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Regulation and Tradition: Legal's Two Barriers to Technology

Computer technology has literally transformed the way we all live. From smartphones to online shopping, life in 2020 is remarkably different from the lives we lived just 25 years ago. For example, engage with a customer service rep in an online chat room and you may not be chatting with a human being at all. That so-called service rep could be a chatbot driven by artificial intelligence.

With all that technology is capable of, it is surprising to many that the legal sector has not changed much in hundreds of years. You could make the case that lawyers are still practicing today much the same way they did back in the 19th century. They may have new tools like the NuLaw case management software, but cases are still handled the same way they have been since the 1800s.

So what's going on? Why have the same technologies that have revolutionized everything from healthcare to getting a lift to the airport not transformed law practice? The blame can be laid squarely at the feet of two barriers: regulation and tradition. Remove those barriers and the game changes dramatically.

Outdated Regulations Need Changing

All 50 states have their bar associations with the regulatory authority to establish rules of conduct for the legal sector. And unfortunately, the rules in the vast majority of states are long outdated. They need changing, and they need it fast.

State bar associations have rules in place to prevent individuals and companies from offering legal services without a law license. That is just the start. Additional rules determine how companies can harness technology to enhance legal services. The rules are so convoluted that technology companies tend to steer away from most practical aspects of practicing law for fear of being sued.

As such, great applications like NuLaw improve the legal work environment by making it more efficient and productive. Yet they do not change the fundamental principles of how law is practiced. That's a shame. Technology could create profound changes that would benefit all of society if regulations would allow it.

Utah and a couple of other states have begun the process of revamping their regulations. It is a slow go, as is just about everything else in the legal sector, but at least change is underway. Who knows? A decade from now the legal sector's regulations might be loose enough to allow technology to reach its full potential.

Traditions in Need of Replacement

The other thing hindering technology in the legal sector is tradition. Law is an industry built on hundreds of years of tradition that is incredibly hard to shake. Tradition is a very strong thing. Those who hold to it are very reluctant to give it up. Thus, new technologies are often left by the wayside.

A particularly good example is the tradition of billable hours. Junior attorneys are expected to produce so many billable hours annually or face some sort of disciplinary action. Yet data analytics have demonstrated that billable hours do not necessarily work in the best interests of the law firm. There are better and more accurate ways to quantify productivity. It is too bad that tradition will not allow law firms to pursue them.

The one thing technology has going for it is the fact that new attorneys now emerging from America's law schools were raised on it. Slowly but surely, these younger practitioners are demanding that their employers change the work environment to embrace technology. There will come a time when these attorneys are the movers and shakers in the legal industry. That is when technology will really take off.