Should Lawyers Be Software Developers?

At the 2015 Clio Cloud Conference,1 I’ve talked to or heard about a surprising number of lawyers who are creating software to leverage their legal knowledge for the benefit of clients who might not be able to afford it.

  • A California litigator is building a referral platform to make it easier for him (and for other lawyers) to refer clients and track those referrals.
  • An Arizona family lawyer built a DIY portal for clients who couldn’t afford full-service representation.
  • A BigLaw lawyer built an FCPA compliance portal to offer his expertise to clients on matters that aren’t worth hiring him to do.
  • Many lawyers are building apps (of wildly varying quality) to help solve problems that might lead to legal solutions.
  • A New York real-estate lawyer is working on a system for delivering closings more effectively and efficiently.
  • A Washington Lawyer built a website to help people draft their own simple wills.
  • A Toronto lawyer built an app for finding a lawyer to handle simple appearances when you can’t make it to court.
  • And lots of lawyers are starting to use document assembly to help them save time (and their clients’ money).

None of these lawyers are software developers themselves, as far as I know. What they are doing is hiring or partnering with developers in order to create solutions. You could call them legal tech startups, but they don’t really resemble the venture-backed Silicon Valley long-shots who come and go like clockwork. These are real lawyers’ attempts to solve real problems for themselves and their clients.

We normally think of legal work as solving clients’ legal problems in traditional ways: face-to-face meetings, creating documents, negotiating deals, litigating, etc. These lawyers are trying out new tools and different ways of solving clients’ legal problems (or their own law-practice problems), like developing software that can do it instead of pulling up another blank Word document. They may be trying to reach (and profit from) new clients, or expand the services they can offer to existing clients, or just make things easier on themselves.

In general I think it is too early to tell whether these particular experiments are going to catch on and have lasting success. But it’s not to early to acknowledge that lawyers have new tools available to them, and that we need to expand our concept of practicing law to include those tools.

Featured image: “Computer geek with keyboard and mouse, isolated on white background” from Shutterstock.

  1. Disclaimer: <a href="">Clio</a> wanted me to come to its conference so badly they flew me to Chicago and gave me margaritas and tacos. A <em>lot</em> of margaritas. 


  1. Avatar static says:

    Sad that nobody commented here. I feel so badly that Ima gonna leave you a comment. No need to thank me. It’s just the kinda guy I am.

    So you were fed a bit of malarky with the inception of at least some of these apps. These weren’t exactly lawyers “leveraging” (horrible word, but your choice) their knowledge to help their clients, but lawyers who think they’ve stumbled onto a way to make big bucks in tech creating something they think someone will buy.

    The first question is whether the lawyer/creator is engaged in the area of practice that would use the app. If you look hard, you may see that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, they have nothing to do with the practice area, and have nothing to “leverage” (there’s that word again) or clients to help. They think they’ve got a problem that needs fixin’, and so they leap into the tech fray in the hope that it will gain traction.

    Is that a bad thing? Not at all. Maybe they’ve stumbled onto something that works, that will help other lawyers and make a few bucks for themselves in the process. There is nothing wrong with that. But some of these ideas are troubling.

    Take the CA lawyer who wants to build a referral platform. Is he vouching for the competency of his referrals? Can lawyers buy their way on, so that people get referred to incompetent lawyers? Does he personally know that every lawyer on his referral platform is one he would use himself if he needed a lawyer in that practice area. If not, then creating a referral platform could prove to be a disaster. After all, who wants to be referred to an incompetent lawyer whose only virtue is he paid to get his name on a list?

    These are the questions that distinguish whether efforts are good or not. That lawyers are trying to make a buck off technology is nothing new, but whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on the efficacy of the app. We can do harm with tech just as well as good. Or, as is the case with most tech efforts, we can do nothing that anyone will ever care about anyway.

    In any event, let’s keep the details straight that these aren’t necessarily great humanitarians using their legal knowledge and mad tech skillz to help society and their brethren. Truth matters.

  2. Avatar Gabriel Munoz-Calene says:

    I disagree with the Static’s comment, and think that this post is touching on exciting developments in the practice of law.

    Sam’s point seems to be “that lawyers have new tools available to them, and that we need to expand our concept of PRACTICING LAW to include those tools.”

    I think that the examples provided in the post illustrate that lawyers are developing new ways to provide tangible evidence of a lawyer’s intangible services.

    As Mr. Foonberg explores in his classic work, “How to Start and Build a Law Practice”, lawyers provide what is mostly an intangible service, advice and representation. We are counselors at law. Clients like to pay for something that is more tangible, however.

    Foonberg argues that paperwork that gives the client a tangible representation of the legal services they receive. Paperwork is a product of legal services.

    “The legal profession generates enormous amounts of paperwork. The paperwork is created because lawyers must create, communicate, and preserve their legal product…. Paperwork is the tangible representation and evidence of the law firm’s intangible service.”

    – Jay Foonberg: How to Start and Build a Law Practice 5th ed.

    I think Sam’s post is demonstrating that in the paperless world we now live in, technology and software development are generating opportunities to provide clients with “digital” representations of a lawyer’s intangible services, which will take the place paperwork.

    As @static points out, there will be issues with the development of these new products. There will also be failures. It is unwise, however, to ignore the unstoppable change which is transforming the practice of law.

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