How the internet changed the practice of law and why it matters.

Twenty years ago the internet’s full potential could not even be imagined. Email was emerging as a primary method of communication, but the Blackberry wasn’t being fully utilized until around 2003 and the Iphone wasn’t released until 2007. In other words, whether it feels like it or not, we have not always been tethered to our own personal mobile communication devices.

The internet has also democratized the law by providing legal information and services to individuals who might have not otherwise had access. Such an explosion of information and services has demystified the law on some scale, before clients even seek out the advice of an attorney. It is critical for law firms, lawyers, and legal service providers to understand how the practice has changed – and how it might further change in the future.

Unprecedented access to information.
Today potential clients are educated and have access to more legal information than they could possibly consume. This is not ground-breaking.

Traditionally, a client would make an appointment to come in and see a lawyer in order to gain access to legal information and to decide whether they wanted to retain such attorney. Today it is more likely that the client already has a fair amount of knowledge under their belt not only about the law, but also the attorney. Website biographies, online reviews and ratings, blogs, social media accounts, and other digital outlets offer no shortage of opportunities for lawyers to publish content. Now, when the potential client meets a lawyer for a consultation, they look to have specific questions answered which may not be clearly available online, or they are trying to assess whether they actually need to hire a lawyer, and, if so, are you someone with whom they want to work.

Access to information is an amazing advancement. But with that, comes significant downsides to such a pool of information.

Massive amounts of information may lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
Simply put, so much information makes it difficult for potential clients to find reliable and credible information. Clients may be more “educated” than they were 20 years ago, but their attorney must make sure that what they are reading is good information. For example, the area of matrimonial law is a statutory-based area governed by state law. This means that legal articles and analysis on property (asset) division in a divorce case in Illinois are going to be vastly different from those in California because Illinois is an equitable division state and California is a community property state.

Laws also change, and sometimes as in the case of Illinois family law, recently and frequently. The Illinois divorce and parentage statutes received overhauls beginning in 2016, and for several years thereafter several trailer laws were passed which amended language in the revised statute. If a client read an online article on child support from 2014 and relied up that article, it would have outdated information.

Enter the modern attorney’s value proposition: Providing expert advice and a customized strategy through a process in which the client feels engaged, supported, and educated. It is not enough to generally explain the law and direct a case on a “traditional trajectory.” Attorneys must also adapt to both dispute resolution processes and technology to meet client demands.

This is one the most underestimated effects the internet has had on the practice of law. Turn-around times have essentially quintupled in the last several years. But what often gets lost in the discussion is that with speed something else could be sacrificed – Thought. Expertise. Strategy.

What used to take a week in a case now takes a matter of hours. Twenty years ago, a client and attorney would put together a settlement demand, drafting various forms of a demand letter until both were satisfied with the contents. This could happen over a series of days. A letter would be written and put in the mail. It would arrive on the other attorney’s desk and they would take some time to review it, speak with their client, formulate a response, and another letter would be put in the mail.

That entire scenario sounds quaint by modern standards. Today, a settlement demand is usually sent via email. It arrives in the attorney’s inbox and it is expected that the email will be forwarded within hours, often with notes and comments regarding the offer. The client will see the demand letter hit their email and will immediately open it (often in the middle of their own work day) and they will review it immediately (especially if it is a litigation matter) and will likely want to communicate in some form or fashion with their attorney within a matter of hours, if not minutes.

This scenario isn’t necessarily limited to the practice of law – it is everywhere. Speed and instant gratification have become an acceptable norm which permeates all aspects of business and life.

Why does this matter? Isn’t quickness and efficiency better for clients? Yes, in some ways. But clients pay lawyers to be experts – to be thoughtful counsel. Thoughtful counsel requires lawyers to actually think – not just react. Strategizing, researching, and weighing options goes to the heart of why attorneys are hired. Instead of being reactive to what is coming into the inbox in the moment, sometimes it is best to slow things down and be strategic. Admittedly, this can be uncomfortable in a world where communication and client demands are instantaneous.

Online Legal Services
LegalZoom. RocketLawyer. Incfile. UpCounsel. Atrium. These are all alternatives to traditional lawyers and law firms that have flooded the marketplace in the last decade. As access to traditional legal services have become increasingly expensive, consumers have turned towards online services to provide them with free or flat fee legal advice, access to forms, and general guidance on the law with enough information so they feel they can manage to finish whatever they need themselves.

Once again, these services (which are here to stay) must compel traditional attorneys to again ask “what is my value proposition?” What do I bring to a client experience that they cannot get from an online service? The answer may seems obvious to the attorney, but chances are it does not to a potential client.

Think about what your expertise provides a client. What do you bring to the table in terms of service? What is your client experience? What issues does your client have that cannot be addressed (or addressed thoroughly) with general guidance and forms?

Based on the current legal climate, there is room for both cost effective online legal services and traditional attorneys.

There are several other ways the internet has changed the practice of law: online attorney reviews, targeted social media advertising, electronic discovery, online client portals, mobile practice capabilities, artificial intelligence, cloud-based computing, and security compliance and threats, just to name a few. The internet has revolutionized the industry and will continue to transform the practice in ways that we still cannot imagine.

Attorneys need to be adaptable and embrace the inevitable changes. What we know for sure is that the internet can be harnessed as a powerful partner to compliment any attorney’s practice.