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From the President: Into the future

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2015 89 (1/2) LIJ, p.04

Seize opportunities technology can bring to your legal practice.

By Katie Miller - LIV President

Welcome to 2015. Children of the 1980s have been waiting for this year since we first caught a glimpse of it when Marty McFly travelled to 2015 in the movie Back to the Future Part II (BTTF in Twitter-speak).

In BTTF, Marty travels to 2015 to stop his future son taking part in a robbery. As part of the plan, Marty poses as his future son and, by doing so, allows the audience to get a sneak peak of life in the future.

The features of future life that attracted most of the audience’s attention were, of course, the technological “advances” – flying cars, 3D holograms advertising the latest incarnation of Jaws, robot petrol station attendants and, of course, the hoverboard, a levitating version of the skateboard.

Yet for all the excitement it generated, the 2015 portrayed in BTTF was not that much different to the 1985 we were then living (that, of course, being the point of the whole movie trilogy). The devices seen in Marty’s 2015 were no more than the devices used in the 1980s with a technological add-on. Kids still rode skateboards, but now they levitated. People still drove cars and suffered traffic congestion, but now the cars flew. And, bizarrely, people still used dot matrix faxes – although their speed and proliferation around the home had increased impressively.

In preparing for the new year, I have reflected on how much legal practice in 2015 differs from that of 1985. We now communicate electronically rather than by snail mail and typewriter. We have vast databases to store and code documents in discovery. We use electronic precedents and advertise on the internet and through social media. Some of us are outsourcing more routine tasks to lawyers in other countries.

However, as in BTTF, most of what we do is similar, if not the same, as it was in 1985. The dreaded billable hour is still with us. Clients, lawyers and courts alike are still largely bound by geography – clients attend lawyers’ offices and lawyers attend courts in cities and regional centres. For all its promise, “virtual appearances” through Skype are still the exception, not the rule. The business model of many legal practices is still based on document-intensive tasks and practices, such as discovery or conveyancing. Although it seems that there is a new technological change to learn about every other week, technology has largely been used by lawyers to increase the efficiency of what we do, rather than changing what it is that we do.

In the United States, the future has arrived. Technology is changing the way legal practice is done – and, perhaps just as significantly, by whom it is done. Venture capitalists are investing in companies that will help clients to find, rate and compare lawyers more easily, as well as deliver legal services in new ways – and not necessarily by lawyers.

Technology is changing how services such as discovery and legal research are performed and the need for lawyers to provide such services. Technology is also helping lawyers to “make money while they sleep”; ie using computer programs to provide routine advice or legal documents (such as forms or contracts) to clients whenever they need them and without direct input from an individual lawyer. Such an approach frees lawyers to focus on more complex and, hopefully, more professionally and financially rewarding work and, more excitingly, frees lawyers from the bonds of the billable hour.

The LIV recognises that these technological changes present both challenges and opportunities for lawyers and their business models. To support members of the legal profession to grasp the opportunities and make technological change work for them, the LIV has established a Technology and the Law Committee. If you are interested in these issues, the committee will be developing a plan of action – keep an eye out for further details in Law in Brief. Also, see “IT in Practice” p82.

On an individual level, as you plan your 2015, ask yourself: Are you getting the most out of technology that you possibly can? Are there existing technologies you could use more effectively or new technologies that you need to learn more about? How could technology help you to change your business model to take advantage of new or under-utilised markets? Could technology help you to remove a part of legal practice you really don’t like, such as the billable hour or routine advices?

As Marty McFly is told in BTTF, the future isn’t written yet – so make it a good one. This year is your opportunity to build a legal practice that will still be around when Marty McFly’s son takes his journey back to the future.

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