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By now, in 2013, and with law firms changing their natures of practice and of doing things, almost everyone in the profession is aware about terms like e-document review, or eLawyering, and online interactivity. However, what many lawyers fail to assess, beyond visualizing a gradual loss of demand in services, is how to adapt to remain relevant in an era of information technology assailing the legal world. Where do things begin and where do they end?
Well, the end is always difficult to foretell, but one can safely assume that things begin with an understanding of learning how to practice law using virtual workplaces and remote interaction, and the end lies in creating your own subject-expertise system. Is that beneficial? Ask the law firms, they are already half there.
Virtual workplaces and virtual interaction systems for lawyers
Most lawyers are already into virtual interaction without defining it as such. Video conferencing, online chatting, and even phone calls are included in virtual interaction, as the interacting parties are not physically collocated within the same physical space. Lawyers have already been doing it for years. However, most have been doing it in a personalized one-to-one fashion. Creating subject-expert systems takes things forward to their natural end, where lawyers start delegating things to software, rather than to associates, and employ humans to work that requires direct human attention.
What is a subject-expert system?
Though there is no one definition or approach to creating a subject expert system, it might be said that it is a software system that stores your subject expertise in a conversational and query-able form that can be easily accessed by you, and parts of which are client-specific and can be easily accessed by clients.
Subject expert systems in the legal profession can start with query systems that are very similar to the online survey or submission forms that you see regularly in different websites. Currently, in traditional work formats, actual human hours are wasted in asking people to fill up forms, or asking questions to clients that can be done better by interactive software. It saves time and money for both the client and the lawyer to have an online system that, like a step-by-step software wizard, leads a client through logical sets of questions and gleans out a sum of data in presentable format that enhances the workflow.
Individually, and acting only through physical collocation and human interaction, the amount of service rendered or potential clients interviewed is limited by the constraints of time, space, and number of humans. The same interview transferred online to a query system leads to a multiplication of capacity that is endless. Maybe you and your associates can interview thirty clients a day, but with an online subject expert system in place, conducting the same interview with three million clients a day is not inconceivable.
I would like to quote David R. Johnson from his essay “Serving Justice with Conversational Law” (The Futurist, September-October 2012) here. Johnson emphasizes the point saying, “A legal-expert system … created and maintained by a lawyer, … can be used at any time by many more customers than could possibly consult with that lawyer in person. It can produce profits sufficient to compensate the lawyer for creating the work, even if the fee charged to an individual is quite modest.”
It is self-evident that the lower cost of accessing an online system for personalized legal advice (and by costs read, money, time, fuel, priorities and an endless number of other concerns) radically reduces demands for personal meetings (something that benefits both lawyers and clients when it comes to costs).
So, what's the takeaway for my career?
Johnson says, “Building a legal-expert system is a highly skilled form of law practice … It requires thinking through all of the many different types of factual situations that might cause an expert lawyer, if she were meeting with a client in person, to subtly alter her advice. It requires the highest quality of writing to ensure that both the questions asked during the automated conversation and the advice given are understood. Software economics enables a system to reach many customers at low marginal cost, so it could become a well-compensated career path for a lawyer.”
It's already the reality for law firms with companies offering logic systems that help law firms to build their own subject-expert systems, and it's only a step away for individual lawyers to do the same. Adapt and overcome.
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