Back when I started my law firm, one of my first “paying” matters was an appeal of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision to the D.C. Circuit. I put the term “paying” in quotes because I only collected about $1500 for the matter; my former firm kept the $1000 retainer since I’d brought the case in about two months before my departure. The matter turned out to involve far, far more time than I’d ever anticipated. Even though I’d worked on the rehearing below and was familiar with the substantive issues, I still needed to research the applicable standard-of-review (not an easy task, relying on digests and annotated codes because I couldn’t afford LEXIS) and comply with the D.C. Circuit’s then-unfamiliar procedures (today, I can almost do it in my sleep). And of top of all that, I had to compile, Bate-stamp and reproduce a relatively modest 250 page Joint Appendix, which took at least an entire day. All told, between inexperience and lack of tools, that brief probably took me nearly a month to complete.
Of course, even back then, I assumed that my skills and writing speed would eventually improve. But I never fully conceived of the possible efficiencies that technology would bring, nor did I fully recognize how far we’d come until today. Brought into a matter relatively late in the process, I drafted a 45-page brief, 7-page motion and compiled a 600-page Appendix in three days, and even had time to elicit feedback from the clients along the way. Sure, I didn’t do it all by hand or on my own: my virtual assistant, operating under equal stress, electronically bate-stamped the Appendix and created a table of contents for it in record time. Meanwhile, I collected documents — electronic Google maps and photos and earlier filed comments — from my multi-member group on Dropbox, shifted seamlessly between LEXIS (energy library), Google Scholar and Fastcase, cut and pasted and uploaded case snippets to separate notes on Evernote (which rocked!) where I could review them on my ipad and then assemble my brief section by section. And with five minutes to spare til the deadline, I electronically filed.
Experienced or not, there is simply no way that I could have pulled this off when I started my practice, or even ten years ago. What’s more, there’s no way that I could have priced the project affordably, or that much of the substantive evidence in the case could have been developed without tools like Google Maps, digital cameras, online court and agency databases and Google. When I handle a case like this, I feel exhausted, yes (it’s a lot to do in 3 days), but even after all this time in practice, I still marvel at how far we’ve come and at how much we can do with technology as a leveler.
It’s this promise of technology that makes me so frustrated at these schemes that focus on bringing law to the masses faster and cheaper but not any better. Or that makes me disinclined to cheer or RT a tweet reporting on how law students are learning how to open up online LegalZooms when they can barely draft a document on their own. Why are we using technology to settle for mediocrity when we can use it to aspire to exceptionalism?
Granted, not everyone needs a 45 page brief and 600 page appendix. But I’d bet that if given a choice, most consumers would prefer the Cadillac brief to the jalopy if the price paid for value received wasn’t all that different. Moreover, it’s often those lawyers who have mastered the basics who can eyeball an incorporation document and explain how it can be fixed in a couple minutes, or who can look at a transcript from a criminal trial and identify 20 errors in 20 minutes. The ability to get to the root of a problem quickly is what makes a lawyer a value add and not just a scrivener in providing unbundled or basic legal services. Yet so much of the focus in the discussion of technology and law firms is about the form and the platform and not the skills. Even the great Richard Susskind conceives of an impenetrable wall between “bespoke legal services” and law for the masses. My point is that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Shouldn’t we at least strive to use technology to improve the quality, rather than increase the quantity of legal services provided? At the very least, if we shoot for the moon, the worst that can happen is that we land among the stars. After all, if we can draft the 45 page brief and compile the 600 page appendix in 3 days, assisting clients with smaller matters is a cakewalk.