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Improving Legal Services Through the Use of Relevant Technologies

By Ryan Fung, 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 the 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States published by the American Bar Association (“ABA”), the ABA provided a number of recommendations in order to “build on past efforts and ensure that everyone has meaningful assistance for essential legal needs”. One of these recommendations was that “all members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies”. This recommendation is even more applicable today than it was in 2016, as technology is changing the legal field now more than ever.

While the ABA notes that Rule 1.1, Comment 8 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that lawyers should “should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”, this is not actually a requirement for being a lawyer. Since the ABA states that the underlying goal for this recommendation is to improve the delivery of legal services and to make those services more affordable to the public, I think that this recommendation is great, and a good way to meet the end goal.

One of the ways which the ABA hopes to help lawyers keep up to date on relevant technologies is by offering continuing legal education (“CLE”) on technology. Most states require members of the bar to undergo CLE in order to keep up with the changes in the law. While these requirements vary from state to state, New York, for example, requires all of their lawyers to earn 24 credit hours of CLE every two years. CLE is a perfect tool to administer additional learning on relevant technologies, as lawyers are notoriously resistant to change. By including CLE topics on technology, lawyers will have an easy way to learn about the relevant technologies in the legal field without having to change anything about their daily schedule. By offering CLE on technology, the ABA will be able to create awareness that there are new tools that can be used to improve the delivery and access to legal services, which increases the possibility of influencing someone in a position to create change. This seems like a great start to accomplish the end goal.

Another way that the ABA plans to help lawyers keep up to date is by educating their members through website content, e-newsletters, bar journal articles, meeting panels and speakers, technology mentoring programs, and other means. This method is less likely to help accomplish the end goal, because it requires the lawyers to take time out of their schedules to educate themselves. With the number of hours that lawyers work in big law, requiring them to go out of their way to read website content or attend meeting panels/speakers does not seem like a realistic option for the ABA to ensure that lawyers keep up to date on technology. Lawyers are extremely busy, and unlike offering CLE on technology, this does not fit nicely within their already existing schedule. As long as the billable hour exists, lawyers will be hesitant to use their time to further their knowledge on things that aren’t billable. However, law firms are beginning to move away from the billable hour, which opens up the possibility that lawyers will be more open to using these tools in the future.

The final way that the ABA hopes to help lawyers keep up to date on technology is by encouraging law schools to include legal technology as part of the curriculum. A growing number of law schools are already doing this, which is a great place for creating technologically aware lawyers. This is likely to be the best method of achieving the end goal. First, it is much easier to maintain a knowledge base than it is to create one from scratch, so the earlier the ABA can influence lawyers to learn about relevant technologies, the better. Second, influencing the next generation of lawyers to be thinking about how to improve the delivery and access of legal services through the use of technology will increase the chances that these young lawyers become change makers in the organizations that they go to.

If an entire generation of new lawyers are aware of and are willing to use new technologies, they will be able to drive change in their organizations. The only difficulty with this suggestion is that because of how quickly technology advances, it will be difficult for law schools to teach this as a standard law school class. Technology is not conducive to textbook learning or case-based learning, which are the two methods that law schools use the most, and will require law schools to think about the best way to teach a class on legal technology.