A recent long weekend gave me time to catch up on a favorite television show, Mad Men. Although it is obviously highly stylized for our viewing pleasure, this drama set in the advertising world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s offers reminders of how our everyday lives have changed over the last fifty years. One fairly obvious difference between that time and now is the complete absence of personal computers of any kind. But we do not have to go all the way back to the 1960s to encounter a time when computer technology was a mystery to most people.
Desktop personal computing only became widespread in offices in the 1980s and in homes somewhat later than that. Now it is impossible for most us to imagine what life would be like without immediate access to smartphones, tablets, laptops, or desktops. There are few areas of our lives that technology has not touched or changed, and our work as lawyers is no exception.
Although some attorneys still hold out for research to be done “in the books,”
their ranks are quickly thinning. Law students today cannot expect to succeed in their work if they cannot master legal research using online tools. Not only is technology ubiquitous in law practice, it is a driving force behind the changing economics of the provision of legal services. Increasingly sophisticated technology has reduced the need for associates in big law firms by offering low-cost solutions to a number of tasks traditionally performed by junior lawyers. Technology also has made clients more demanding; they expect more work done more quickly at lower cost.
“Just three years ago, many people dismissed as naïve the suggestion that law schools could work with members of the bar to launch small firms and solo practices that would serve low- and middle-income people. Now, incubators are up and running around the country and technological innovation is helping them to keep costs low.”
Unfortunately, technology has not yet solved the problem of how to deliver high-quality legal services to the underserved at rates they can afford. Huge numbers of low- and middle-income Americans still have inadequate access to legal advice, but there are hopeful signs of change. Law schools around the country, including Boston College, are working together to develop incubator programs for solo and small firm practice, with one explicit goal being broader access to legal services. Just three years ago, many people dismissed as naïve the suggestion that law schools could work with members of the bar to launch small firms and solo practices that would serve low- and middle-income people. Now, incubators are up and running around the country and technological innovation is helping them to keep costs low.
Technology—specifically access to the internet—moves these programs forward by driving down the cost of running an office and reducing staff. Today’s attorneys need less office space, and many solo practitioners share space or use “swing space” that they rent on an as-needed basis by the day or the week. Computers eliminate many expenses for copying and transmitting documents, dispense with the need for telephone service, and, yes, provide legal research that once required a library. All of this means lower fees.
The rapidly expanding middle class that fueled the growth of the American economy and enriched “ad men” in the 1960s is a shadow of its former self. Today, the middle class is shrinking and the concern is rising income inequality. Huge disparities in wealth have not traditionally been the hallmarks of stable democracies, and it has not encouraged broader access to legal services in this country. Perhaps technology is a way to level the playing field so that, one day, all American citizens can get access to basic legal assistance, and the lawyers who serve them also might be able to make a decent living.
Photograph by Suzi Camarata