Technology and Access to Justice: trends in the private sector

One of the emerging themes in the use of technology in the access to justice field is the realisation by not for profit agencies that they should adopt the basic customer management tools developed in the private sector. They share a common need – though perhaps not always a common language – to reduce cost per case and increase their efficiency (maximising what they would probably not call ‘their bang for their buck’). This is reflected in a number of previous postings – relating to the US, Australia and England and Wales. As a result, we might beneficially take some time to clock how relevant private practice (the firms, overwhelmingly small, who are serving low income clients) are implementing technology. And, luckily, in the most relevant jurisdiction in the world, the US, we have a summary of the latest technology survey for 2018.

It would generally be worth waiting for the definitive version before relying on a summary. But, the full first volume of the 2018 survey alone covering technology basics and security has a price of $300. This is unlikely to provide value for money for the greatest nerd. But, happily, we have a respected crib for the  2018 report on the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center’s Legal Technology Today website. This has begun a series of summaries, the first one (published on 5 November by Natalie Kelly) offering coverage of solo and small firms. This group will catch presumably both niche firms in any area of practice but can probably also be relied upon overwhelmingly to consist of the smaller firms with lower income clients. So, with care, we can use its findings as a proxy for the state of play in this area of practice. 

The US is not, of course, alone in providing an example of the institutional bodies of the legal profession seeking to chart and encourage the use of legal technology among its members. But, its paper is the most recent. The Law Society of England and Wales published its report on capturing technological innovation in January 2017. Around the same time, we had similar papers from the Law Society of New South Wales and the Singapore Academy of Law. But what follows is a shameless summary of Ms Kelly’s article, the plagiarism of which is only mitigated by my heartfelt recommendation that you read the original and the angle. My concern is that those in the field, both in private and not for profit services, can see the trends and, if necessary, raise their game. So, let’s try and number the relevant trends (terms are translated into their English equivalents; ‘sole practitioners’ for solos, ‘small firms’ for those with 2 to 9 attorney firms; and ‘firms’ includes sole practitioners):

  1. sole practitioners are the biggest users of fixed fees in the profession – with 22 per cent offering them. Small firms come second with 15 per cent.
  2. Windows is the operating system of choice ‘The number of users now using Windows 10 has grown from 46% in the past year to 59%’. There is a bit of a contradiction here because ‘iPads are still the most popular device among tablet devices for the lawyers surveyed ’though Microsoft Surface products had reached 22 per cent of the market: ‘The rise in users of Surface tablet devices might be the result of more firms looking at the Microsoft brand. This would be consistent with the large number of Windows 10 users who might seek a tablet device utilizing that operating system.’ That seems a reasonable deduction.
  3. Remote access is now pretty uniform (84 per cent of respondents indicating that it is available to them). Everyone uses email. 
  4. ‘Document assembly availability remained steady at 44% for solos and 47% for firms of 2 to 9 attorneys, with the actual use of such programs at 34% and 30% respectively. Looking at these numbers, both the work in the digital world and the adoption of systems across office space continues slowly.’ This must be area where firms could make savings if they invested properly and you would expect growth’. I certainly would – both in the profit and not for profit sectors.
  5. Cloud computing is established in the market but remains stuck at just under 60 per cent of firms. Firms are aware that security is an issue – though 13 per cent say they ‘take no precautions’. Well, they had better watch out. Cloud computing goes with modern ways of working: ‘the most cited benefits of using cloud computing for law-related tasks include easy browser access from anywhere and 24/7 availability. These benefits are cited by 68% and 59% of respondents respectively as most important, closely followed by the low-cost for cloud services at 48%; robust data backup and recovery at 46%; quick to get up and running at 40%; eliminating IT and software management requirements at 34%, and better security at 31%. Interestingly, only 8% indicated no benefit from cloud computing programs.’
  6. Sources of information seem a bit haphazard and rather too dependent on outsiders though small firms emphasised staff feedback: ‘For technology purchasing decisions, lawyers are most influenced by various informational sources, from print ads to CLE programs and peers. Solos are most influenced by consultants, with 32.7% saying they were very influential. In firms of 2 to 9 attorneys, 43% say they are most influenced by staff feedback. The next most influential source for solos were their peers, at 30.7%, and consultants at 41.8% for those in firms of 2 to 9 attorneys.’

In the context of the not for profit sector, the conclusion is interesting: ‘Even though legal technology continues to grow in products and services, and particularly in the area of viable cloud-based systems, the adoption rates still remain low. This seems to be the case again for solo and small firm lawyers, even though they are the ones most likely to be in a position to more freely and easily choose, learn, train, and use technology for law-related work. Future growth, while certain, is also likely to continue to happen at a relatively slow pace.’ This is not quite the picture you would get from much of the coverage in the legal press; the buzz around legal start ups or the promotion from customer relationship management systems like Clio that sponsored the solos and small firms report and published its own downloadable version (to be considered later). But it replicates not for profit experience. Providers, hard pressed to raise funds, are seeking to raise their game but it is a long hard struggle.

The illustrative picture is from the excellent free resource of Pixabay to which a donation has been made.

Leave a Reply