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?