BLDC 2020

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the 2020 Boston Legal Design Challenge (#BLDC2020). It was the first year this competition was held online, and they were therefore able to include teams from outside of Boston proper.

Throughout the day we were invited to participate in exercises with our team members. Our team, the TRU Legal Architects was the only team from Canada. We were accompanied by a facilitator from Liberty Mutual Insurance in a zoom breakout room. Our facilitator led us through a collection of exercises where we collaborated through Mural.co in order to strategize and discuss what we were going to pitch to the judges.

At the end of the day, we competed against the 9 other teams and presented our idea to a panel of 3 judges. Ultimately we pitched the idea of an automated legal consultant who would provide assistance to small firms and sole practitioners looking to digitize their practice at little to no cost. We wanted to provide a resource that would help facilitate a seamless transition online for those who do not have the same resources available to them as would be found in a larger firm. We were thrilled to come in 3rd overall.

A lot of the presentations focused on access to justice and products that would help move the legal profession into the future. It was a very valuable experience and I think the people who participated will undoubtedly do great things for the profession in the future.

Zooming in on Legal Tech in 2020

It happened: I got old.  I don’t know exactly when it happened. Maybe it happened this semester. Maybe it happened over the summer. I suppose it could have happened last year and I just didn’t notice.

I’m not even thirty yet, and still, somehow, I have found myself at the optometrist getting fitted for bifocals so I can read the tiny print in the textbooks without giving myself a massive headache. I got a super ugly pair of orthopedic slippers. I also had set up my work station in a way that didn’t hurt my back and I had to stop using my phone so much, because oh my god, my thumbs were cramping so badly.

I have no idea how to talk to my teenage siblings anymore. They want to do all these phone-based things with me, but I spend so much time staring at a screen, that I find myself asking if we can just go play outside like we did back in the olden days.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a support role at a law firm and was running around the office helping with computer setup, database issues, software problems, whatever. But something changed.

Now, my girlfriend (who is a whopping 6 months younger) cannot understand why I don’t know how to use all the new Instagram features.

I used to be baffled by the baby boomers in my workplace who didn’t know how to edit a word document or conduct a basic document search on the firm database.

But now, I must say, I get it.

Sometimes, the font is just too small. Sometimes, the program set-up, or day to day functionality, is just so complex or so filled with bugs, that it can feel impossible to use. Sometimes, the program just isn’t intuitive, and the setup or navigation process is more complicated than the task you need the program to complete. Sometimes, the help line is closed and you’ve got a thousand other things on your plate that needed to be done yesterday.

I never thought I’d say this, but boomers, I get you.

I get you and I’m sorry for shaming you for your technological deficiencies. I now understand that in order for the field of law to step into the 21st century, we have to make legal tech more user-friendly. No senior partner is going to want to relearn their entire work system at a point in their career when they are experiencing peak success.  If I ever find myself in a web design role, I promise to make the font adjustable and organize the contents logically so that you can easily find whatever it is you need and get back to your shuffleboard game.

To my young gen z friends: you can laugh at me and my reading glasses and my misuse of snapchat filters all you like, but remember, you’re next.

Big Issues for Small Town Law

Bryce Gardner 

Discussions related to access to justice often discuss the unaffordability of lawyers to a regular person,  or the over-complexity of the law to the non-legal mind. These issues become irrelevant though when there simply are not any legal resources available in your area, a problem all too common in today’s small town Canada.

Nationally, only 8.7% of new lawyers (having less than five years of experience) practice in a rural setting. A survey of the Law Society of British Columbia found that most students would leave the province before considering practicing in a rural area. [1] Of those lawyers who do work in small towns, most are nearing the age of retirement. In B.C. the typical age of a lawyer is about 48, but that can skew to upwards of 52 in smaller communities. In Castlegar, B.C. it’s 65. [2] This makes sense. Most law students come from the city, and why would they ever want to leave the bars, malls and restaurants of the big city to live in a town that only has two traffic lights and the only night club is the 24/7 McDonald’s lobby?

On top the lifestyle issues, there are many obstacles that present themselves to a future small town lawyer. Small town law firms do not have nearly as many resources to recruit and hire potential successors compared to their bigger counterparts. Small town lawyers often have to provide much more general advice on a broad range of topics, something that is hard to do in a legal world where people are encouraged to specialize. The biggest obstacle is the financial aspect. Small town firms often have to start from the ground up and law schools do not teach much in terms of practical business operations. Small town lawyers often earn less than a Vancouver or Toronto lawyer but work fewer hours. As with any obstacle, however, all that is needed to overcome these issues is some creative thinking and innovation.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Program (REAL) has already tried to fulfill some of the demand for small town lawyers across BC. By helping find summer positions and providing funding, this program helps to give law students a taste of small town law with the hope that they will stay.  In 2010, the Law Society of Manitoba introduced a program to offer a limited number of law students the opportunity to have their student debt forgiven (up to $25,000 per year of tuition and living expenses) if they work in an underrepresented community. [3] These programs do not do enough though, as they often only entice law students who already came from small towns. Enticing those born and raised in the city is much harder.

If the Canadian Bar Association wants to get more lawyers in small towns, I recommend they should try the following:

1)  Use lessons learned from this pandemic about working remotely. So many people have been working from home and so many people will not want to return to their commute once things return to the (new) normal. Many of the small town lawyers I have met work out of home offices and never had a commute to begin with. Additionally, many lawyers have been forced to conduct research online rather than relying on a physical library. Let people know that if they like working from home it is all the more possible as a small town lawyer.

2) Establish a legal incubator within relevant communities that would provide legal and business training to articling students and new lawyers while at the same time providing affordable and accessible legal services to people in rural and remote communities. [4]

3) Better educate law students about the benefits of small town lawyer life, such as more affordable housing and lower living costs, fewer working hours (on average) and generally more meaningful work right out of law school (rural lawyers often have complete control over an entire case).

4) Provide law students with shorter programs (such as one week) to job shadow rural lawyers and see what life is like, without having to commit several months over a summer.

Perhaps I have now convinced you to give small town law a try (though statistically, probably not).  Like any access to justice problem all we can do is think about it and try to figure out solutions. If anyone wants to discuss further I’ll be at McDonald’s tonight having a drink.

Sources:

[1] Tonya Lambert, “Promoting the Practice of Law in Rural, Regional & Remote Communities” (January 7, 2020), online (blog): Law Now <https://www.lawnow.org/promoting-the-practice-of-law-in-rural-regional-remote-communities/>. 

[2] Jim Middlemiss, “Small communities struggle to pry lawyers from Canada’s big cities, despite promise of jobs”, National Post  (Oct 1, 2013) <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/small-communities-struggle-to-pry-lawyers-from-canadas-big-cities-despite-promise-of-jobs>.

[3] Lambert, supra note 1.

[4] Ibid.

 

 

Incorporating Intersectionality in User Profiles: Accessibility and Inclusion.

The need more for accessible legal services or information is well known and unnecessary to recount, but it is clear that a major problem facing access to these services is the amount they cost; very few people can afford them. This leads to average-income and particularly low-income groups or individuals not having access to justice and many of these low-income groups or individuals are also from other equity-seeking groups, which makes this an intersectional issue.

The transition into offering legal services or information online can help address the access to justice issue by allowing these groups to have access to answers or information regarding their legal problems at low or no cost. However, what about those groups or individuals that are at the intersections of disadvantage? For example, minority groups with none to limited English proficiency that also have low income or disabled people with low income. The impact of A2J initiatives for them will undoubtedly be less unless the online tool can address these intersectional issues.

When making user profiles, it is critical to consider users that may fall outside the majority but for whom the services offered may still be essential. Accessibility, usability, and inclusion are important concepts to address in user-profiles and then work towards implementing solutions within your online platform to help address the needs of these groups.

For example, how will the online service help those groups of people that do have limited or low English proficiency or those that have visual impairments and may not be able to read the text? The need to address questions such as: Is there a way to translate English to another language; is it possible to have audio prompts for those who cannot read or have visual impairments, etc.?

Now, by no means am I an expert in technology. I am only addressing some of the potential issues that may come up as legal professionals or students work towards developing online tools to help people with legal needs – presumably, those who cannot afford to pay for them.

I believe that online platforms can accommodate these groups further by having these added features. For example, web services that enable two systems to interact and share information. Online legal applications can take advantage of these services to deliver new online capabilities, like translating text between two different languages.

This is not to say it is a perfect solution. I recognize there are real challenges with the interpretation or translation of languages that may compromise the accuracy of the information translated. Therefore, preliminary testing to ensure the translation of the text is accurate by an expert is recommended.

Services like screen readers allow visually impaired persons to use the internet by reading a website text aloud. Video conferencing can be a great tool for hearing impaired people when used to provide sign language interpreters, particularly if a firm is using technology to provide services or for rural courts who may need the help of sign language interpreters.

This post was just a friendly reminder to incorporate equity-seeking groups into our user profiles, if possible or applicable, to the legal services online platform to be developed. I acknowledge that some online platforms will be targeted to professionals or users that will not have English proficiency as an issue, for example, “BC lawyers”. However, some online platforms that are directed at the population may face some of these issues. For those of us moving forward in this profession, we should not only be aware of these issues but advocate for solutions when possible.

Technology: Increasing or Restricting Access to Justice?

Let me preface this by saying: I love technology. Truthfully, my life is embarrassingly run by it on all fronts. If technology ever does actually turn on us, I’ll probably be the first to go. Seriously, I don’t know what I would do if you, and I shudder at the thought, asked me for someone’s number or for directions, on one of the rare occasions that I am not holding a device. Ask me what the first thing I do in the morning is, and I’ll struggle with whether the correct answer is “check my notifications” or say “Alexa, start my day”. If you think I’m kidding, I am that person. Even my front door is tech-based. Seriously. I don’t have keys anymore – just codes.

A few months ago, I was reading about the possibility of an eventual complete technological overhaul of the legal profession. By complete overhaul, I mean absolutely everything from communication to documents to meetings and some forms of hearings. “What a horrible and privileged idea!” I thought to myself as I sat on my laptop, phone in hand, silently judging my grandmother who requests help posting photos on Facebook again. I know, I’m also that person. But, hear me out.

To encourage or desire a complete technological overhaul in the legal field is ignorant and a clear demonstration of the privilege we hold. I get it, times are changing- wait, I feel like now is a good time to throw in that I’m 25 and can’t really remember a life without technology, but my point remains the same: times are changing and we need to be technologically competent – it would be ridiculous not to be these days. However, I think that we often forget about those that cannot move through this technological shift with us. And those individuals are likely to be the ones that need our help the most.

A technology-based shift is feasible and affordable for large-scale firms and their clientele. There’s no doubt that it’s a good move for them. But – and hold on to your hats – this is not about them. Yes, you heard me (read me?) right. This is about everyone else.

I’m thinking particularly about legal clinics. These clinics are essential, yet are often understaffed, underfunded, and overworked. And, what about their clients? Some can’t even be reached because they don’t have cell phones or laptops, yet we should respectfully request they… what? Scan items over? Maybe fill out an electronic form, and don’t forget to drop an e-signature on the PDF before emailing it back?

“But wait, accessing a phone or computer is technically possible, even if it means stopping at a public library!”. Okay, let’s ignore the pandemic and board this train for a second. Yes, this is technically true. It may not be easy, but it sure is possible. Okay, but what about the lack of required knowledge and technological competency? You and I both know good and well that half of the professionals we’ve encountered over the years are brilliant and have amazing educational backgrounds and credentials with knowledge and experiences we could only dream of, and yet they struggle to rotate a PDF or turn the volume on for a video. So, how do we justify having higher expectations for individuals whose sole option in obtaining legal assistance is through legal clinics?

This is not to say that tech such as Clio should be avoided – of course it should be encouraged, it allows us to work outside of the office while still maintaining confidentiality. Again, my hesitation is not with lawyers being required to be technologically competent, because this I support. It is specifically the notion that every single area of law could experience a complete and total overhaul that I take issue with. It is unlikely that legal clinics (and even small firms) and their clientele would be able to keep up with the technological shift due to financial, educational and/or accessibility barriers.

So, I’ll leave you with this: I worry that with a large technological shift, we leave behind many individuals who could benefit greatly from our help. I believe online resources and apps are an amazing way to increase accessibility to information, and we should move forward with them, but bring back the paper pamphlet too. And lastly, a question that I find myself wrestling with often: we constantly talk about the importance of access to justice, but who is it that we are really increasing access for?