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Law Office of the Future

November 15, 2021


In honor of Colorado Lawyer’s 50th year in print, we’re looking back at some of our most memorable articles. Today’s throwback was published nearly 30 years ago, in 1993. While some of us were busy getting Sleepless in Seattle, singing along to “Whoomp! (There It Is),” and, in my case, graduating from high school, attorney Thomas K. Higley was contemplating how the birth of the World Wide Web and “electronic mail” might revolutionize the practice of law. So, did any of his predictions come true?

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I would like to engage in a little prognostication—not by reading horoscopes or palms or by examining the entrails of animals, but by making a few predictions based on extrapolations from existing data. This article looks at today’s technology and then at upcoming technology breakthroughs and how they will impact the practice of law in the not-too-distant future, perhaps even less than a decade from now.

Today’s Technology

Through the use of computers, computer software and telecommunications packages, lawyers are beginning to do things that just a few years ago few people ever dreamed of. For example, through electronic mail (“e-mail”) and the use of a modem,1 someone posts a message to an electronic bulletin board, wanting to know something about forming a corporation in Colorado. One or more lawyers respond, explaining that they can be contacted through “private” e-mail if further information is desired.2 In this way, lawyers have begun to exchange messages with other lawyers (and potential clients) all over the country.

These “online” conversations now occur on a daily basis on national electronic bulletin boards such as CompuServe® and America Online®. The new Windows® compatible software provided by these services is both remarkably powerful and easy to use. As a result, the number of persons (including lawyers) using these services continues to increase. CompuServe and America Online are only a few of the available commercial services; there are many others—Delphi®, Prodigy® and GEnie®, to name a few.

There is even an online service called Counsel Connect® designed specifically for use by lawyers.3 Some of the best known and most respected law firms in the country, and some of the world’s most powerful corporations and organizations, are charter members of Counsel Connect, which provides, among other things, a growing database of briefs, memoranda and forms.

Lawyers also are becoming increasingly aware and are making use of the Internet®, a vast, interconnected network which provides connections to systems, information, news, resources and persons throughout the world.4 Through the Internet, subject to certain restrictions on acceptable use, an individual can receive electronic mail from persons located all over the world. Additionally, there are plans to use the Internet as the foundation for a massive “information highway” that would allow highspeed communications among users located anywhere in the country.

The Imminent Technology Revolution

Current technology is only part of the story. Changes of an extraordinary and potentially revolutionary nature are imminent, perhaps only five years away. These predicted changes would combine, in a single system, the power of today’s fastest personal computers; the ease of use, speed and variety of cable television programming; and the universal connectivity of the telephone system.

This is not a fanciful prediction. Over the past year, numerous alliances have been formed, between major cable television, computer and telephone companies. On August 25, 1993, a Boston cable television company (the nation’s third-largest cable provider) indicated that it plans to provide its subscribers with the ability to retrieve data from the Internet computer network. Further, according to The Wall Street Journal, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. is negotiating with some of the nation’s largest cable television companies5 to create an alliance that would link cable-television customers into a huge interactive, multimedia network. This new network would allow cable customers to “phone” one another through their cable television lines, send e-mail and even play interactive games with someone who resides across the country.

It is not hard to imagine how this network would work. In theory, at least, the cable companies would provide the programming and existing cable; the telephone companies would provide a universal standard, switching capabilities and the ability to interconnect users of one cable system with the users of another cable system; and the computer companies would provide the central processor (such as a 486, or better, chip) and the software to make the user’s “telecomputer” powerful, familiar and easy to use.

If the technology develops as the industry expects, the machine will eventually respond to voice requests. For example:

Consumer: “I would like to revise my will.” Online Coach: “Glad to help. Just answer the questions, and your new document will be available for printing in your home as soon as the session has ended.”

If this sounds a little frightening to you, you are probably not alone. Nevertheless, simple documents—including corporate documents, most basic forms and contracts—could be prepared and provided at only a fraction of the cost that most lawyers charge today.

Implications for the Practice of Law

The telecomputer (or whatever it may be called) will undoubtedly change the way many people do business, including lawyers, accountants, doctors, consultants of all kinds and virtually anyone who provides information as part of their business or service.

If this prediction is correct, most lawyers will no longer be able to compete for much of the simpler, less expensive legal work. Instead, as described in the will example above, this work will be done through online computer services or through increasingly sophisticated computer programs.

Lawyers who continue to compete for the remaining legal work will have to become highly skilled at using every available tool for information retrieval and analysis. They also will become increasingly specialized, concentrating far more than ever before on narrow areas of the law. Their clients will reside in all parts of the world, and communication with their clients will include transmission of video, audio and electronic data.

Conclusion

Whether all of these things come to pass remains to be seen. I believe they will. The more uncertain and appropriate question is whether lawyers are preparing themselves to adapt to this new future. Not many lawyers appear to appreciate the magnitude of these changes or understand how their practices will be affected. Nevertheless, the practice of law will change. In this author’s opinion, the legal market will not be a pleasant environment for attorneys who are unwilling to begin adapting their practices to these changes.


Notes

1 A modem is a device that connects a computer to a standard telephone line. Modems typically allow users to transmit data at high rates of speed.

2 Many lawyers also decline to provide legal advice online. They take care to explain that legal advice should only be given by a lawyer in the context of an attorney-client relationship, and even then only by a lawyer who is familiar with the law of the relevant jurisdiction and the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Whether “private” electronic mail on the national commercial bulletin boards (e.g., CompuServe) is actually private (i.e., cure) is a topic of much debate among lawyers who regularly frequent the online legal forums. The better practice is to assume that electronic mail is not private and to reserve confidential communications for the mail. Sophisticated encryption schemes, also the topic of much debate in the online legal forums, are beyond the scope of this article.

3 Counsel Connect, Inc., is a subsidiary of American Lawyer Media, L.P., an affiliate of Time Warner, Inc.

4 Originally designed by and for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Internet has become an important means by which persons around the country share vital information and research. Although the academic community was once the major beneficiary of this resource, the Internet has recently seen a substantial increase in membership and online “traffic” from those who have little or no connection to academia.

5 The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27, 1993, col. 2 at A3.

The telecomputer (or whatever it may be called) will undoubtedly change the way many people do business, including lawyers, accountants, doctors, consultants of all kinds and virtually anyone who provides information as part of their business or service.