Where Is Our Legal Profession Heading? (Part One)

The future is now. It certainly was two weeks ago when the Commission on Professionalism co-sponsored The Future is Now: Legal Services 2.016 conference with the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois.

Thank you to the many readers, followers, collaborators and innovators who came out for the event, listened to our eight TED-inspired talks, and participated in two very engaging town hall discussions. And a special thank you to our excellent moderator, Tim Eaton of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, who ensured that the three hour program went swiftly and smoothly.

Our speakers came from across the country. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, regulators, professors, and one Illinois Chief Justice, gathered on the stage to talk about where is our legal profession heading, and how we all can lead the ongoing revolution.

For those of you who were not there, this post, the first of two, will summarize what our speakers discussed at the conference. Through the conference, we hope to have started a conversation that will continue on long after 2.016 and well into the future.

How Technology Can Provide Justice for All

Ron Staudt“Our civil justice system is failing its most vulnerable customers,” Professor Ron Staudt began as he set the stage for the conference. As Director of Center for Access to Justice and Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Ron focuses on the intersection between technology and access to justice. He started with the stark facts. The civil needs of roughly 80% of low-income and 60-70% of middle-income people are not being met. The bright spot, according to Staudt, is that technology provides well-needed relief.

Each of our 50 states offers innovations in technology and access to justice, including our Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), which has served as a model for the nation. ILAO uses technology to lower barriers and provide self-represented litigants with the help they need. Since 2001, ILAO has had over 17M site visits—3M last year. In 2006, legal self-help centers were launched and by the end of 2014, 102 centers were established, one in every county.

That innovation was swiftly followed by Access to Justice Author (A2J), software that allows members of the public to self-guide through interview questions required to prepare court forms. Among its many interactives, A2J provides “just in time” learning features for the end-user including “learn more” bubbles, definition pop-ups, audio, graphic and video capabilities. From 2008 through 2015, over 3.1M guided interviews were conducted and over 1.7M assemblies were created from A2J guided interviews.

Throughout his talk, Rob highlighted a common theme of the day: lawyers eschewing the possibilities of technology assistance as “less good” than in person assistance and therefore not worthy of discussion. In response, Ron quoted the mission statement from the Legal Services Corporation Technology summit: to “explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” When so many people are receiving no help at all, technology certainly is able to provide them some level of assistance.

The Future for Criminal Law

Vincent Cornelius“In the spring of 1993, I had just ended a three-year stint as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the suburbs, and I started working at my dream job for a respected downtown Chicago law firm.  Because of my experience as a prosecutor, the downtown civil litigation firm took on more criminal cases.  So I quickly found myself at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California Streets.”

So began the second talk of The Future is Now conference. Vince Cornelius, Principal at Cornelius Law and the incoming president of the ISBA, then seamlessly moved on to a story nearly twenty years later about his daughter’s high school graduation in Naperville. Four students who would have graduated with his daughter didn’t make it to graduation because they died of heroin overdoses. Vince explained that heroin and other illicit drugs can make you a liar, a thief, a con man and an S.O.B.  It can even make you a burglar, and a robber. It can poison an entire community. It can also cause young lives in affluent communities like Naperville, IL to end before they really even get started.

Unfortunately our current justice system could do a far better job of ensuring those drugs remain out of our children’s hands. Vince discussed changes on both the national and the local levels that give him hope of real change in criminal law. The 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that provided for the three strikes for criminal defendants who were convicted of a violent crime after two prior felony convictions – including drug offenses—is now being questioned. Although the states followed the 1994 crime bill, the result has been the over-incarceration of America.  According to Vince, “We left too many people in jail – without enough money to rehabilitate them. We wasted too much money locking people up who don’t belong there.”

Vince concluded by talking about rehabilitating offenders and returning them to their communities as productive members of society. He pointed to drug amnesty programs, drug courts, adult redeploy Illinois, mental health courts and veterans’ courts as examples of innovation in our justice system designed to address the roots of the problems instead of merely locking up the individual manifesting the problems. He closed his remarks by calling on us as a society to be smart on crime, not just tough on crime. And sometimes, being smart on crime may mean being more lenient.

Breaking Down the Delivery of Legal Services

Thomas Lysaught“The practice of law is a profession. A noble profession with all the allure and mystique that has attracted people to the practice of law for centuries. At the same time, the practice of law is a business. It is the business of delivering legal advice and services to clients.”

Tom Lysaught is a partner at Hickey Smith and manages his global law firm’s client service and satisfaction, performance management, training and organizational planning. He spent years in executive roles in the commercial claims industry, and brought to The Future is Now the needed corporate client perspective.

Tom talked about how clients are demanding more value, as are customers in every industry.  In broad strokes, he described the strategies used by business to improve customer satisfaction and decrease costs: process improvement, workflow and knowledge management, process management, and offshoring and outsourcing.

Those same strategies are now being applied to legal services. Tom acknowledged what for some has been unspeakable, that many legal matters can be broken down into repeatable processes. He shared how his firm has undergone a lengthy analysis of process mapping: identifying the various steps involved in the process, and the inputs or resources used in each step. The idea is that once you can see the process in detail, you can reconstruct the process to eliminate redundancies, automate certain tasks, and assign tasks to the appropriate individuals based on skill sets.

At the end of his talk, Tom said this: “If law firms want to not only survive but thrive … they must embrace technology along with the proven business strategies that have helped other industries transform the way they do business.”

Limited License Legal Technicians: A New Form of Legal Assistance

Paula LittlewoodFor the past several years, Paula Littlewood has administered the Limited License Legal Technician Program, established by the Supreme Court of Washington in 2012. Paula traveled to Illinois to talk about the rationale for the program, and how LLLTs might be the game changer for a country seeking improved access to justice.

Paula opened her talk by describing three arrows depicting movement: a downward arrow showing that, surprisingly, over time we expect there to be a shortage of lawyers, an upward arrow indicating an increasing public demand for legal services, and a sideways arrow indicating consumers are going elsewhere. She then described the rationale for the LLLT program in Washington: to provide increased access to justice and to protect people who are increasingly going to unregulated sources (meaning those who are not licensed lawyers and therefore not subject to ethical rules or court disciplinary systems).

In Washington, the only area an LLLT can practice is family law. LLLTs are required to obtain a prescribed education, pass examinations, including an ethics exam, and have a minimum of 3,000 hours of substantive law-related experience under the supervision of a licensed lawyer. Then they may establish their own practices or join with other LLLTs or lawyers to provide services to clients.

To allow joint LLLT-lawyer firms is quite revolutionary. Yet there are limitations. The Washington Supreme Court passed rules stating that LLLTs may not direct a lawyer’s professional judgment, have direct supervisory authority over a lawyer or possess a majority interest or exercise controlling managerial authority in the firm.

To date, there are only 10 licensed LLLTs in the Washington.  However, Paula said that 200 applicants are in the system. And the board that oversees the LLLT program is considering making a recommendation to the Court to add additional substantive areas of practice for which LLLTs may obtain licensure.

The Town Hall Discussion (and More Talks)

Town Hall Meeting 1After the four short talks, all four speakers sat on stage for discussion with audience members.  Microphones were passed to audience members who wished to ask a question or provide feedback. The conversation was robust, and even got heated at points as lawyers challenged our speakers to support their predictions for our changing profession. In future posts, we will share some of the comments from participants.

Following the town hall, the focus returned to the stage for our next set of speakers. Want to hear more? Then join us for the next installment of this two-part series to hear from LegalZoom, UpRight Law, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and finally, myself, on the future of our legal profession.

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