The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working Anymore

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

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This title phrase in some form or another has been used in a variety of contexts over the years as a call to action when longstanding business models fail to keep pace with changing times. I don’t know whether anyone has specifically called out our legal profession using that phrase, but it is only a matter of time. The fact is that a majority of people who need legal help believe that our services as lawyers are unaffordable and aren’t even coming to us when they encounter legal problems, and those are growing trends.

While there are a variety of causes for these unfortunate trends, three fundamental problems are our profession’s overall failure to recognize and leverage advances in technology, fully utilize new practice models, and improve our business processes. I say overall failure because there are some notable exceptions on all three of these fronts of lawyers who are showing the rest of us that it not only can be done, it can be done very successfully. Unfortunately, they remain the exceptions, and as a result increasing numbers of people are turning to others outside of our profession to solve their legal problems.

We can do something about this, and it starts with being open to doing things differently. In my last post, I talked about the importance of rethinking our pricing in the consumer and small business markets as a necessary first step towards delivering our services as efficiently and affordably as possible.

That, however, is only the beginning of what is needed to maximize the value lawyers bring to the people facing legal issues and thereby maximize access to justice. Embracing innovative practice models, the latest technologies, and business process improvement are three integral parts of the solution, and there is a lot we all can learn from our colleagues in legal aid as we chart new paths.

Legal aid lawyers, public defenders, and others who provide free services to people in need have every incentive to help the most people in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible as they all typically have many more clients knocking on their doors than they have the capacity to serve. And they certainly strive to do that every day: the concept of doing more with less is so often heard by legal aid and public defenders it really is a cliché, and there have been a number of noteworthy innovations in this space. At the same time, there are other areas where even those in legal aid still have a long way to go to get us to a better future. We all can learn a lot from both of those sides of the legal aid experience wherever we are in the profession, for everyone’s benefit.

Innovative Practice Models

Legal aid has led the way in some very impactful innovations in the practice, and Chicago has been a leader in those efforts.  Perhaps the most impactful of these innovations is the concept of legal hotlines, where people can get advice and brief assistance from experienced lawyers over the phone.  CARPLS here in Chicago is considered a national leader in that movement, able to resolve roughly 85% of the 50,000 legal issues they are presented with each year with advice and brief assistance.

Expanding this hotline model so that it can serve everyone in need of free legal help, and developing similar services that are available to moderate income people for a fixed and affordable price, is one of the best things we can do to improve access to justice in our country.

Hotlines are just one example of limited scope representation commonly known as unbundled legal services that are effectively helping many more people in need of legal help to access legal aid that remains in short supply due to a lack of resources. Chicago also has been a leader in developing court-based advice desks that help tens of thousands of people each year who come to court on their own, a CBF priority that is another example of how a little bit of legal help can go a long way for a person who is capable of handling some parts of their case on their own. Unbundling is still finding its way into the consumer market for legal services, and this is another place where legal aid is showing us the way.

Leveraging Technology

Technology is another place where legal aid has produced some real innovations in the practice, but it too often is held back from fully realizing this potential due to either a lack of investment or a lack of commitment.

Some legal aid programs, like the aforementioned CARPLS, have made the strategic choice to prioritize investment in case management, knowledge management and related technologies to maximize their impact.

There have been a number of impressive examples of social entrepreneurship in the sector as well, with Legal Server a leading force first here in Illinois and now throughout the country and beyond in improving efficiency and effectiveness through the use of state of the art case management systems.

And Illinois Legal Aid Online has been a national leader in providing free and reliable legal information and resources online to help people better understand their legal issues and empower them to solve simpler problems in whole or in part on their own.

A common denominator in these and other examples of successful technology adoption is the commitment of board and staff leadership in the organizations, and the strong support of funding partners. The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois has really distinguished itself in this area by providing special grants to legal aid organizations in Illinois to invest in key technologies. On the national level, the Legal Services Corporation also has helped to spur technology innovation through its Technology Initiative Grant Program.

These examples illustrate the vast power technology can have in improving both efficiency and accessibility of legal services, but for the most part we are still just scratching the surface in legal aid. Like many other nonprofits, legal aid organizations and their funders too often view key investments in technology as overhead in a negative sense rather than as integral to a well functioning program.

Overcoming that short-sighted mindset takes a combination of both visionary leadership in the organization and the explicit support of funding partners. In the private sector, it’s a similar story: leadership is just as important but support for the investment decisions has to come from within. In any setting, it’s not just the commitment to invest in the technology, it’s the commitment to give lawyers and staff the training and resources they need to effectively use the technology and making it known from the top down that it is expected it will be fully utilized. The CBA Law Practice Management division is a great resource on these issues wherever you are in the profession.

Process Improvement

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in the long run, is the concept of business process improvement. This is something that has been very common in other business environments for many years now but is a relatively new concept in the legal profession.

SeyfarthLean has been one of the trailblazers in the legal space that also has been committed to providing pro bono assistance in the legal aid arena.

The idea behind business process improvement is an almost seditious concept: breaking down major tasks we do as lawyers, which of course vary by practice area, into the series of steps that go into them. Invariably, the results of this analysis, particularly when it is first utilized, are to find that there are many inefficiencies in the way we’re doing our work. These inefficiencies can be improved upon through streamlining duplicative or unnecessary steps, the use of technology, alternative approaches, and other steps that aren’t apparent until you do a detailed breakdown of your existing processes.

Process improvement is one area where legal aid thus far is not as far ahead of the private bar, but this may be changing. The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF) and SeyfarthLean have partnered on several successful pilots that LTF is now seeking to replicate more broadly in the legal aid community, and there is growing awareness of the huge potential benefits. This awareness needs to spread throughout our profession, with the leadership and support of all who care about access to justice.

The Way Forward

Leveraging the latest technology, innovative practice models, and business process improvements to make our services more affordable and accessible will both expand access to justice for people in need and make for a better legal profession well into the future. Focusing relentlessly on the unique value we bring as lawyers, we have the power to chart a new course for our profession and our system of justice. Let’s do it before it’s too late.