Frederic S. Ury JD’77, a renowned Connecticut trial attorney, often speaks on the future of the legal profession before lawyer groups all over the country. A big part of his message is a summary – and a warning – about how technology is changing the profession, and how lawyers must adapt.

He talks about digital storage and retrieval via mobile apps, and about documents being replaced by interactive online forms. He talks about Internet competition from non-lawyers, and how complicated cases can be carved up and the legal work outsourced, piece by piece. He talks about typing in complicated legal questions, and immediately receiving sophisticated, nuanced analyses. He talks about the Maryland divorce lawyer who has computerized his office to the point that he spends much of his time in Florida, and makes money from his online practice even when he is sleeping.

“We’re going to have to re-think the way we deliver legal services, and how we make money delivering those legal services,” Ury says. “If we’re going to stay in the game, if we’re going to stay relevant, we have to learn how to be value-added.”

The message is not always welcome. “People are happy when I come, and happy when I leave,” Ury observes. When he finishes a talk, lawyers often come up to talk to him. The younger ones typically want more information. They want to know how they can upgrade their practices, and use new technology to do better quality work and make more money while they’re at it.

But many of the older lawyers say they don’t want to adapt, and mutter something like, “Well, I’m glad I’ll be retiring in a few years. I hope I can hang on until then…”

“We are the ostrich profession. Too many of us have our heads in the sand,” says Ury, a founding partner of the Fairfield, Conn., firm Ury & Moskow, and a former president of the Connecticut Bar Association.

Ury is also one of the key members of the committee that was appointed by Suffolk Law Dean Camille Nelson last year to help students, alumni and the legal profession at large not only adapt to but embrace new technology in the practice of law.

The result is Suffolk Law’s new Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation. The institute’s inaugural program, “Tomorrow’s Lawyers,” will be held at the school 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, and will feature a public lecture by British legal intellectual Richard Susskind, an Oxford University visiting professor, frequent consultant to law firms and author of several books, including the best-selling The End of Lawyers? and his latest, Tomorrow’s Lawyers.

Susskind mines the future legal landscape and offers inspiration for those who intend to explore it. It’s not clear how much ice hockey Susskind played when he was growing up in Scotland, but he says lawyers need to follow Wayne Gretzky’s advice: skate not to where the puck is now, but where it’s going to be.

Dean Nelson says the new institute will be situated smack at the intersection of the digitalization and globalization of the legal profession. She cites the way that legal work is being “deconstructed” – in the past, a lawyer would supervise the entire file, but now it’s often more cost-effective for an attorney managing the case to outsource different aspects of the work to other firms, both in America and abroad. “The traditional monopoly of lawyers is breaking down,” she says. “Many people see this coming, but few of us know what to do about it.”

The institute is being formed to put Suffolk Law at the forefront in developing new ways to train students to open up legal services to the many Americans who cannot afford traditional representation; to use social networking to help lawyers promote their practices and gather information for their cases; to deliver legal services more efficiently and cost effectively via the Web; and to bridge the so-called “justice gap” and meet the needs of clients who can’t afford to hire a traditional lawyer. “We want to stake this terrain in service to clients,” Nelson says. “In many ways, this is what the client is demanding, and it is what the client deserves.”

She says Suffolk Law is a logical place for the institute because of the school’s historical emphasis on the practical aspects of law practice, its state-of-the-art facilities and its recent focus on technology in law. That includes the new course “Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines,” taught by adjunct Marc Lauritsen, author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools and president of Capstone Practice System, which advises lawyers on enhancing their practices through technology.

A number of effective tools for lawyers and clients already have come out of that course, including a user-friendly program developed by Kimberley McGinn (class of 2014) at the request of Nebraska Legal Aid. Her program guides parents in divorce cases step-by-step through the process of creating a co-parenting plan that will stand up in court. McGinn says she has also used skills from the class to build a time-saving program for filings at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where she works as a paralegal. Besides the tech skills, McGinn says, the class showed her that it’s better to teach lawyers a little programming than to teach programmers a little law.

The new Suffolk Law institute will be headed by Professor Andrew Perlman, a specialist in civil procedure and professional responsibility and a self-described “technophile” – a lawyerly way of admitting he’s a geek. As evidence, besides all the devices he carries around and constantly checks, he is an avid user of an “audience response system” in his civil procedure class.  The system allows him to pose questions to students that they can answer via laptops and smartphones.  Perlman then displays students’ answers on the screen in real time.  He finds that the system helps students pay attention to class rather than Facebook.  Perlman was an early adopter of blogging and other kinds of social media.  He also applied for – and won – an opportunity to be an early adopter of Google Glass, an exciting new wearable technology.  Perlman hopes to come up with innovative ways to use Google Glass in the classroom.  He also hopes to encourage students and interested lawyers to experiment with the new technology to see how it might be used in law practice.  (Perlman’s applications for Google Glass are here and here.)

Perlman’s mission for the institute is to attract “thought leaders” who will produce programs and publications for the new institute. “We’re hopeful that the institute will be a place where we can develop new courses and opportunities for students to learn how to use technology in their practices after they graduate,” he says. For example, the institute hopes to play a role in bringing more courses like Marc Lauritsen’s Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines to Suffolk.  Those courses will help students learn how to represent clients and run law offices more efficiently and effectively.

Perlman says the institute is also interested in developing technology of its own.  For example, the institute recently finished developing a “Massachusetts litigation app” that will help litigators find a range of resources more efficiently from their mobile devices.

Fred Ury, for one, is looking for the new institute to not only help him in his practice in Connecticut, but help him offer advice to lawyers he meets at those talks all over the country on the future of the profession. He is counting on the institute not only to offer tips on how to use the new technology available right now, but whatever comes next – to skate to where the puck is going to be.

Richard Susskind agrees that the Institute is an important step in the right direction. “I am delighted about the new institute at Suffolk Law,” he says. “Law students must be encouraged to think about the future because they are entering the profession at a time of unprecedented flux. We must train the next generation of lawyers to become 21st century and not 20th century lawyers. And we must ask some difficult questions such as, ‘What are we training the next generation of lawyers to become?’ My sense is that, at Suffolk, in their new Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation, they are alive to the challenges, committed to equipping their aspiring lawyers for change in legal practice, and open to the idea that tomorrow’s legal world may not look much like today’s.”

“We at Suffolk should be leaders in this,” Ury says. “If we think we are the end of technology, and what technology is going to provide, we are very wrong. We are just as the beginning.”

By Timothy Harper (timothyharper@gmail.com)

Skip to toolbar