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Yes, your practice is going to change – so be ready

Digtial signatureWell-established ideas about the delivery of legal services are changing, and not all of the changes are going to be good for lawyers. The way people purchase music and rent movies for home viewing has changed. The adoption of mobile phones has changed much of our social behavior — not, in my opinion, always for the better. What may have seemed futuristic only a couple of decades ago is now commonplace to many.

From a lawyer having a video conference with clients sitting on their sofa at home to clients logging into firm-provided online document repositories where they can review their documents, the legal world is subject to the same upheaval — whether technology-bred or simply forward-thinking — and you better be ready.

Apps are shaking things up

The Shake application promises that a user can “create, sign and send legally binding agreements in seconds.” A free app for iOS and Android that can be used to draft simple contracts, Shake was at first surprising but not threatening to lawyers. The few simple contracts provided were not the type that most lawyers would have done for clients anyway (though the app certainly showed its technology heritage in that one of the early free forms was for a nondisclosure agreement). So the initial reaction was mostly, “Isn’t that cute? An app that drafts contracts. I’m sure my contracts are superior and comply with state law.”

But look how Shake has evolved. Now there is a “Pro plan,” which, for $10 a month, offers users the ability to customize up to five forms and personalize the agreements with branding. It also includes access to Shake’s form library and integration with popular cloud storage services. Shake’s blog now includes articles with titles such as “Rent Responsibility: Understanding Your Residential Lease” and “Employee Handbooks: Put Your Rules in Writing.”

One can appreciate the utility of this app for someone like a house painter or other contractor who used to rely on filling in the blanks on an invoice or a contract created for another contracting job. But as a lawyer, I’d still have a concern that some jurisdiction had some particular requirement that might not be addressed. It is, however, hard to argue that these documents are not superior to an oral agreement or notes on a piece of paper that the customer never signed.

There’s also a team version of Shake for larger companies. Think of a company with a sales force that is on the road frequently making many different kinds of deals. Instead of the company’s lawyers approving or drafting many repetitive contracts, they design and supervise the contract delivery process. Custom contracts are assembled on the phone or other mobile device and emailed to the customer instantly for execution. If a salesperson has a specific customization request, the legal department can deal with that request or idea while dozens of standard contracts are executed each day with no direct lawyer intervention.

Some law schools are getting active in app development. Professor Tanina Rostain, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center, developed and teaches “Technology, Innovation and Legal Practice,” in which teams of students compete to develop legal apps that people can use to navigate complex areas of the law. One success story was ADA2Go, an app developed by the students in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice. It navigates through the Americans with Disabilities Act to determine rights and responsibilities in certain circumstances. Professor Rostain’s profile on her Legal Rebels blog ends by noting that the apps do not test for income level, and she believes that they will really “shake up the market,” particularly in regard to solo and small-firm lawyers.

For better or for worse, a lot of the new legal areas of interest relate to developments in technology. But a lot of innovative ideas are not directly related to technology.

A nonprofit law firm?

Every lawyer in small private practice has probably worried at some point about whether the firm was going to turn a profit in a particular month. But have you ever thought of setting up a nonprofit law firm? Utah lawyers Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer did just that — and they’re making it work. The Atlantic has an informative article on their firm, Open Legal Services, which includes a graph showing the sliding hourly-fee scale based on client income and other details. About 50 percent of Utah residents qualify for the discounted services.

Working for a nonprofit law firm means that a lawyer won’t get rich, but it provides a working environment in which members gain a wealth of real-world experience at a steady salary. And because the firm is nonprofit, it’s exempt from taxes, and lawyers are eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which erases the balance of student loans after 10 years of monthly payments. Contributions from businesses to assist the nonprofit firm are tax-deductible to the donating business. They also receive many referrals from public entities or other nonprofits.

– By Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program

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