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How Is Your Law Practice Going To Change?

By Jim Calloway

Ideas about the delivery of legal services are certainly changing. Some of the changes are not going to be good for lawyers. Many of the changes will be challenging for lawyers. But some of the changes will assist lawyers who are paying attention to the changing landscape. And, of course, there will be some lawyers who do not want to change and some who do not need to change. Unfortunately, relatively few will fit into both camps.

The point I want readers to take away is that it is important to pay attention to changes that impact legal services nationally and worldwide as some of the changes may become significant to you — either positively or negatively. The way people purchase music and rent movies for home viewing has changed. The adoption of mobile phones has changed much of our social behavior — and not, in my opinion, always for the better. The way many consumers look at obtaining the legal services they need is changing. From a lawyer having a video conference with clients sitting on their sofa at home to clients logging into law firm-provided online document repositories where they can review their documents, what may have seemed futuristic only a few decades ago is now commonplace to many and will become routine in the future.

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

Apps that provide what most of us would think of as legal services are one area of change. I’ve mentioned the app Shake to audiences before. It is a free app for iOS and Android that can be used to draft simple contracts. Shake was surprising, but not really threatening to lawyers. The few simple contracts provided were not the type that most lawyers would have done for clients anyway. (Although, the app certainly showed its technology heritage in that one of the early free forms was for an NDA [Nondisclosure agreement].) So, the initial reaction was mostly “Isn’t that cute? An app that drafts contracts. I’m sure my contracts are superior and comply with Oklahoma law.”

But Shake today has evolved. Now there is a Pro plan for $10 per month. It includes the ability to customize up to five forms and personalize the agreements with branding. It also includes access to Shake’s form library and integration with popular cloud storage services. Shake’s blog now includes many articles with titles like “Rent Responsibility: Understanding Your Residential Lease” and “Employee Handbooks: Put Your Rules in Writing.”

One can appreciate the utility of this app for someone like a house painter or other contractor who used to rely on filling in the blanks on an invoice or a contract created for another contracting job. But, as a lawyer, I’d still have a concern that some jurisdiction had some particular requirement that might not be addressed. It is, however, hard to argue that these documents are not superior to an oral agreement or notes on a piece of paper that the customer never signed.

There is also a team version of Shake for larger companies. Think of a company with a sales force that is on the road frequently making many different kinds of deals. Instead of the company’s lawyers approving or drafting many repetitive contracts, they design and supervise the contract delivery process. Custom contracts are assembled on the phone or other mobile device and emailed to the customer instantly for execution. If a salesperson has a specific customization request, the legal department can deal with that request or idea while dozens of standard contracts are executed each day with no direct lawyer intervention.

Some law schools are getting active in app development. Professor Tanina Rostain is co-director of the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center. She developed and teaches the course “Technology, Innovation and Legal Practice” where teams of students compete to develop legal apps that individuals can use to navigate complex areas of the law. One success story was ADA2Go, an app developed by the students in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice. It navigates through the Americans with Disabilities Act to determine rights and responsibilities in certain circumstances.
 
You can read more about Professor Rostain and this project on her Legal Rebels profile. Her profile ends by noting that these apps do not test for income level and she believes that they will really “shake up the market,” particularly in regard to solo and small firm lawyers.

For better or for worse, a lot of the new legal areas of interest relate to developments in technology. But a lot of innovative ideas are not directly related to technology.

A NONPROFIT LAW FIRM?

Every lawyer in small firm private practice has probably worried at some point whether their law firm was going to turn a profit in a particular month. But have you ever thought of setting up a nonprofit law firm? Utah lawyers Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer have set up a nonprofit law firm and are making it work. The Atlantic has an informative article on their firm, Open Legal Services, which includes a graph showing the sliding hourly fee scale based on client income and many more details. About 50 percent of Utah residents qualify for the discounted services.

Working for a nonprofit law firm means that a lawyer won’t get rich, but it provides for a working environment gaining lots of real-world experience at a steady salary. Because the firm is nonprofit, it is exempt from taxes and lawyers are eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which erases the balance of student loans after 10 years of monthly payments. Contributions from businesses to assist the nonprofit firm are tax deductible to the donating business. They also receive many referrals from public entities or other nonprofits.

EMERGING AREAS OF LAW

There are many developing areas in the law. I will leave it to your judgment whether opportunities exist for you with any of these.

Drones, more formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), have been in the news a lot lately. They have crashed into sporting events and interfered with firefighting airplanes. They have also helped find lost hikers and provided some amazing videos for us all. One was shot down by a homeowner who claimed it was spying on his daughter in the backyard swimming pool. The FAA still bans most commercial use of drones. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there are going to be many legal issues related to drones. A search of the Internet today discloses many lawyers who are promoting drone law as a part of their law practices.  Filing a Section 333 petition for exemption to allow certain commercial drone use seems to be a popular service at the moment.

eDiscovery is a huge area for litigators and it is very complex. I have seen lawyers from other states include “ediscovery-ready litigator” in their online profiles. There is a lot going on in this area. Soon it may not be true that only the larger cases are appropriate for use of ediscovery. To that end, I note an ethics opinion from the State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct that is worth a read for the examples it gives of ediscovery nightmares, Formal Opinion Interim no. 11-0004. Wearable technology is a hot tech topic. One of the attendees at a recent Digital Pharma conference tweeted “We’re in the Palm Pilot days of wearables.” Considering the discussions at that conference included dissolvable pill “wearables” for medical treatment, information gathering for elderly patients and clothing that might “hug” a wearer who was feeling low, there is likely something to that observation. Wearable technology will collect and retain all sorts of information that might be useful as evidence.

Self-driving cars are definitely coming to a highway near you, although not in the immediate future. Studies indicate self-driving cars could reduce automobile fatalities by 90 percent in the U.S., so they are coming. What a boon that will be for the elderly or disabled who cannot drive. How many of us would trade a robot-chauffeured drive to another state where we could read or nap compared to what airline travel has become today? If you combine the concept of Uber and Lyft with self-driving cars, would many more people elect not to own an automobile? How will the adoption of self-driving cars impact the entire concept of automobile driver’s liability and insurance?

Did you view the Pizza Rat video that went viral near the end of September? I was on Twitter when I noticed the #PizzaRat hashtag as a trending topic. This was a 14-second video of a rat dragging a huge piece of pizza down subway stairs in Manhattan. Wired.com had a very interesting story about the video. It turns out that a Los Angeles-based viral video company named Junkin Media (Yes, there are viral video businesses. Who knew?) picked up on the video right after it was posted, when it only had 2,660 views, according to Wired. The company worked out a licensing deal with the creator and started a combination of promotion and unauthorized use take down notices for those who were posting the video online instead of linking to it. Now it has surpassed 5 million views on YouTube and, if you think a short video of a rat dragging a piece of pizza down stairs would be perfect to display during your next motivational speech presentation, you can contact Junkin Media to discuss the licensing fee.

So the next time a client wants to show you a really cute video of their baby on their phone, maybe you should watch.

READY FOR CHANGE?

The path to prepare for a changing environment (or just to be more efficient today) is easy to write and much harder to implement. I cover some parts of this in Law Practice Tips here at least every few months.

The key is to effectively use today’s tools now because tomorrow’s tools will build upon today’s and be even more powerful and useful. Imagine some hypothetical law firm that has successfully banned email to this point and is finally giving in. There would be a huge learning curve, particularly for an employee who didn’t use email in their personal life. Undoubtedly someone would infect the firm with malware by clicking on a bad attachment, someone would get in contact with an online scammer, many would make “Reply” vs. “Reply All” mistakes, some would forget to check their email promptly, important emails would be deleted and so forth.

Email is a critical business communication tool, despite its many flaws. There are many other critical business processes that law firms are adopting today that will be just as significant as email in the future.

This includes documentation of processes in writing, learning to use practice management software and services to empower your adoption of paperless workflows, beginning the process of automating production of your routine documents, setting fixed fees for some services or parts of services and making certain your law firm has one or more websites that work well with mobile devices.

CONCLUSION

Change, especially change related to your daily activities, is hard. Many of the changes in the delivery of legal services will actually make your daily life function better after they are incorporated and implemented. Pick one improvement and start implementing it this month.

If you’re waiting for change to happen to you, it will, but probably not the change you want. Change is the law of life. ~ @emyth

And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. ~ John F. Kennedy

There is nothing permanent except change. ~ Heraclitus

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be. 
~ Isaac Asimov

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- October 17 , 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 27