For those of us who provide legal services, smartphone apps play an enormous role in our lives. From news to communications to research to entertainment, the mobile device in our purses and pockets have become integral to how many of us function on a daily basis. It is therefore unsurprising that smartphones have now become a delivery means for modern legal services. As I have written about before, the public, used to mobile-delivered services, now wants legal services delivered in ways other than face-to-face bill-by-the-hour. Brand new smartphone apps are doing just that–and changing the legal landscape for both clients and lawyers.
Legal Advice Apps and the Well-Informed Client
Legal advice apps, such as Legalswipe or Ask a Lawyer, act as a source of handy legal knowledge for individuals who find themselves in a tight spot, such as during a traffic stop or contesting a questionable parking ticket. The apps provide information in an understandable and accessible question and answer format. The Legalswipe app allows users to videotape an interaction with a police officer, upload to Dropbox and email to contacts—all with the touch of a button. Smartphone apps are also available to address the specific needs of special groups, such as the indigent, immigrants, or transgender individuals.
Through the information on the legal advice app, individuals may arm themselves with information about their rights, thereby preventing extra legal headaches down the road. For this reason, the legal community generally has been supportive of legal advice apps even though they remove some legal services away from actual, real-life lawyers. Ultimately, an informed, knowledgeable client is a client who is engaged in the process, leading to better results.
Smartphone apps may also help individuals “do it themselves” i.e., perform simple legal services that they otherwise could not afford. For example, the app Shake walks a user through a series of questions and automatically incorporates the answers into a contract. This service is especially helpful for small-business owners and freelancers. “It’s like TurboTax” for the law, said Abe Geiger, founder and chief executive of Shake Inc. “Legal becomes less of a hurdle when contracts are not long and full of jargon.”
Other smartphone apps allow clients to chat for free in real-time with an actual lawyer. They provide greater opportunities for new lawyers as the demand for tech-savvy and accessible legal services grows.
Apps for Lawyers: the Key to Greater Productivity?
In addition to apps that place legal knowledge in the hands of the layperson, new apps have been developed to jump start a lawyer’s productivity and efficiency. They also provide lawyers with a new level of mobility and flexibility in their work. Some provide comprehensive and accessible reference material for lawyers on-the-go, while others allow a lawyer remote access to his or her office computer. Many office management tasks, such as tracking documents, converting a document to pdf, or logging billable hours, can be performed on a cell phone app.
An app I personally have used multiple times is Illinois LegalAid. This app clearly and smoothly demystifies the law and I have found it incredibly helpful in gaining knowledge about areas of the law I never practiced in. (Most recently, my son who was involved in a traffic accident was grateful that I was able to access this information and successfully represent him in court.)
Lawyers are also using cell phone apps to revolutionize the way law firms connect with clients. Some smartphone apps play matchmaker between lawyers and clients, allowing clients to make informed decisions regarding retaining a lawyer through price comparisons and client reviews. Apps allow a law firm to place their work product in a client’s hands and provide an efficient way to attract and keep new clients. Some law firm apps contain the law firm’s information in addition to one-touch dialing and text-messaging capabilities. If a client downloads a firm’s app, it will usually remain there, literally in the client’s hands, until the client intentionally deletes it. Because the app provides an efficient and permanent way to contact a lawyer, the client is likely to remain loyal to that firm. Some Biglaw firms recognize the benefits and have gotten deep into the app development business, allowing clients to calculate costs, learn about the law and define legal terms.
The Limitations of Legal Apps
The growing presence of legal apps within the legal space begs the question when this use of technology will go too far. For example, apps that provide legal advice to individuals pulled over for drunk driving have been criticized as actually assisting people in breaking the law or placing them in harm’s way as they reach for a cell phone which could be mistaken for a gun.
Potential ethical snares for lawyers abound and will be the subject of a later post. Some of the issues lawyers must keep in mind are: when is an attorney-client relationship created, clearing for conflicts of interests, keeping client confidences, and the unauthorized practice of law.
Ultimately, the growing number of smartphone apps allows the law to be accessible to more people. Many may be intimidated by the legal process or overwhelmed when researching a legal problem in books or on computers with documents punctuated by inscrutable keynotes and headers. But almost all clients are comfortable navigating a smartphone, typing answers to simple questions. Therefore, these apps allow lawyers to meet clients where they are and provide services in a way that truly fits into their clients’ lifestyles. Further, as the number of smartphone apps grow, individuals will have access to resources that are more and more unique to them. For example, apps have been developed to assist users in complying with their city’s unique ordinances and laws. These smartphone apps empower the layperson to be aware of his or her rights in everyday situations.
Smartphone apps are here to stay and likely to proliferate. Apps are transforming the practice of law. After all, what’s in your pocket?