Legal disruptors are changing the face of the legal profession. Online access to legal advice is opening debate around topics like accessibility to justice, and the complex consequences of sourcing legal advice online.
We asked three legal professionals – Laura Vickers, principal and founder of Nest Legal; Mark Love, legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers; and Agata Wierzbowski, Principal Lawyer at St Kilda Legal Service and former Victoria Law Foundation Community Law Centre (CLC) Fellow – how they see the legal landscape changing.
How has the online availability of legal information changed legal practice?
Mark Love: Most obviously, information access has never been greater – for the practitioner this opens up the ability to deal with something new, new industries and new fields of endeavour. The jargon that cloaks esoteric parts of the industrial world has been laid open, as the meaning of terms used to protect against others from gaining knowledge are now easily discovered.
That said, there is an increasingly higher expectation that the available knowledge should be used. And with that, there become fewer excuses for not understanding the current state of the law and its changes. The standard of knowledge and its application expected of practitioners has increased and that drives us towards specialisation.
Laura Vickers: As legal information becomes more widely available online, it turns on lawyers to add value in ways other than providing straight regurgitations of the law to clients – for example, finding ways to make their services more convenient for clients or building relationships as a trusted advisor.
Agata Wierzbowski: Online dissemination of information has arguably made legal practice more complex. For example, it facilitates ever more complex due diligence exercises, and legal research that may span across many jurisdictions. It has also possibly contributed to the growing length of judicial decisions, and of legal updates that lawyers are now required to keep abreast of. Information accessibility is a double-edged sword. It pushes work standards higher, and so feeds that lurking stress that you’ve missed something that may have been just at your fingertips.
How can online technologies make a difference to the accessibility of legal services?
Laura Vickers: Online technologies like video conferencing, document automation, cloud storage and social media for marketing increase access to justice in several ways.
First, they reduce overheads for law firms, reducing legal fees for clients. Second, they enable people who might not otherwise be physically able to access legal services to obtain quality legal advice. And third, they allow a greater variety of people to practice law, not just those who are able and willing to spend 70 hour weeks in an office.
Agata Wierzbowski: New online technologies have great benefits for accessibility for educated and literate audiences. Online technologies can provide guides that assist self-represented litigants with navigating legal processes, automatically generated legal documents, and allow those living in regional areas to access legal advice that isn’t otherwise available.
Online technologies can also increase accessibility by expanding legal assistance services’ reach and capacity. In addition to the examples listed above, this can occur by, for example, facilitating effective referrals, as well as sharing information, and precedents.
However, online technologies are limited in the extent to which they can currently assist the digitally excluded, and those with limited literacy. These are the core client base of community legal centres – people of low educational attainment, of a non-English-speaking background, who are homeless, or who live with disabilities or mental illness.
There can be great innovations, but if clients don’t have the required levels of literacy or access to the requisite technology then these efforts are destined to have limited impact where it matters most.
Mark Love: Service delivery is no longer constrained by bricks and mortar. Messaging and information technology allow contact to be made and detail to be retained, manipulated and conveyed in manners that allow packaging for convenience and service delivery at time that suits the consumer.
The reverse is also true, in that modern communication allows for information to be gathered by the service provider, to be dealt with at its convenience – the downside remains with the expectations that come from the potential for immediate access, but that is something we will learn to live with.
Are online legal services the way of the future?
Agata Wierzbowski: I hope so. The Nest Legal model has the potential to make quality legal services much more affordable and accessible, to a wider range of clients. If the supply of quality legal services can be increased, this will hopefully bring down the cost of legal services across the board.
Mark Love: Well, to Laura’s credit, Nest is a way of the present. What that service does, in my view, is tap into the fact that the middle class is driving to sustain their accumulation of wealth, which requires people to devote a considerable part of their time to work; there is a considerable part of the public that is time-poor.
Laura Vickers: Technology for its own sake isn’t helpful. But when technology solves longstanding problems, such as those experienced by the legal profession regarding access to justice and retention of women, I agree it is the way of the future.
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