Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Embracing Disruption: How Technological Change in the Delivery of Legal Services Can Improve Access to Justice

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Embracing Disruption: How Technological Change in the Delivery of Legal Services Can Improve Access to Justice

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Change has come to the legal profession. Technology has supercharged the ability of lawyers to conduct lightning-fast legal research; engage in e-discovery; bend time and space by communicating with clients, colleagues, and adversaries scattered throughout the world; and draft hundreds if not thousands of documents with a few key strokes. But just as technology has made lawyering easier, it has also made it easier to provide services that look a lot like lawyering. And the provision of legal services is becoming commodified: carried out by lawyers and nonlawyers alike in a way that is far less expensive than the traditional, "bespoke" model of lawyering.

In the words of Clayton Christensen, the legal profession is in the midst of a disruption: a monumental, transformative shift in shape and focus that will change the practice of law forever. Some lament this phenomenon. Some worry that it signals the end of big law and that it will have ripple effects throughout the legal industry; that it means there will be fewer lawyers and fewer law schools and that the transformation of lawyering will harm the ability of all lawyers to earn a living--not just those in large, white-shoe firms, but also those practicing in small towns and rural America. Others claim that the new modes of providing legal services--websites, mobile applications, do-it-yourself programs--threaten the consumer, who may receive services at a discounted price, yet those services may be of such low quality that they might end up causing more harm than good. (1) Some, like Richard Susskind, embrace this disruption and believe the changes in the legal profession will mean a different role for lawyers in the future. (2) Many assess the impact of these disruptions on the delivery of services to wealthier clients and corporations, who, in many instances, are the only ones able to afford lawyers in the U.S. legal market in the first place.

But if Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma" theory of business disruption is to be believed, true change in the market for the provision of legal services will not come from those serving wealthier clients. Instead, disruption in the legal field will come from those serving individuals of lower income who do not require the type of representation that has become the norm in the celebrated halls of the largest, wealthiest law firms. True disruption is likely to come from those serving the "lower end" of the market: the solo practitioners, legal services lawyers, and "low bono" providers of legal services. It is innovation in these corners of the market where pathbreaking disruption will take place, mostly out of necessity. What is more, it is the low-end of the market that is actually quite robust--that is, there is a desperate need for legal services, just an inability to pay for them.

If disruption is indeed coming to the legal services market, and few can doubt that it is, technological innovation, one of the main drivers of this disruption, can serve to widen access to justice in communities desperate for legal assistance--low- to moderate-income communities, the working poor, and the middle class. Christensen's theories of disruption, which will be discussed here, posit that disruptive innovation does not start at the high-end of the market, but rather typically enters the low end and filters its way up, changing the way a particular market segment operates. (3) Most who have bemoaned the disruption occurring in the legal market have pointed out that lawyers for wealthier clients are seeing their profits diminish and their clients demanding more efficient, less expensive services. What we hope to do here is identify ways that disruption can occur in the provision of legal services to improve access to justice, particularly for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. If Christensen's theories about disruption are to be believed, it is here where true disruption of the legal services profession will occur. …

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