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From Flash to Substance: Technology in the Legal Profession

By Taby Kalami, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

In its 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States, the ABA recommended that the legal profession partner with other disciplines and the public for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services. In particular, Recommendation 7 discussed the prevalence of online ratings, digital marketing, and technology-based access to legal services, and the need for lawyers to incorporate new and emerging trends when representing clients.

The use of emerging technology to modernize the legal profession should be considered as (at least) two distinct issues – first, technology as making legal services more accessible to the public, and underserved populations in particular, and second, technology as creating more well-rounded lawyers better equipped to actually service the public’s needs. The latter is necessary and long overdue – lawyers are generally reluctant to adapt to extreme innovation, and tend to lag in adopting new technological developments. This is evidenced by the ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession, in which the ABA found only 10% of the legal profession rely on artificial intelligence tools, that security breaches are still relatively common, and that even large firm’s data backup methods are antiquated.

However, technology is not the be all, end all to effectively make legal services more accessible to the general public. Recommendation 7 recommends technology without nuance – the report simply discusses disruption and uses resigned language such as a “matter of time.” Recommending the use of innovative technology simply for the sake of innovative technology is flash without substance. Technology, in a bubble, does not improve people’s lives nor revolutionize the legal profession.


Many a think piece has been written about misguided technologies intended to revolutionize, that instead fail to engage with the intended audience in the way they should. A prime example of this is the capstone projects in the legal problem solving class at Vanderbilt University Law School – one problem presented to the students was the dilemma of actually pushing both clients and attorneys towards engaging with a video chat platform intended to be a virtual legal clinic. Despite the good intentions behind the creators of the platform, and the theoretical benefits of offering the service, both intended parties were reluctant to use it. Attorneys felt it cheapened the legal consultation experience and was an excessive burden, while clients were likely turned off by the numerous steps in between presenting a legal issue and actually reaching a resolution.

The development of these technologies highlight the issue with relying on new advancements as the easy solution to any problem facing the legal profession. Innovation, without consideration and empathy for actual end users, does not help access to justice in the way the ABA likely intended it to be. To return to the video clinic example, technology like that ignores people without regular Internet access and without the time to dedicate to each individual step of the video clinic process.

New and emerging trends often mean inaccessible in terms of access to justice. The newest legal technologies and innovations are often meant for law firms, with clients who can pay top dollar for the newest and best. However, when a lack of access to justice has been such a prevalent topic among lawyers, and lawyers actively try to make the legal profession more readily available to people who have been systematically excluded from it, those innovations often mean that the lack of access to justice becomes even sharper and more pronounced.

For example, the most highlighted legal technology developments of 2018 are legal mergers, startups, new software allowing for more efficient contract drafting, blockchain, and C-suite mix-ups. While all important and certainly revolutionary in the legal profession, these developments are geared towards private practice and clients or consumers with the resources to afford new technologies.

To truly bridge the justice gap using technology and innovation, the profession should target efficiency over flashiness. Many technological developments, in all fields, involve the newest, the brightest, and the best. However, in law, human experience is the only reason lawyers exist – without clients motivated and able to actually engage with new legal technology developments, the law cannot actually accomplish anything. When trying to bring legal resources and the legal system to new groups, innovators should take care to modernize without overshooting past the people they intended to actually help. When attempting to actually create technology that fills in very specific gaps, the innovators should first find the problem, but then also include the intended audience in the development process from the very beginning.