ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass wants us to embrace technology

Hilarie Bass, in her opening speech at the ABA Annual Meeting, said “Lawyers need to accept and embrace technological innovation, so it can be used to increase access to justice for all.”

“Many of our citizens no longer have the confidence that they will be treated fairly by our justice system, that they will have equal access to our courts or that they will have someone to turn to if they need an attorney,” said Bass, co-president of the 2,000-lawyer firm Greenberg Traurig in Miami.

She has held many positions in ABA leadership, including the Board of Governors and chair of the Section on Litigation. Her work with the litigation section led to the creation of the Implicit Bias Initiative.

She blamed fear of losing work to innovative ways of providing legal services as the reason the legal profession is behind other professions in adopting technological advances.

“But it is clear that the longer our profession refuses to adopt and adapt its practices to new technologies, the more opportunities there are for alternative services providers and web-based platforms that have found ways to use technology to provide legal services in a more efficient and less costly manner—in many cases reaching people previously unserved by traditional providers of legal services,” Bass said.

The practice of law will look very different in the next few years with those competing service providers, and consultants and accountants, continuing to expand into the practice of law.

Bass said the ABA can and must lead in the change, as it has done with the Commission on the Future of Legal Services.

The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services delivered recommendations for how the bar can close the access to justice gap in America. They steered clear of the most contentious issue: whether alternative business structures— non-lawyer ownership of law firms—should be permissible.

After two years of work, it released its final report (PDF) during the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The underlying message, said ABA President Paulette Brown of Morristown, New Jersey, is that “The future is not going to wait for us. We have got to go with it. We have to not let the future get away from us.”

Citing statistics showing that in some jurisdictions over 80 percent of the civil legal needs of lower-to-middle income individuals were unmet, the Commission called on the legal profession to support the idea that all people should have some form of legal assistance for their civil legal needs. To that end, the Commission found that the legal profession “should support the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.”

In order to reach that standard, the Commission made several recommendations. It stated that courts should be open to innovations in the delivery of legal services and called on courts to adopt the ABA Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services. States should “explore how legal services are delivered by entities that employ new technologies and internet-based platforms and then assess the benefits and risks to the public.” Courts, meanwhile, should provide automated services for pro se individuals, including online dispute resolution and remote-access self-service kiosks.

The report recommended the ABA open a Center for Innovation that would be a research and development division for the legal industry. “Industries as diverse as consulting, medicine, and personal finance have invested in research and development laboratories to create new service offerings and substantially improve client relationships,” the report said. “Lawyers must do the same, and the Innovation Center can play an active role in these efforts.”

The Center on Innovation has been approved by the ABA Board of Governors. Its primary tasks include assisting law firms interested in introducing new approaches to their practices, studying innovations in legal services delivery in other countries, and developing training programs for law students interested in innovative law practice. The governing council of the center will be chaired by Andrew M. Perlman, the dean at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He served as vice chair of the Commission on the Future of Legal Services.

The Commission will go out of existence at the close of the annual meeting, Perlman said, so the center will play a key role in carrying some of the Commission’s recommendations forward. At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations “are just a snapshot in time,” he said, “but legal services continue to evolve, and new ideas will have to be considered.”

It is crucial that the ABA and other elements of the legal profession help lawyers understand how the legal environment is changing, said Commission chair Judy Perry Martinez of New Orleans. “We can help lawyers understand what the public need is,” she said. “If we can help lawyers to be of service to the public, we can be of great service to our members.”

Another area of focus for the Commission was the role of legal technology and its role in bridging the access-to-justice gap. The Commission recommended that “all members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies” and cited the Florida Bar Board of Governors, which recently approved mandatory technology CLE requirements for state lawyers. Additionally, the report stated that the legal profession should partner with other industries to design, develop and create new delivery models and technological tools.

“What is clear, however, is that the solutions will require the efforts of all stakeholders in order to implement the recommendations contained in this report.”

It’s not easy telling an entire state full of colleagues and superiors that they need to move on from a business model that has served their industry for centuries. But that’s exactly what three Florida lawyers did when they began pushing the lawyers in their state to embrace technology and collaboration with non lawyers.

During a plenary session at the ABA Techshow, Florida State Bar President Ramon Abadin, University of Miami law professor and founder of Law Without Walls, Michele DeStefano, and John Stewart of Rossway Swan Tierney Barry Lacey & Oliver, exchanged war stories while encouraging the lawyers in attendance to demand their respective state bars promote technological competence from their members. Abadin and Stewart admitted that they were recent converts to technology and found it ironic that they were even at the Techshow. Abadin revealed that, as he was preparing to begin his term as bar president, he hadn’t planned on doing anything to promote awareness of technology amongst the bar at large. Instead, he credited panel moderator and Techshow vice-chair Adriana Linares with changing his mind on the importance of technology. “As I journeyed through Florida and spoke with members of the bar, I realized there was a profound lack of understanding of just how much tech drives our professional lives,” he said.

He decided to make technology one of the focal points of his presidency, and even took his office paperless. He got help from another former tech agnostic. Stewart admitted that, as recently as three years ago, he didn’t even have PowerPoint on his computer. Instead, he just had his secretary print out the slides and give them to him on paper. “I knew nothing about technology,” he said. “And it was extremely daunting to try and learn about it, but there’s nothing you can do except start learning.”

As Stewart realized how important tech was to his practice, he began pushing for the Florida Bar to mandate that its lawyers take several hours of CLE every year relating to legal technology. Abadin wanted 10 hours, but after what he described as “pushback” from the bar, he agreed to three hours and has submitted it to the Supreme Court of Florida for approval.

DeStefano, meanwhile, noted that the legal academic sphere can be even more resistant to change.

“I was pretty frustrated with legal education and the hierarchy and walls that existed, and the lack of embracing, not just technology, but the new globalized world that required interaction with different disciplines and schools of different rank and a connection between practicing lawyers and educators,” said DeStefano. “Technology is one of the ways to do that.”

This frustration caused DeStefano to start Law Without Walls, a multidisciplinary think tank consisting of over 750 lawyers, law and business students, entrepreneurs and business professionals.

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October 2016Volume 8Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)