Now that we are lawyering in the era of LegalZoom, YouTube how-to tutorials, and the all-encompassing answering power of Google, we can finally claim that we are in the age of infinite accessibility. Or can we?
Just over two years ago, when I received my invitation to come join the decorated field of law, several emotions washed over me; some being feelings of happiness, excitement, and nervousness– but the most interesting emotion I felt was that of utter fear of the unknown. I had no idea what I did not know.
As someone who was entering the legal sphere, should I have known more? Did people around me have more knowledge of the law? Was I an unenlightened anomaly? No, I wasn’t. Regardless of the tools of accessibility that are now only a few clicks away, understanding and applying the law and its many dimensions, without guidance, is very daunting, and often futile. There are many reasons for failure without expert help; however, often the answer is as simple (or as complicated) as a language barrier.
When thinking about bridging legal knowledge gaps in more accessible and efficient ways, one may turn to new technologies and contemporary regimes that are designed to be cash-saving in nature. But as we forge forward from the past into the future, is there enough discussion about the other facets of accessibility? Is the discussion surrounding “Lawyering in the 21st Century” monopolized by ideas of fancy technological innovations without enough regard to social inclusion?
I think it is integral to the process of field-wide technological development to routinely keep an open dialogue regarding accessibility issues faced by diverse populations. Tools such as Dragon Dictate, OneNote, GoToMeeting.com, and, the ever-faithful, Adobe Acrobat Professional, have made the process of “law” drastically more efficient and much less painful; but, we must not lose focus on the end results. While we can continue to develop software applications that will rapidly increase our day-to-day productivity, we need to be aware of making legal knowledge more accessible to all.
What does this look like?
Often times, even native speakers of English and French will have difficulties sifting through dense legal jargon to understand the bare bones of a document– so what about for the individuals to whom English is a second, third, or even fourth language? As immigration continues to grow in Canada, the need for language-diverse access to legal services will only grow; therefore, we need to create technologies that directly focus on overcoming such barriers. Not only do we need help in efficiently translating documents, we need to find better ways of allowing diverse individuals to know where to look when looking for specific legal services. First response platforms, such as websites and telephone resources that advertise the services of firms, the government, legal aid etc. must be easier to understand and more user-friendly in languages beyond English and French.
In large culturally-diverse cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, you will find offices of immigration law sprouting like weeds. For example, just a visit down Gerrard street, one of the many “Little India’s” of the GTA, will prove that there is no shortage of access to immigration law for Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi or Urdu speaking clients. But what happens to Zura, a recent Bruneian immigrant living in Sudbury, Ontario who speaks a broken mixture of Malay and English, when she needs access to a copyright lawyer who can answer questions about her rights regarding a recent creation of a song that she would like to upload to YouTube? She tried to Google it and is unable to find the answers she is looking for. Where does she turn?
Of course, there are translation websites and other tools (that are often hard to use, inaccurate, or carry an extra cost on top of the pending legal fees), but most “legal language service” websites, such as transperfectlegal.com, are directed at “international” issues. While that is a great start for others, Zura, and many other immigrants in Canada, are looking for answers solely regarding Canadian laws. With that being said, legaltranslationsolutions.com states that they provide “high-priority language translation services for all aspects of litigation”; while this is a potentially valid solution for others, it does not work in our case as they solely work with litigation cases. And once again, at a fee.
I am by no means disregarding the current legal language tools in existence; however, we need to keep the dialogue and desire to help individuals in unique legal situations who cannot speak English or French going. We need technological tools that will be accurate with low costs for both legal practitioners and clients. The existing language tools need to be partnered with newer and more innovative solutions that provide for a more inclusive, and frankly more useful, Canadian legal landscape. There are just too many diverse individuals who are looking for legal information and assistance to not focus our lens and realize many issues are left unattended because of language. Just think about the money that is left to be made if the doors to legal services were opened just a hair wider… (kidding!)