyers through a couple of systems.

As for law schools, I have to blame students as much as professors. When I was in law school, Macintosh computers had just become available in an affordable price range to someone who spent the summer at big law (me!), and I was captivated by the possibilities. I think if law schools came up with ways to integrate tech into the day-to-day classroom exercises, seminars, and clinics, at least students would gain familiarity.

I next spoke with some of the legal luminaries in academia to see their thoughts on the next big thing in legal innovation.

Suffolk University Law School’s Director of the Legal Technology & Innovation Concentration Gabriel H. Teninbaum outlines the role of automation: “As law practice technology becomes increasingly accessible, automation will replace many of the tasks traditionally done by lawyers. Legal professionals embracing tech will enjoy a fantastic dividend: they’ll spend less time on rote tasks, and more time making judgments and creatively resolving conflicts.”

My former law school professor, Eric Menkhus, brings up an interesting angle on delivery: “Providing services to clients remotely, via electronic means, will have to become more popular. Encrypted, secure systems that allow attorneys and their clients to ‘meet’ remotely, review documents, and alter documents collaboratively will be used more and more often.”

Both Jonathan Askin of Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic and Aaron Wright of Cardozo believe in the next step beyond innovation includes smart contracts.

Jonathan also lists “Developments… ‘algorithmic law’ and the ability to make legislation and regulation, as well as private law, more functional, expressable, annotatable, and mutable like code.” Aaron takes smart contracts to the payment level, “Smart contracts refer to the use of code and a blockchain to execute logic if certain conditions are met. While smart contracts were conceptualized in the 1990s, blockchains provide a secure platform to execute these code-based arrangements without any intermediaries. They provide a powerful way to manage relationships between individuals, entities, and devices.”

Dr. Roland Vogel of CodeX – The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics adds that, “…anything around computable law will become more important. In other words, systems capable of legal analysis to automate certain legal processes. Big data law will increase in importance and find its way even into the criminal justice system. Successful LegalTech companies will explore ways to go global, which is very hard but full of opportunity.”

It appears that legal technology companies have to step up to build the products in the next big areas of innovation identified above within reasonable ethical guidelines. Also with lawyers involved in the testing, the goal should be excellent client experience. All this work needs to be done not in isolation on either side but through true collaboration.

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