Technology has affected virtually every discipline, and, although it has historically been a tradition-driven industry, the field of law is no exception to these changes. In both the education of lawyers and the practice of law, innovations in technology have drastically changed the way lawyers are taught, learn, and practice law. Much of the work that was previously done by lawyers can now be accomplished through automated technology. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 23 percent of the work done by lawyers can now be automated. New technology that has emerged for attorneys to use includes, but is not limited to, virtual hearings, enhanced research, file-sharing tools, and artificial intelligence.
New job opportunities have arisen for lawyers as well, as fields such as cyberspace law and data security and privacy need attorneys and legal professionals specializing in these matters. Technology that sprang from the COVID-19 pandemic has made previously unimaginable legal proceedings, such as virtual hearings, commonplace in today’s world. It is believed that much of this new technology will continue to be used in both the classroom and in practice long after the pandemic has subsided.
Virtual hearings have always been a possibility for the legal system, but were not as widely used until the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Since that time, they have become commonplace. Virtual hearings are typically conducted online, through secure platforms such as Zoom. Holding court virtually can save attorneys, jurors and defendants time and money, eliminating travel time to courthouses and the need to miss work. Virtual hearings are also much less costly than in-person hearings, and frees up space at what were once crowded courthouses.
Many in the criminal justice world would like virtual hearings to continue as an option, for these reasons. In certain fields of law, such as estate law and property law, which don’t require as much time in court as, say, criminal law, virtual hearings seem to make more sense. They can be valuable in other fields of law, as well, such as divorce and family law, when attorneys may with to minimize direct contact between the opposing parties in order to facilitate the legal proceedings. The public also has better access to virtual hearings, which is important for many who feel that legal proceedings should be available as public information.
Of course, there can be drawbacks to virtual hearings, especially in certain types of trials. Sharing documents, evidence and testimony via Zoom can be problematic, especially if Zoom links are hacked. Most court systems have also not held jury trials virtually, as keeping control of jurors is not as manageable in a virtual system as it is in-person. Technological issues can also arise and disrupt virtual hearings, such as loss of internet or power.
Some believe that, despite these disadvantages, virtual hearings will continue even after the COVID-19 pandemic has been contained or managed. The benefits outweigh the shortcomings in most cases.
McKinsey Global Institute notes that organizations, including law firms, that are data-driven are 23 times more likely to attract customers, six times as likely to retain customers, and 19 times more likely to be profitable. Additionally, organizations that can successfully incorporate digital transformations are much more likely to embrace diversity and to better adapt culturally. Numerous digital transformations are changing law practice as well as legal education. They include, but are not limited to, file sharing and storage tools, digital records, digital applications and testing, document automation, remote working, virtual legal assistants, and security and surveillance cameras. Some legal practices, as well as law schools, already had these new technological capabilities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others have had to undergo a rapid education in digital transformations.
One of the biggest effects of digital transformation on law schools is the fact that the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) has moved exclusively online. This occurred pre-pandemic, in July 2019. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) notes that this was done to speed up digital transformation of a profession that had been lagging behind other industries. It not only improved accessibility to the LSAT, it also allows students to incorporate adaptive technology such as magnifiers and screen readers, making it easier for many to take and pass the exam.
Law schools have also begun to teach the real-world implications of digital transformations, showing how lawyers can integrate technology into practice. Apple iPads, for example, are used to access case files and present evidence at trial, through the TrialPad application.
Some students in law school are even learning coding, artificial intelligence, and data analytics skills. Fluency in skills such as these make it easier for law students to conduct client assessments and collect client information. They discover that artificial intelligence makes it much quicker to analyze contracts for errors and needed improvements as well.
Electronic records and digital documents have been used in legal practice and in the courtroom for years now. Guidelines have been put into place for the management and preservation of such records and their usage. Rules have also been established regarding the sharing and storing of such records and evidence in order to protect privacy and data security.
One fairly new technology that is being used more and more in courtrooms is surveillance cameras, both the home video kind and the in-car dashcam variety. Evidence that is being captured by video surveillance is changing how personal injury cases are litigated. Video surveillance has been used to document evidence from auto accident cases, slip and fall cases, and home burglary cases. Some legal experts worry that consumers’ privacy is being violated as they are almost always on camera when in public. A balance exists between too much surveillance, disturbing one’s privacy, and just the right amount, documenting potential evidence for later use in civil and criminal cases.
Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are changing legal practice in exciting ways. One of the fastest-growing technologies today, artificial intelligence, otherwise known as AI, involves teaching computers to think the same way humans do. It is used in legal practice to increase efficiency, especially in scheduling, planning, and data management. AI can recognize patterns and therefore can analyze large amounts of documents and materials quickly. It cannot, however, compose legal documents, give clients advice, or take over the services of lawyers in a courtroom. In the future, AI is expected to become more capable of independent decision-making and may transform some of these limits.
Augmented reality, otherwise known as virtual reality, is also being used in law practice. Virtual reality can be used in simulations of accidents and incidents, giving different perspectives from different vantage points. It is increasingly being used in the legal field, to show lawyers (and law students who use it in school) how a judge and jury may interpret the same incident or accident from a different point of view.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list of the digital transformations in legal technology. There are many emerging trends that we can expect to see put into practice in the coming months and years. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that almost anyone can work remotely, including law firms and the courts. The remote law firm is now a possibility due to cloud-based software and file-sharing technology. In fact, some law firms are moving to entirely remote working. Not only can depositions and testimony be given remotely, but some law offices are having workers work entirely from home.
Due diligence is also being automated through software. This software can search, highlight and extract relevant content to be analyzed, faster than a human is able to do so. Going hand-in-hand with this is document automation software, shortening documents to specific scenarios and making it possible for multiple people to sign these documents electronically no matter where they are.
Analytics and litigation prediction are also relying more and more on digital technology. Cases in other countries are being tested with AI software that can predict their outcomes, using prior outcomes from particular jurisdictions and comparing them to facts of current cases.
As AI and digital technology tools become more common in the legal industry, law firms must consider what they can adopt to improve their efficiency and adapt to remote working. Prospective law students would be smart to learn coding and data analytics now, so that they will be prepared for the inevitable digital advances that will undoubtedly be in the legal workplace by the time they have graduated from law school.
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