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CT Expert Insights: 7 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed the Legal Profession, with Bob Ambrogi

The legal world has indeed adapted to the realities of COVID-19 and its stay-at-home requirements. These accommodations may be a silver lining for the typically traditional legal field, which is now embracing the benefits of a more modern approach to law. Bob Ambrogi joins Expert Insights to lay out seven ways in which this is happening.

He discusses how improving both technology and processes allows for a much more efficient and adept system—ultimately allowing easier access to legal help for those who may not have otherwise been able to receive it. Bob also discusses positive changes such as acceptance of new technology and no longer viewing it as a threat, embracing online services, a reduced physical footprint for law firms, and a revamped approach to legal education.

TRANSCRIPT:

Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. Our guest this week on Expert Insights is Bob Ambrogi. Bob is publisher of the legal technology blog, LawSites. He's also the host of the legal innovation podcast, LawNext. Our lives, of course, underwent a lot of change the past few months as a result of the Coronavirus and businesses underwent many changes, too. In the legal world some of the adjustments needed to accommodate stay at home orders are actually turning out to be very welcome innovations in an arena that is reluctant to embrace change a lot of the time, and Bob has written about seven areas of progress. You can see that on his blog, LawSites, and other folks have picked that up as well. And Bob, thanks so much for being with us.

Bob Ambrogi: Thanks, Greg. Nice to be here. Appreciate it.

GC: Well, the first piece of good news from your column is that lawyers do not need to fear technology and 20 years into the 21st century that might catch some folks off guard but the legal world is reluctant to change. So why did they fear technology in the first place and how did they come to embrace it over the past few months?

BA: Yeah, it's really been an interesting time. And it's odd to be talking about silver linings in a period of time when there's been, you know, so much troubling news. And so many people have had a tough time during this period. But lawyers have, you know—I hate to over generalize too much—but lawyers have been largely reluctant to innovate in any number of ways including in the adoption of technology. And I think part of the reason for that is that they are a little bit afraid of technology. They worry about the consequences of perhaps a data breach or exposing confidential information.

And I think lawyers have also kind of seen technology, frankly, as a threat to their business model. You know the lawyer business model is all built around the hourly billing and if you present them with a technology that says “We can make you more efficient and save you time in doing the work that you do,” well, maybe that's not a good thing. If you bill on an hourly basis. It's much more complex and complicated than that, but really what I think what has happened over the last couple of months, is that those lawyers who still were reluctant about technology or who harbored fears about technology have come to see technology as absolutely essential to their survival going forward.

I think the situation has just underscored that you cannot effectively practice law and serve clients, not just in this pandemic environment that we're still in, but going forward from here, the world has changed.

GC: Absolutely. I mean, I remember years ago now buying my house and being able to sign documents on an iPad, which had just come out at that point. And so just the simple innovations where you don't have to go into somebody's office to do things and the efficiency that provides is tremendous.

And then the second item on your list is very similar to the first or at least flows from that. And that's that you say lawyers will no longer see innovation as a threat to the guild, you say bar organizations and the ABA, in particular, has always been kind of a protectionist front against innovation. So how are those concerns being eased right now?

BA: Well, to some extent, this was all happening well before the pandemic took roots. There has clearly been broadening exception—acceptance rather—in the legal profession of innovative technologies and innovative ways of doing things and innovative ways of delivering legal services.

But I think, again, the understanding that we can't deliver legal services the way we used to do. That that model is fundamentally broken and is not going to work going forward has just been dramatically underscored during this period of time. And, you know, what's been underscored also is that firms that are more prepared in terms of their use of technology, their investment in technology, have been the ones that have been able to be more nimble and adapt more quickly and are probably more likely to succeed or survive over the long term coming out of this.

All of this kind of gets mixed up into what's actually another bullet point in my article, but this issue of regulatory reform in law, because, as you know, it has been verboten for a long time for companies to be able to invest in the delivery of legal services or to own legal services delivery organizations. It's been remote verboten for individuals who are not licensed as lawyers to be able to deliver legal services in any way. And over the last couple of years, we've seen a real movement towards studying and possibly loosening some of those restrictions.

And again, I think what's happened here during this pandemic is that we've seen why we need to accelerate those kinds of reforms. We've seen that the system, as it's been classically structured, is not well suited to serving a population that is dispersed, both geographically and in income levels and in needs and in there, you know, ability to pay for legal services. So I think this is a real turning point for some of these regulatory reforms that have been getting talked about.

GC: Now, Bob, in your blog, you talked specifically about Utah and how the wheels were already turning there in the last few months now that we've all been working from home to a larger extent. Is there a movement afoot in a lot of other states as well now that they see what the reality can be?

BA: Well, here’s what's happened. Coincidentally, since this, since the pandemic has happened is that California took a major stride in the same direction as Utah. California has actually been tossing around this issue of regulatory reform for a couple of years now. But in, what was it last month, not even last month maybe, the official Bar of California, the State Bar of California, approved for public comment, which is just an intermediary step, but a proposal that would create a sandbox very similar to what Utah's doing to test out these alternative ways of delivering legal services. You know, what we're talking about here is using technology to deliver legal services more effectively, and using new business models that are driven in some ways by private investment in private companies.

So, you know, California is home to something like a third of all the lawyers in the United States. So if California were to adopt some of these reforms, it would really be significant in terms of changing the course of practice in the United States.

GC: Another one you listed in your blog here, Bob, is that courts are accelerating innovation and online services. And you point out that this idea, which has always been slow to be adopted or embraced, was thought to be impossible for a long time, kind of like changing a tire on a moving car. So did the pandemic allow the car to stop or did folks just see that it wasn't impossible to change the tire?

BA: Well, effectively it caused the car to stop. I mean, that is in part what happened. I mean, courts, you know, were shut down for the first time in the history of our country really, by this pandemic, and they were able to continue to operate in some ways in order to deal with emergency issues, but they were already they were forced immediately to find new ways to handle those issues.

So, you know, suddenly courts discovered Zoom and other ways of meeting with litigants and lawyers and other parties remotely. I think that courts, more than any other aspect of the legal profession, are the ones that are going to change the most dramatically because of this. Because courts really have been, I don't want to say stuck, but they have been stuck in a kind of a 19th century way of operating and, and there was this problem that they had of just not being able to kind of stop and take a breath and figure out how to reform.

Part of that has been driven by the fact that there has been such a surge of self-represented litigants in the courts over the last decade. And those self-represented litigants have just overwhelmed the courts, overburden the courts. And it's been clear for a long time, the traditional means by which courts try to deal with their caseloads just wasn't working. It wasn't meeting the demand, but they were so, so occupied with trying to just, you know, keep up with that demand that they just couldn't stop and rejigger things.

So, I think this is a really, really interesting time for courts. I've had a lot of interesting discussions recently with judges, others involved in the courts. And we've seen—I practice in Massachusetts where, boy, the courts, the Chief Justice is of all the courts all the trial and appellate courts in Massachusetts to put out a joint statement where they basically said, “Look, we now see that that the old ways of doing things or haven't been working well and we have fully committed ourselves to modernizing our system going forward.” So I don't know what that looks like. But I think there's no question that we've just had a major turning point for our courts.

GC: Yeah, we've talked about this a lot as we move on to the next one, Bob, about how now more legal services can be delivered remotely. And obviously, there's great efficiency to that, not only for the lawyer but for the client. You don't have to have everybody moving around town, you can just set up a number of Zoom meetings or phone calls, which I guess you could previously do, online ways to sign documents, and so forth like we talked about before.

But one of the things that I believe you mentioned in here and certainly came to mind is that for folks who aren't able to get around as easily, whether it's the elderly or the infirmed, or perhaps people of limited means that might not own their own transportation. This really does make the legal services much more accessible to folks. So, explain what a difference that's already making and how that's going to be built on anything.

BA: Yeah, well it’s very much the case that one of the shortcomings of the court system up until now, and for law firms and legal providers as well, has been this idea that clients need to get to them. And if you happen to be a low-income client or if you happen to be, you know, a single parent or even somebody with a nine to five job who can't necessarily get time off from the job very easily, it's burdensome to do that a lot of the times.

We also have big parts of this country where there are vast geographic distances between perhaps where a client or somebody with a legal problem lives and where the closest law office or courthouse may be. I mean, it just makes perfect sense to be able to serve those who need legal help through, you know, video conferencing or other kinds of remote methods— has made sense for a long time there have been efforts at doing that, but none of them have really had a lot of traction until now. And you know, here again, I think suddenly, everybody is just understanding why it makes sense to do this.

GC: How much more streamlined do you think the legal system will be assuming this continues once we get back to whatever passes for normal? Will it ease the backlog in the courts because you don't have to get everybody together in the same room anymore?

BA: I mean, the biggest problem we have in this country is this justice cap. I mean, there are estimates that there are something like 80% of the people in the United States who have a legal problem do not ever get help with that legal problem. And in some cases, it's just because they don't, they don't even know they have a problem or they don't reach out for help. But even among those who reach out for help, only a small percentage are able to get the help they need that you know, they can't afford a high priced lawyer, they can't, maybe they're not eligible for legal aid or free legal services.

And the only way to address that gap is by making the system more efficient by improving you know, not just the technology, but also the processes by which the system operates. And that's really where this pandemic has been, you know, again, I hate to portray it as a positive but that is, I think, where it is positive because I think we have set in motion the wheels that are going to make virtually every aspect of the legal system—the courts, legal services delivery— much more efficient, much more adept at using technology to deliver services. All that means that they're going to reach more people, at more affordable costs, and all of that is a real win for the system.

GC: We're speaking with Bob Ambrogi. He's Publisher of the legal technology blog, LawSites. He's also host of the legal innovation podcast, LawNext. And we're going through seven different ways that the pandemic has actually changed the legal profession for the better, both in terms of law firms and the courts.

One that might not be as obvious as some of the others here, Bob, is number six on your list, and that's less of a physical presence for law firms. I guess the clients wouldn't particularly care that much about this one if they don't have to actually go to the physical presence of the law firm. But essentially, your point is that folks that don't have to commute and spend time during the day doing other things as well, that that makes the lawyers more efficient.

So what does that mean for working at home? What does that mean for what law firms will see as normal going forward here?

BA: Well, this is another one that that's really interesting, and something that I heard is—I was just talking to somebody this morning who pointed out a recent survey of lawyers about this topic. And what it showed is that by a wide margin, a lot of the lawyers who have been working from home for the last couple of months from larger firms, they traditionally would have been in some very fancy office somewhere downtown in some very large city. They actually kind of like working from home, and they are not in any hurry to go back into the office.

And the clients are not suffering at all. As a matter of fact, I think a lot of clients will tell you that they are benefiting from this as well. What I've heard from both clients and lawyers is they're getting more face time than they might have had before because before if they talked at all, it would have been to jump on a phone call. Now, suddenly, video calls have become the norm, and lawyers and clients are actually looking at each other and talking to each other even though it's not in the same room.

And so that's part of it, the other part is that of course, physical space is a huge part of a law firms’ overhead. Law firms, larger law firms, the large law firms in the country have been for years now looking at ways to reduce their physical footprint as a way to cut costs. We've seen it like law firms have reduced library space, for example, has been one of the places to go or more and more lawyers are doing kind of office sharing arrangement so they work part-time from home. That’s been happening already. But now I think everybody has seen how feasible it is to engage in a work from home environment and have things still continue to run smoothly, if in some cases not better. I don't think there's, you know, we will go back to having offices, we will go back to lawyers being in offices but I do think they're going to downscale in terms of their physical footprint.

GC: Yeah, commercial real estate might be the ones to be in rough shape here at least for a little while, after things settled down here. But we talked about ways that the system's going to change for the long term.

We talked about technological innovation and easier access for clients and the attorneys, to some extent. Nothing is more long term and changing the profession than changing how you educate up-and-coming attorneys and law schools. And that's your last one: how legal education will be revamped.

You quote Jordan Furlong in your blog, who has been a guest of ours before. He says that this is going to lead to the emergence of a driving need to “really rethink what we're trying to achieve to develop competent, confident lawyers to service clients and society.” Which in some ways, is an admission that the current system is not as good as it could be, but I'd expect it to look different.

BA: Well, you know, I think there's been a number of people in recent years who have been pushing the idea that the legal education system is broken and needs fixing. It certainly broke down in the midst of this pandemic, because law schools were not prepared to go well, I can't blame law schools, universities and colleges, in general, weren't prepared to just go 100% online. It was a shock for all of them. As I mentioned in my article I happen to be at a law school out in Utah the very day that they made the decision to shut down and I could kind of see firsthand a little bit of the panic in everybody's eyes as they were trying to prepare for this.

You know, how it will change I mean, in the short term, we know that it's going to mean there will be more virtual training, more virtual classes. But I think one of the questions that have come up during this time is the bar exam process. The process for examining somebody who's graduated from law school and now wants to be licensed to practice law. You know, they're given a test they're given a sit down for two days and take a test. And I don't know if you're a lawyer, listeners who’ve gone through it know that basically this test is nothing they teach you in law school. You sit down and you cram for a month or two for this test, and you go in and take the test and immediately forget everything you learned. Why not have something more like a program where lawyers are admitted to the law based on doing a period of an internship and getting direct experience and getting some hands-on work in a law firm. Learning it that way.

That's something that somebody has been talking about. Some of these proponents of reform have been talking about recently is- let's look at changing. Let's look at having students be getting more experience while they're in law school. But then let's also have experience and mentorship be kind of the measure of when somebody is ready to be licensed as a lawyer rather than some arbitrary exam. And part of what's prompted this, of course, is that suddenly they're having to offer these exams online or not at all, and some people are worried about how efficacious that'll be. But, so, I don't know. You know, I don't know exactly how education is changing, but I think it's going to do so, and I think we're going to see that happening.

GC: Sounds like there might be a newfound appreciation for the old concept of apprenticeship in legal circles. Which is kind of how folks used to become full-fledged lawyers on their own.

Bob, fantastic content here. Great conversation. Terrific resource and I really appreciate your time today.

BA: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me. It was a real pleasure to speak with you.

GC: Thank you, sir. Bob Ambrogi is publisher of the legal technology blog, LawSites, which you can find at lawsitesblog.com. He is also host of the legal innovation podcast called LawNext.

I'm Greg Corombos and for more information on this topic, please call CT at 844-787-7782

 

 

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