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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Legal Tech Now: Q&A

Four questions about the present and future of legal technology with four presenters from this year’s MSBA Tech Month.

What is your current role and how did you end up there?

Ed Walters (Fastcase): I’m the CEO of Fastcase—my co-founder Phil and I did a coin flip, and I got CEO, and he got president and chairman. I also teach The Law of Robots at Georgetown Law, and starting this spring, at Cornell Tech in New York City. I ended up teaching after a chance conversation with a friend who’s a law professor. I said there should be a class that helps law students think about a constantly changing future, and a few weeks later The Law of Robots was born.

Claude Ducloux (LawPay): I am the national director of education, ethics, and state compliance for LawPay. I got here by earning a vibrant reputation as a CLE speaker for over 35 years. I also worked in the Ethics Counsel office in every capacity in my early career, which made me very familiar with how lawyers get into trouble.

Kristen Sonday (Paladin): I’m the co-founder and COO at Paladin, which helps legal teams run more efficient pro bono programs while increasing access to justice. Out of university, I joined the U.S. Department of Justice and worked on international criminal cases in Mexico and Central America. I loved how the department was using law and policy to improve lives and knew I wanted to ultimately end up working on access-to-justice issues. Shortly after DOJ, I joined a tech startup in New York, where I learned how to build a company from the ground up and leverage technology to scale networks. At Paladin, we’re building a platform that streamlines the pro bono process to increase efficiency and engagement. For me, it’s the perfect intersection of my passions for justice and technology.

Rick Kabra (CosmoLex): I am the founder and CEO of CosmoLex. My background is in IT, with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. My passion has always focused on information technology and how it empowers individuals and businesses, especially small business. Around 2005, we started serving law firms with their technology needs—and never looked back. Law firms are probably among the most poorly run small businesses—at least from an operations perspective. The complex operational and compliance requirements are not going to go away, and I am a firm believer that technology is the only savior—regardless of the law firm’s size or practice areas.


How is technology changing the legal profession, and what challenges do lawyers face from changing technology? What new startup or application has you most excited?

Ed: I have a minority view that tech isn’t changing the profession enough. There have been major shifts in the world in the last ten years—think algorithmic trading in finance, AI diagnostics and Da Vinci robots in medicine, self-driving cars—but the practice of law is almost identical to how it was in 2007.

I’m an optimist, though, and there is good reason to be excited about a few things. I think we have a much better understanding of the access-to-justice gap, which has existed quietly for a very long time. And I’m excited about the ability of software and the Internet to match lawyers to the unmet legal needs of people. By some estimates, the legal services market in the U.S. alone is $437 billion, but only serves about 20 percent of the country’s legal needs. So the latent market is likely in excess of $1 trillion—it’s enormous! The most important software here likely hasn’t been invented yet. But latent markets of that size won’t last long; people will come forward to meet these legal needs, and that will help more people and create more jobs for lawyers.


Claude: Lawyers are being dragged, kicking and screaming in many cases, into the necessities of e-filing, electronic communications, websites, and e-discovery, and all the new problems those technologies pose both for competence and office management.

I’m not sure I can say “excited,” but cloud-based practice is a method of practice whose time is here, and needs to be fully employed.


Kristen: The most exciting companies to me are the ones making law more accessible; for example, how Road to Status is streamlining the immigration paperwork process. They lower the barrier and cost for so many who have been priced out of the regular fee structure. I’m also a fan of companies working to increase intelligence and efficiency so attorneys can focus on what matters most: the individual client. At Paladin, we strive to decrease the administrative and manual burden of pro bono coordination so we can increase the number of clients served.


Rick: Rapid innovations in legal technology are completely redefining what it means to practice law on a daily basis. Their impact is both challenging and exciting. Thanks to technology, consumers can now procure legal services from across the world instead of being limited to local law firms. And law firms themselves are now free to seek and serve clients from around the world as well. An exciting development, to be sure, and also challenging—because as a result of this global marketplace for legal services, competition for clients has become extremely fierce.

Meanwhile, legal technology continues to streamline the vast amount of paperwork and bookkeeping that has historically characterized daily life at every law practice, and this is creating a climate where clients expect lower costs and faster timelines. In order to remain competitive, even viable some would say, individual lawyers cannot afford to remain passively ignorant of advances in legal technology. They need to educate themselves, embrace technology tools appropriate to their practice, and then master these tools to give clients the level of service they expect. All this takes time and effort, yet the need to “stay current” in a world increasingly dependent on technology is common to all professions, whether it be law, medicine, media, or what-have-you.

Of course it’s my job, and the job of everyone at CosmoLex, to make the technology as easy to use as possible—because technology that’s hard to use does not get used. When we were able to add built-in accounting to the CosmoLex practice management system, that was very exciting because it enabled us to largely automate the entire accounting function for any law practice. And in one fell swoop, we eliminated what had been a huge headache for lawyers everywhere. We received a lot of love letters from our clients when that rolled out.

Looking ahead, I am quite excited about the rapidly maturing capabilities of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. So much of the actual practice of law involves the sequential discovery and identification of those critical facts or connections that are essential to resolve a matter in a way that serves the client’s best interests. It’s like solving a puzzle, or a mystery, and AI will soon help lawyers streamline this process as well. This is the new frontier for legal technology—to move beyond being a tool for operational efficiency, to move beyond managing the practice to actually helping in the practice of law itself.


From your perspective, are law students being properly prepared for the profession? What course(s) would you add to the core law school curriculum, if any?

Ed: I don’t think law students are being properly prepared, although to be fair, we don’t know very well what the world will look like when they become partners (if that’s still a thing in the future). I confess that I don’t understand why we still emphasize first-year litigation classes such as civil procedure or constitutional law when so few lawyers will become litigators. The most important things we could teach lawyers are how to adapt in a changing world, how to understand their clients, how to innovate in the delivery of legal services. I’m working on an article right now that outlines a new curriculum for law schools, so stay tuned for more on that topic.


Claude: No, but I think the most valuable addition would be active instruction on client management, communications, trust-building, and building the narrative of friendship and confidence.


Kristen: I love seeing innovation, entrepreneurship, and design-thinking courses being added to law school curricula. Technology is part of the future of law, so it’s essential to have an understanding of how to apply tech solutions to increase efficiency.


We read more and more about the “gig economy.” That’s because it’s real. It’s here. And it’s now. More and more law students are finding themselves putting out their own shingles after graduation. So there is a definite need for them to be more prepared regarding the business aspects of running a law firm, such as operations, accounting, and marketing. And because the legal landscape will continue to evolve rapidly, training in change management would be extremely helpful, too. Being stuck in your own ways of doing things simply does not cut it in this new economy.


How is legal tech advancing the A2J cause? Can legal tech really be applied to close the justice gap?

Ed: Legal tech is doing some work today to close the A2J gap. I’m really inspired by the Iron Tech Lawyer competition at Georgetown Law, in which nontechnical law students work with nonprofit clients to create apps for justice using Neota Logic. This breaks the one-to-one paradigm for legal services, baking expertise into software so that it can help people at scale. Software can’t be the complete solution, of course, but because the problem is vast, software might be one of the only things that can scale effectively to help lots of people. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.


Claude: Right now, I have not seen applications which advance the ATJ agenda fully.

 


Kristen: Legal tech is advancing the A2J cause in many ways, from assisting with more intelligent client intake to increasing accessibility of the legal system and processes to supporting the mobilization of pro bono attorneys. It will take a combination of these efforts, and collaborations within the legal tech ecosystem, to really close the justice gap.


Rick: By some statistics, 70-80 percent of low-income households do not get access to legal services. It is a challenge as this is also the same group which is not equipped to engage in most forms of legal self-help. At CosmoLex, we’ve been working with legal incubators across the country, including CCLI in Minnesota. We believe the expansion of this model has the potential to bring quality legal services to many economically disadvantaged sections of the population.

Here again, legal technology will continue to play an important role because it inevitably brings down the costs of legal services in a number of ways. If there’s been one constant to the tech revolution, it’s been to empower the individual. To give each person the kind of power that was once only available to large corporations or governments. That’s why, in spite of growing pains and occasional hiccups, people at the individual level continue to embrace and be excited by new technology. And that’s why I love my job!

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