Increasing access to justice has prominently risen to the forefront of reform discussions in the legal profession, serving as a catalyst for (slow) change. At the same time, technological advances and the increasing push for service providers to get “up-to-speed” in this digital era has raised some complex challenges for legal field. Issues of regulation, confidentiality, data/program management, costs, and an inherent cautiousness/skepticism in departing from the traditional system are just some of the factors influencing a resistance to change. However, it has also become clear that time is of the essence in increasing access to justice in an effective and efficient manner. Technological advancements have never occurred so fast, and the range of options has never been as numerous. This has seemingly created the “perfect storm,” justifying a departure from the traditional manner of practice.
The CBA’s Access to Justice Committee recognized in its 2013 Summary Report, Reaching Equal Justice: An Invitation to Envision and Act, that “[t]echnology (including information technology) can be harnessed to improve access to justice….[although] [c]areful planning is needed to prevent technological innovations from creating or reinforcing barriers to equal justice.”6 ~ CBA “Legal Ethics in a Digital World”
With more communications options and varied practice management software than ever before, it is clear that piloting technological initiatives in rural and traditionally underserved communities must be embraced. The utility of technology (e.g. video conferencing, data/file management software) has the capacity to reshape the client experience in its entirety, as some of our presenters have noted. With costs (the dreaded ‘billable hour’) and a lack of practitioners in rural communities identified as key problems, a ‘partnership’ between technology and legal practitioners should serve as the foundation for a solution by : 1) reaching those traditionally under-served or not served 2) decreasing the costliness of services (e.g. fewer/no ‘office visits’). The CBA has recognized this opportunity, noting that:
“Providing legal services electronically (i.e. using email, social media, videoconferencing solutions or other telecommunication services to interact with potential or current clients) expands client development opportunities and has the potential to improve access to legal services by those underserved by the legal profession…Communicating with your client electronically, through email or other means, can cut costs and avoid delay, facilitating access to justice.” ~ CBA “Legal Ethics in a Digital World”
Rural and smaller communities traditionally seem to take greater interest in initiatives and change strategies for improving their communities. Investing in piloting new practice models by engaging with such entities provides for a strategic roadmap for greater change. Legal practitioners in rural/smaller communities often have unique practice and business model constraints (e.g. less office space, smaller operation budgets, fewer staff, few expansion opportunities etc.) in contrast to those in urban settings and ‘big firms’. The technological options currently available provide viable solutions to overcome or transform those challenges. As a result, it is clear that such stakeholders have an incredible opportunity to bring ‘grassroots’ innovation and change to the legal field.
Without a willingness and attitude of embracing change, the legal profession seems to be on a path to render itself to becoming the ‘Windows 95’ of service providers – slow, poorly equipped, frozen in time, and needing to be restarted to restore function.
To read the “Legal Ethics in a Digital World” Report, from the CBA Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee, please click the link below.