Narrowing the justice gap, one byte at a time
The crisis in legal education is well-documented: Many law students graduate with six-figure debt and have difficulty finding jobs that enable them to service that debt. The access to justice crisis is also well-known: tens of millions of Americans are priced out of the market for legal services. Clients in remote areas have trouble finding a lawyer, regardless of cost.
These problems are related.
The high cost of legal education drives up the cost of legal services, and both law schools and law firms are typically concentrated in pricier metropolitan areas. Fortunately, readily available technology can address both problems.
Technology in legal education
Dozens of law schools offer Master of Jurisprudence, Master of Law or other degrees online. But online programs offering the juris doctor—the classic degree to obtain a law license—are rarer.
The American Bar Association restricts the proportion of class hours that can be delivered online to roughly one-third. Only one law school (Mitchell Hamline in Minnesota) has obtained a variance to offer a hybrid program that is half online. A few others are seeking similar variances. No ABA law school has yet sought permission to offer a fully online JD program.
Online law schools can deliver legal instruction and training as effectively—or better—than traditional models. Lectures, quizzes and the like can be administered asynchronously, using platforms such as Blackboard or Brightspace.
Existing low-cost videoconferencing and webinar technology facilitates live classes, where Socratic dialogue, role-playing and skills training occurs.
Online students say they are more willing to participate in online classes than traditional students, who are under the visual scrutiny of their peers.
The typical online law school costs less than one-third of the traditional ABA school. This means students can graduate with far less debt and afford to offer more reasonable rates for their services to the middle market. And online law students are more likely to hail from remote areas, remain there after graduation and represent clients there.
Technology in the legal profession
Lawyers who use technology effectively can gain a competitive advantage by offering more flexible services at more affordable rates. Through “virtual” law practice, lawyers can interface with local or distant clients via a web-based portal.
An estate planning client, for example, could fill out a questionnaire on the lawyer’s website, generating a template the lawyer can discuss with the client during an initial phone meeting or video-conference—cutting down on the time and cost of both the client interview and the drafting process.
Secure cloud-based document storage and sharing and client communication also reduce cost and hassle, and provide transparency that can minimize client complaints.
The last decade has seen the launch of dozens of legal “incubators” that provide law school graduates with the legal training, business training and infrastructure needed to open solo practices.
Incubators typically focus on offering “low bono” services to modest-means clients. This includes teaching participants to use virtual lawyering to avoid the overhead of permanent office space, or free legal research platforms in lieu of more expensive proprietary databases.
Cheap and ubiquitous technology will help connect new lawyers with mentors, as well as lawyers with clients, breaking down cost and geographical barriers simultaneously.
Technology has lowered costs and expanded access in countless industries. It now holds the promise to do the same for law schools and the legal profession, both of which are badly in need of reform. Lawyers and law schools who ignore this trend do so at their peril.
Martin Pritikin is the dean of Concord Law School at Kaplan University, the nation’s first fully online law school. He can be reached at [email protected].