US conference justifies wider focus

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the US federal legal aid funder, has successfully – on the basis of its first day – revamped its annual technology conference to give it a wider focus. In past years, this has been based around the Technology Initiative Grant Program on which it spends around 1 per cent of its money. It is now its Innovations in Technology Conference. The range of speakers and topic was wider – if it did mean that the presentations lacked the former specificity of more of the being based on grant-aided programs. The LSC sold out on its 400 or so places. Eight of us even registered from outside the US, including a squad of three from Australia.

Day one was a mix of plenaries and choices from a wide range of individual sessions – which means that every delegate’s experience would be slightly different. However, the general sessions provided a common backbone to the day – which, in typical American way, begins early and ends late – well over 12 hours in total. We got an excellent opening plenary from Bob Ambrogi, whose LawSites blog would get my vote as the best in its class – digital developments relevant to the legal profession.  We also had Judy Perry Martinez, tipped to be an upcoming President of the American Bar Association, who extolled the ABA’s new Centre for Innovation. And the LSC’s long-serving President and consistent supporter of both the conference and the technology effort underlying it, Jim Sandman. He knows exactly how to raise an LSC technology audience to its feet by giving the kind of praise and recognition needed in an organisation that President Trump still wants to defund.

The smaller sessions that I attended included one on artificial intelligence where IV Ashton of LegalServer and Houston.AI changed my mind on how AI could be used for legal aid cases. I had thought that AI would have a role in prediction of costs (which reduces the risk on previously specified fixed fees) and the results of cases. But he showed how you could develop an Alexa/Siri type chatbot that could give significant assistance in a case like one on housing rent arrears – thus allowing an agency to leverage its assets by extending automated services to those who would otherwise not be served. This used a conversational interface – seen as very much the future – that was able to search geographical data; information on rent; and analysis of the law to give solid oral advice to an enquirer. Nicole Bradick of Theory and Principle, a product development company, and Hanna Kaufman of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois gave a similarly practical – and, happily for the late afternoon, conversational – account of issues that arise when profits meet non profits.

But, Bob Ambrogi was the star of the first day. His theme was the innovation gap that has opened up as ‘tools have evolved but practice has not’. His lament had particular force in a jurisdiction which has yet to introduce the changes that are in the process of transforming the English legal scene – third party ownership of law firms and greater deregulation of the practice of law. His theme was the need to ‘reboot the system’ to deal with the forces that are impeding the use of technology to increase access to justice: lawyers are afraid of technology; lawyers are not competent in technology; the legal profession is a protectionist guild that sees innovation as a threat; the law firm profit model favours inefficiency; courts are stuck on a vicious circle that blocks change; and tech investment goes where the money is ie to large scale providers of services to commercial bodies that can benefit from AI and e-discovery.

Mr Ambrogi’s solutions were largely focused on training, de-regulation and encouragement. That is right – though ultimately the forces for change are likely to be experienced through economics. In-house counsel are beginning to force a change in billing practices on both sides of the Atlantic. The spurious neutrality of the hourly-based bill has surely very little time left: no lawyer with their salt would hire a plumber on such terms. For-profit providers of services to those on low incomes need to get their cost down to meet the need which obviously exists. This is the gap in the market at which providers like conference sponsor Avvo have spotted with their fixed fee, limited service representation – for which, as Mr Ambrogi pointed out, they have been on the butt of a series of Bar-inspired ethical opinions. One incentive for the not for profit sector to use technology is the pressure from funders, like the LSC, to leverage their assets and serve a wider range of clients. This is one of Jim Sandman’s persistent themes. Tomorrow, we might see more of what can be done.

Leave a Reply