As the geopolitical environment in which they work bears witness to a ghastly regression, our international colleagues are trying to navigate a way forward.
We are used to believing that there are only forward gears in our lives – progress, progress, progress.
It is not my role to speak about the military events in eastern Europe and the Middle East, where we seem to be heading back to a time which we thought had long gone. Instead, let’s think about the future, since fortunately some of our international legal colleagues are trying to navigate their passage there.
The new President of the American Bar Association (ABA) has announced the establishment of a Commission on the Future of Legal Services. I can think of many reasons why that might be a good idea. But take just this one statistic. In 2012, $66 million was invested in legal technology startups. A year later, that figure had leaped to $458 million. These startups exist to exploit gaps in the delivery of legal services, including lawyer ratings sites, easier methods for discovery and the drawing up of contracts, plus of course plain old giving of advice and providing alternative (and online) dispute resolution. As the ABA President underlined, you should note that these investments were not made in law firms, but in technology companies which aim to provide legal services. Can you feel the wind of the future?
The membership of the new ABA Commission is wide. It is chaired by an in-house counsel, and vice-chaired by a legal academic. Would that happen in Europe? The Commission’s website is mostly empty for the time being, but has some interesting background links. One of them is from Stanford University’s CodeX (The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics). Researchers and entrepreneurs at the Center design technologies for a better legal system, and I had heard of none of them. For instance, ArbyX® attempts to coordinate information among arbitral institutions to improve the possibilities of conflict checks, information disclosure and the understanding of decision-making philosophy and techniques of arbitrators. Again, feel the wind! But may I suggest something else? Some wise guy should develop an IT program which links up knowledge of all the various IT systems being developed to improve legal systems – now that really would be efficient for all of us toilers in the legal vineyard, avoiding overlaps and allowing us to learn from each other.
At the same time, in an attempt to face the challenges boldly, the ABA announced this month that it is teaming up with one of those very technology companies that is alarming us by altering the way legal services are delivered, Rocket Lawyer (which has a UK service, too). The stated aim of the ABA-Rocket Lawyer project is ‘to explore innovative solutions to a vexing legal paradox – the difficulty small businesses face finding affordable legal services at a time when many lawyers would welcome expanded professional opportunities’. So the pilot programme will try to enable lawyers to deliver affordable online legal services through video and mobile technologies to small businesses and the self-employed. It will connect the ABA’s network of practising lawyers with prospective clients through Rocket Lawyer’s cloud-based platform.
The ABA is not alone in having a committee looking at the future of legal services. The Canadian Bar Association has recently published the outcome of its own Futures Initiative. However, their report did not really light my fire. It turned out to be mainly about the need to acknowledge different vehicles – alternative business structures, as you might have guessed – for the delivery of legal services. To UK ears, that is a little familiar, and has not yet shown itself to be the ideal solution for dealing with what is crashing towards us.
Witnessing the cruelties currently being perpetuated in eastern Europe and the Middle East, a small part of me wishes that it were possible to swap roles. We lawyers will agree to go backwards to quill pens and parchment, even to Roman law – if only, in exchange, the ghastly trials by battle and ordeal being so gleefully performed elsewhere in the world will be replaced by a more virtual form of dispute resolution