The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Fight With (Not Against) the Machine

Featured Article

Right now, small business owners in the U.S. can download to their iPads and tablets an application called Shake. They can use it to create binding legal agreements including buy/sell arrangements, NDAs, and freelance work contracts, along with many others, in seconds, for a small fee or no charge at all.

This is not the biggest technology issue facing the legal profession today.

The Unemployed Benefits Hearing Coach is an automated program that gives people guidance on how to prepare for a benefits hearing and assists claimants and employers in understanding their rights, online, in minutes. It was designed by students at Georgetown Law School using software by Neota Logic, and it is free.

This is not the biggest technology issue facing the legal profession today, either.

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have sold interactively created, low-cost legal documents to millions of Americans over the past several years. They have either defeated or settled with organized bar groups that have challenged them under UPL laws; LegalZoom has recently settled a lawsuit it brought against the North Carolina Bar, a settlement that will allow the company to provide its services in that state.

Nor is this the biggest technology issue facing us today.

It was not long ago when lawyers would routinely say to each other, “We have nothing to fear from technology. A computer will never learn to do what we do.” The foregoing examples suggest that that statement is no longer true, and the frequent updates from the legal technology frontlines, detailing new and evermore powerful programs and applications, indicate computers are, in fact, learning to do more and more tasks that we once thought only lawyers could perform.

Here is the biggest technology issue facing us today: Lawyers are continuing to perform tasks that computers can now perform. We are continuing to create products and deliver services the way we always have, performed manually and billed hourly, when our clients can access realistic and reliable online alternatives quickly, conveniently, and for a fraction of what we charge. These products and services improve every year. Lawyers who do things the old way are becoming horse-and-buggy drivers offering rides in the first days of the automobile.

Does this mean we should give up, quit the practice of law, and throw away our shingles? Absolutely not. It means we need to learn to use these tools ourselves, to combine our skills in client relations, issue identification, and problemsolving with the embedded expertise of high-performing computer software. We need to fight with the machine, not against it, because the machine can help us serve our clients better.

A lawyer can help a client use Shake to draw up a binding agreement within minutes, at virtually no charge — but can also advise the client regarding what contract terms the client should demand, given the client’s specific circumstances and future plans and what remedies would be available to the client in case of a breach. That advice and guidance is far more valuable than whatever he or she could charge for drafting the agreement.

A lawyer could use the Unemployed Benefits Hearing Coach to guide a client through the information-gathering process, at virtually no charge — but he or she could also license and modify the program to include his or her own extensive expertise in the area and make it a unique competitive advantage that no other lawyer could claim. Working together, the software and the lawyer could deliver more value than they could manage separately.

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are building networks of lawyers throughout the U.S. with whom they connect their customers, so that the lawyers can review the documents created through those companies and explore other avenues by which they could serve those users and potentially convert them into clients. The burgeoning client relationship is far more valuable than the legal document that triggered it.

Maybe we are still offering horse-and-buggy rides as the Model Ts roll off the assembly line, but we can set our horse to pasture, sell our buggy, and buy a Model T ourselves — because our value resides not in the vehicles we use, but in our expertise and customer service as drivers. The car makes us more effective, efficient, and productive — but it has been our own skills and character that has made us great drivers.

The biggest technology issue we face as a profession today is finding out what technology exists to perform legal tasks and learning how we can use it ourselves to become even better lawyers than we were before. The Florida Bar, through its Practice Resource Institute and the Vision 2016 initiative, is developing guides and resources to help lawyers do exactly that, while keeping a close eye on the newest developments in legal technology. The tools of the legal trade are becoming more powerful than they have ever been. Learn how they can help your practice today.

Jordan Furlong is an author, consultant, speaker, and legal market analyst who advises law firms and legal organizations how best to respond to the rapidly changing market for legal services.