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Lawyers As The Movers & Shakers Of Legal Innovation

By Mauricio Duarte.


In a recent virtual event with the Asian International Arbitration Centre, I got asked: "Who should be the drivers and movers & shakers of the legal technology industry?" Without a doubt, I said: attorneys. Did I say it because I am an attorney? Partially, yes. However, my response was heavily influenced as a practitioner, observer, and legal tech industry student.


Technology alone will not replace lawyers or make them a relic of the past. Technology will undoubtedly accelerate change, but the most impactful innovations in law will result from a profound transformation in the attorney's role. As controversial as it might sound, technology is not always the solution.


The events of 2020, specifically the coronavirus pandemic outbreak created countless challenges for legal professionals. However, with those challenges, there are many avenues for innovation and disruption.

A new generation of entrepreneurial attorneys is on the rise. This new breed of attorneys is leveraging the power of technology and entrepreneurship to provide affordable legal solutions.


THE ROLE OF ATTORNEYS.

History will remember March 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) designated COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Shortly after, we saw the cancellation of events, legal offices closings, and a steep decline in attorneys' revenue. By the end of April, the pandemic's impact was in full force in the legal industry. For example, the 2020 Clio Legal Trends Report reported [1] the following: "In terms of revenue, 2020 was initially trending to become a positive year for law firms, as January and February saw the average firm collecting over 10% more than the year prior. By March, year-over-year revenue began trending lower. In April, the average law firm collected 8% less revenue than the year prior. Even though new matters saw a slight uptick in May, firms saw revenues fall further to 13% below to the previous year.”


Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on an already severe global gap in access to justice. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the World Justice Project [2] reported: "Promising strategies are emerging, and the pandemic has brought urgency to supporting and scaling them. (...) Over the longer term, the recovery effort must be designed with a particular focus on addressing the systemic injustices that the pandemic has revealed and reinforce.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the existence of creative "outside-the-box" attorneys. These professionals are willing to invest their time and resources in expanding legal services, including pro bono efforts and more accessible legal services. Attorneys are developing open educational resources, training non-lawyer assistants to help people, and harnessing technological tools to find efficient legal solutions to everyday justice problems are a few examples.


For instance, during the pandemic, Stevie Ghiassi founded Legaler Aid [3]. I describe this platform as the "Go Fund Me" for the legal industry in colloquial terms. However, Legaler Aid is an open and free crowdfunding platform that enables users to donate to legal cases fighting social justice in more appropriate terms.


In addition, Camila Lopez made strides with People Clerk [4], a legal tech solution to enhance access to justice for consumers and their claims. At A2J Tech, we created COVID-19 Eviction Forms. This free platform allows tenants to generate a declaration letter that can help prevent eviction from their home until December 31, 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Temporary Halt in Residential. In the last few months, I've witnessed these efforts and more. Attorneys in Ecuador, Spain, Colombia, El Salvador, and Germany have shown me the power and value of entrepreneurial attorneys.


This new wave of attorneys has to wear many hats, such as digital marketer, head of public relations, project manager, accountant, in-house counsel, and many other roles. However, their leadership, vision, innovation, job creation, and competitiveness will bring a new era to the legal industry.


I believe the attorney's role is transitioning from just an "advocate" or "advisor" to leaders in innovation, technology, and client service. Long gone are those days in which the attorney will sit back and advise their client. Instead of reactive attorneys, we are looking at the dawn of proactive attorneys.


If you believe that you are an attorney that "categorizes" himself as only an advocate or advisor, think again. I like the odds of showing you how attorneys are more than that. Sometimes we are just too shy to admit it.


PROACTIVE ATTORNEYS

When I use the term proactive attorney, it doesn't mean the attorney acts like a traditional attorney, but it has the will to be the first to call their client on a specific issue from time to time. Being proactive goes beyond that. Let's use a couple of examples.


Daniel Pelinka is a Partner at a "Big Law" firm. This firm has over 200 attorneys around the world in 34 offices. However, in the specific office which Daniel Pelinka leads, he has seen a considerable decline in timely payments. Over the last few months, Daniel has received push back from clients on their monthly billing. Clients are not sure or happy about the number of hours invested in a specific matter.

Furthermore, clients don't know why, when, or how the associates and paralegals spent too much time drafting a data-sharing agreement. Does this situation sound familiar to you? It does to me.


A proactive attorney would not only sit back and keep receiving angry emails or bad reviews on Yelp. Trust me; I've seen examples of clients ranting on Yelp [5] and Twitter. A proactive attorney would take clear, achievable, and sustainable steps to improve the client experience. How would this look like? For example, Daniel could propose a flexible billing arrangement for certain matters. Instead of everything being billed hourly, he could set certain documents at a fixed price. He could go a step beyond and change its entire pricing model. Another alternative could be using a document automation solution, such as Documate, Community Lawyer, or docassemble, to create model templates, which will reduce the time the associates and paralegals spend drafting and reviewing a contract. Finally, Daniel could set up a feedback form for clients, in which he could receive comments, suggestions, or ideas to improve the billing experience for their clients.


Let's put another example. For this scenario, I will use my experience with the project Process Improvement for Legal Aid. To learn more, you can go to legalaidprocess.org. Imagine a legal aid organization that has been struggling to improve its intake process.

Text Calls with intake staff take too long, and the transition from intake to the attorney takes too long. Legal aid organizations want to help as many people as they humanly can. For these noble organizations, it's frustrating not being able to help more people in their community. Being a proactive attorney would mean that you take steps to change this situation. Do you always need technology or a hefty allocation of resources? No. For this example, attorneys within a legal aid organization can implement a "business process improvement" approach to solve many client intake issues. In other words, legal aid organizations would not need infinite resources or the latest technology. Attorneys need only a willing staff open to defining, measuring, analyzing, improving, and controlling ("DMAIC") [6] their new processes. The technology could be a potential solution that could accelerate change. However, it's not the only tool you need to be proactive.


Do you need technology to be proactive? No. We are used to equating innovation with technology. For some, being proactive means add a complex artificial intelligence system to review contracts. Let this be a reminder that technology is not a panacea for problem-solving. Everyone would love it if technology could solve all of our problems. Imagine losing weight just by clicking an app? Technology has limits; human ideas and creativity don’t.


Any proactive attorney will have a positive impact on the legal industry. Proactiveness is not exclusive to attorneys that start legal tech solutions. Innovation and proactiveness are available to everyone. Furthermore, proactiveness is not limited to, internal solutions. As Michele Distefano [7] has suggested, you can be an "intrapreneur" (within your organization) or "extrapreneur" (outside your organization). Either way, be sure that those efforts are essential to build upon and improve the legal industry.


INNOVATION EVERYWHERE

Legal innovation it's not only limited to technology. Design in law goes beyond simply using technology. The world after COVID-19 will be a better place because attorneys will make it happen. We have to. The legal industry, in particular, is in an excellent position to keep improving and changing.


I find it inspiring to hear about the creative solutions some law firms, legal aid organizations, and legal tech companies have found to keep innovating, even amid a global pandemic. Flexible pricing models, alternative legal services, free resources, and more are just a few examples.


As we enter the end of 2020, let's do everything to ensure that this crisis was not all in vain. The gains we are currently making in a collaborative, and innovative spirit must prevail when this crisis ends. It will be in the hands of attorneys to be the leaders of change in the legal industry. Let's not wait for another pandemic to change the legal industry.



Notes

[1] Clio. (2020, October). 2020 Legal Trends Report. https://www.clio.com/resources/legal-trends/2020-report/read-online/

[2] World Justice Project. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Global Justice Gap. https://worldjusticeproject.org/our-work/publications/policy-briefs/covid-19-pandemic-and-global-justice-gap

[3] For more information, visit: legaleraid.org

[4] For more information, visit: www.peopleclerk.com

[5] Weiss, D. (2018, May 17). Lawyer’s firm gets bad Yelp reviews after he is named as man in video ranting about Spanish-speakers. Www.Abajournal.Com. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyers_firm_gets_bad_yelp_reviews_after_he_is_identified_as_man_ranting_ab

[6] MacDonagh, C. A. (2014). Lean Six Sigma for Law Firms. Ark Group.

[7] DeStefano, M. (2018). Legal Upheaval: A Guide to Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation in Law. American Bar Association.

About the Author

Mauricio Duarte is a Lawyer from Universidad Francisco Marroquín (Guatemala) with an LL.M. from St. Thomas University (Minnesota). Mauricio worked for 4 years in inter-national arbitration before devoting himself to technology and legal innovation issues. Mauricio is the COO of A2J Tech, a Denver based (Colorado) company that builds legal tech solutions to improve access to justice. Besides, Mauricio serves as an Of Counsel Partner of Legal Plus, a law firm focused on advising entrepreneurs and technology companies, and the Host of the Legal Hackers Podcast (Spanish). Also, Mauricio has served as a Kleros Fellow of Justice and Arbitrator Intelligence Ambassador, two prominent legal tech companies that look to enhance alternate dispute mechanisms.



#MauricioDuarte #innovation #legaltech

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