Category Archives: Legal IT

Articles on Legal IT

Legal Technology and Access to Justice

When we think about legal technology, we usually think of technology that provides solutions for the legal professions and the judiciary. But what about the legal consumers? How can they benefit from legal technology? One of the areas where legal technology can play another important part is Access to Justice (often shortened to A2J). In this article, we will have a look at what Access to Justice is, what challenges it faces, and then explore the solutions that legal technology can offer.

So, what is Access to Justice? There is not one singular definition, and the concept itself has changed over time. The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (ACLRC) distinguishes four different aspects, which each come with their own range of challenges:

  1. The Right to Appear in Court. The formal right of an individual to litigate or defend is a Human Right. This does not only apply to conflicts between individuals and/or organizations, but also to governments, or any body that can impose a sanction.
  2. Advocacy for Those Who Cannot Afford It. The focus here is on legal aid, especially for people who do not have the means available to get Justice. It is one thing to have the right to appear in Court, but it is another thing altogether to be able to afford it. A study published last year (2019) showed e.g. that in the US a staggering 86% of the civil legal problems that were reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help at all.
  3. Reforming the Justice Systems. Money is not the only thing that can stand in the way of getting justice. One may be faced with all kinds of formal and procedural requirements that create unnecessary obstacles. So, a third aspect of Access to Justice focuses on creating equal opportunities by calling for reforms of the Justice System to make it more accessible. Part of that has to do with implementing mechanisms for group and third-party claims.
  4. Equality of Outcomes. Several reports keep on confirming e.g. that legal systems tend to be biased. There also can be geographical differences, and different judges may even rule differently. So, it is not enough to focus on equal opportunity, we also need to make sure we get equal outcomes. This can be done by remedies like reforming and streamlining many areas of the legal system, as well as reforming other social institutions with the goal of creating a more holistic model of service.

The challenges and the consequences are clear. Not having adequate access to justice can seriously impact people’s lives in a negative way. The good news is that in many cases, legal technology can be leveraged to improve access to justice, especially for low-income individuals. In 2019, more than 300 legal technologies were available in the US to assist legal consumers seeking access to justice. And while legal problems may be local, the technological solutions to assist with Access to Justice can typically be used internationally. (Think, e.g., of chat bots that collect the necessary data to generate legal documents: the texts for the templates will vary, but the same chat bot technology can be used to get the necessary information to generate them). The most commonly used solutions fall within three different categories. They are a) technology that provides information, b) technology that connects individuals to lawyers, and c) technology that automates and produces documents. Let us have a closer look at each of these.

Legal technology solutions that provide access to legal information. The easiest and most common way legal tech can assist is by providing key legal information, as well as self-help tools online. If, e.g., as a tenant you have a dispute with your landlord, chances are you will be able to find the relevant information online that clearly explains what your rights and obligations are, and how you can proceed. There even are organizations that assist lawyers in taking on pro bono cases by providing them with free legal online guidance.

Legal technology solutions that connects individuals to lawyers. There also are legal tech solutions that help legal consumers find – typically local – lawyers online that can assist them. This assistance can consist of legal advice and/or of legal representation.

Legal technology solutions that automates and produces documents. Another area where major strides have been made in recent years is with legal technology that assists in document automation. Legal consumers can, e.g., fill out a form online, and the required legal document gets created for them. Often, legal chat bots are available to guide the legal consumers through the process, making the procedure as simple and effective as possible.

Legal technology can assist in other ways as well. Digitalising courts and tribunals involves both making jurisprudence available online as well as automating procedures, thus makes it easier to find precedents and to start a procedure. One of the effects of the Corona pandemic is that far more courts have gone online, and sessions via videoconferencing have become far more common. Some law firms have started virtual practices where service delivery is automated and happens faster and cheaper. More and more legal aid clinics, which often are community based, have gone online as well. There also are more online learning tools available than ever before. There has been an increase too in online dispute resolution solutions.

It is worth pointing out that many of these new technologies rely on Artificial Intelligence. In previous articles, we already mentioned legal chat bots on several occasions. Joshua Browder started a revolution with his Do Not Pay robot lawyer that can handle a wide range of legal issues. Many others have followed, like the Hello Divorce bot that can streamline amicable divorces in California to the point that often no lawyers are needed. Chat bots have reached such a state of maturity that several bar associations are considering accrediting them as recognized legal solution providers.

So, legal technology can assist in access to justice in many positive ways. Still, there is much work to be done, as the 2019 report illustrated. One of the challenges for legal technology is to find solutions for Digital Exclusion. Not everybody has access to the Internet or has the required digital skills to use it properly, which means they lack the ability to take advantage of these legal technology solutions. In 2018, e.g., one in six inhabitants of the UK lacked the digital skills, and one in ten did not have access to the Internet. So, lower income households are effectively hit double since they lack the financial and technical resources to address their legal issues.

 

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Introduction to Twitter for Lawyers

The 2019 Tech Survey Report from the American Bar Association revealed that while on average 25% of lawyers uses Twitter personally, only 14% of law firms use Twitter. Which is surprising as it has a lot to offer. So, in this article we will have a closer look at the benefits of using Twitter, and how you can get started. First, for those of you who are not familiar with it, let us explain what it is.

The Wikipedia describes Twitter as a “microblogging and social networking service on which users post and interact with messages known as ‘tweets’. Registered users can post, like, and retweet tweets, but unregistered users can only read them. Users access Twitter through its website interface, through Short Message Service (SMS) or its mobile-device application software (‘app’)”. Apps are available from third party service providers as well. It was launched in 2012, and in 2019 had 330 million active monthly users. In May 2020, Twitter was the third most visited website in the world, after YouTube and the Wikipedia.

The word microblogging refers to the fact that tweets are limited in the amount of characters they can contain. Originally, in line with SMSs, Tweets were limited to 140 characters. In November 2017, that amount was doubled to 280 characters. URLs are typically not counted as characters. If the URL refers to a page that has the relevant tags in its header, a preview of the page will be shown. Apart from text characters, Tweets can have emoticons, often referred to as emoji, in the text. They can also have images and short videos as attachments that will be shown along with the tweet.

What are the main reasons to use Twitter as a law firm? A first reason is that it is a platform with 330 million active monthly registered users. On top of that, it gets a 200 million non-registered visitors per month. Chances are your law firm may have potential clients who use Twitter. A second reason is that Twitter is an excellent networking tool where you can interact with attorneys with similar practices. If you have a blog or publish articles, Twitter is a place to promote those articles. It also allows you to connect with members of the media. Twitter can be an excellent news source too (if you follow reliable sources) and it allows you to obtain information that will be useful in your practice.

A reason to use Twitter as a law firm that is often overlooked is for legal research. Apart from just following legal authors whose articles you’re interested in, you can also create lists in Twitter that you dedicate to one or more topics. You could, e.g., create a list for legal technology, and add the lawyers, researchers, and companies who offer relevant information to the list. Such lists offer a quick and convenient way to get an overview of what is going on and make it easy to stay up to date. When dealing with a specific problem, you can also perform searches on key words by using hashtags. (We dedicated two articles to hashtags in the past. You can find the links in the sources below).

Also noteworthy is that Twitter has been used to serve subpoenas. In August 2018, e.g., Wikileaks was served a subpoena over Twitter. And there also was the case in 2017 where a personal injury letter was allowed to deliver a spoliation letter (i.e. a letter to preserve evidence) to Uber via Twitter.

So, how do you get started? Signing up is free, and can be done at https://twitter.com/signup. You have to choose a unique username (or ‘handle’ as they are often called). Preferably choose one that makes it easy to remember or recognize you by. Some authors advise something related to your personal name, while others advise rather signing up with your law firm’s name. Online consumers typically want to get to know the personality of the person they are dealing with. So, my advice would be that if you set up only one Twitter account to go for an individual one, as it will be easier to relate to. Keep in mind, though, that usernames can only be a maximum of 14 characters long.

You can sign up with an existing email address (that stays private) or with a cell phone (the number stays private, too), and you will be asked to verify your account.

Once you have signed up, you will want to fill out the details for your profile. You can provide a brief Twitter biography. It is good to combine both professional and some personal information in there. You can mention your law firm, as well as some of interests and/or social activities. Remember that people want to be able to relate to you. Stacey Buke recommends a) using a high quality photo for your profile picture, preferably the same professional headshot as your website biography and other social media channels; b) a link to your law firm website to obtain a high value backlink and to drive traffic from the social network to your main digital asset; and c) to complete the information on your location so people know where to find you in case they want to hire you. You may also have a first look at the settings to add more information and to customize privacy and safety settings.

Next, you will want to choose who to follow on Twitter. There are several ways to do this. You can import your existing address book, or you can manually add accounts you want to follow. You can include people you know, clients and potential clients, attorneys with similar practices, service providers you are using or are interested in, people with similar interests, etc. You can also see who people that you follow, follow, and/or who they included in lists they may have created.

If you have more than one Twitter account, or more than one social media account, you could consider using a tool like Tweetdeck (for multiple Twitter accounts) or Buffer or Hootsuite (for multiple social media accounts). These tools typically have a user-friendly interface that allows you to manage several accounts at the same time. Both Hootsuite and Buffer work on a Freemium model, where basic functionality is free for a small number of accounts, and you must pay for the ability to manage more accounts and for premium functionality.

Then it is time to start tweeting. If you have a blog, you can put up links to articles on it. You can use tweets for announcements and news. You can tweet about things that interest you. Keep in mind that social media are not just for self-promotion. They are meant to interact with people. You can reply to tweets, retweet or like their tweets (it is a simple as pressing a button). One author recommends a ratio of 50% retweets or tweets to other people’s content, 30% interactions, and only 20% promotion. Make sure to include some humour in your tweets.

Stacey Burke suggests ten ways lawyers should use Twitter:

  1. Networking
  2. Content promotion
  3. Media coverage
  4. Sharing news of interest to you and your followers
  5. Getting a little personal
  6. Engaging with hashtags
  7. Sharing images and videos, as tweets with images get 150% more retweets than those without.
  8. Live tweeting events
  9. Joining in conversations
  10. Analyzing your competitive landscape

So, give it a go. In a future article, we will focus on how you can use Twitter for marketing purposes, and on how you can grow your own following.

 

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Accepting online payments

A while ago, a report was published that focused on what legal consumers want, and on how they choose the law firm that will solve their legal issue for them. One of the criteria legal consumers considered was whether law firms accepted online payments. So, if you are not already doing so, the time is right to start looking into it, as it offers a competitive advantage. And if your law firm management or accounting software can automatically process online payments, things are more convenient and effective for all parties involved.

So, how do you get started? When you want to accept online payment, it is important to know that there are several different payment modalities available. People typically want to pay with a service provider that they are familiar with. They may prefer a service like PayPal, or want to pay by credit card, or by wire transfer, and they expect your law firm to be equipped to handle all of these requests. Now, there was a time when all of this made accepting online payments rather cumbersome, but that is no longer the case. You can simply employ the services of a third-party solution provider that functions as an intermediary. They have all the payment facilities in place, and will accept the payment for you, and then transfer it to your account. There are several such providers available, like Stripe, Google Wallet / Google Pay, Apple Pay, etc. In this article, we will take a look at Mollie, www.mollie.com as an example.

Mollie is based in The Netherlands, and its services are available all over Europe. At present, approximately 90 000 European businesses use their services. Mollie can accept payments from all leading payment methods, locally and internationally. The way it works is that they accept the payment for you, using the payment method your clients prefer and/or are accustomed to, and in the currency of their or your choice. Once the money has been received, you can choose when you want Mollie to put it on your bank account. Whether you receive it the same day or the next working day may depend on your bank.

To get going with Mollie is easy and fast. They even claim you can start accepting online payments within 15 minutes. Once you are signed up, accepting online payments is easy to set up, as you can use any of their existing form templates, which are available for free. They offer plugins for existing platforms, like WooCommerce, Magento, NodeJS, PHP, Prestashop, Shopify, Ruby, Python, and others. (Their website gives a full list). If you are not satisfied with these existing forms or plugins, it is perfectly possible to create your own. Mollie offers a well-documented API, which makes it reasonably easy to program your own forms. If your law firm uses a Dutch of Belgian software program for its accounting or law firm management, chances are your service provide will already have its own Mollie compatible forms in place.

The question that next rises in any lawyer’s mind, is ‘What does it cost?’ The answer there is that it really depends on the payment option the client chooses. Different credit cards, e.g., charge different percentages and may or may not charge an additional transaction fee. Mollie offers a complete overview of the pricing on its pricelist. They offer volume discounts, as well as the option for recurring payments. Also good to know is that you only pay for transactions that are successful, and that payments are secure. Fraud detection and prevention is included in the service package.

Mollie also comes with a mobile-friendly dashboard. From the dashboard, you get a detailed overview of your payment reports, complete with graphs that allow you to compare payments at a glance. You can also decide who on your team you want to give what access to your dashboard so you can work together with other members of your team. The Dashboard also is the place to process and keep track of refunds.

In short, there are many benefits to using Mollie. It is easy and quick to set up, and customizable to your needs. You get your own personal account manager and have access to a full-fledged support service. And chances are it is already integrated in law firm management software.

More on Smart Contracts

In a previous article on smart contracts, we explained in detail what smart contracts are, and gave some examples. In today’s article we will focus on some of the challenges, and on recent evolutions that addressed those challenges.

Let us first quickly recap what smart contracts are. Michael Matthews defines a smart contract as “a software program that automates the execution of contract terms. It applies to only the performance of executable terms of a contract. Smart contracts do not replace natural language contracts but instead function as a program that connects to a natural language contract through an addendum that establishes an inviolable link between the program and a natural language contract.” Additionally, while smart contracts are automated contracts, what sets them apart from other automated contracts is the usage of Blockchain technology, which registers the contract and its transactions in distributed ledger.

Traditional contracts have certain disadvantages, which often leads to them being contested in court. They are open to interpretation. They are not machine-readable, and e.g., do not have any meta-data that could provide unambiguous clear data. They are also not self-executable, which quite often would make things more efficient. So, the solution seems simple: create machine readable contracts that can self-execute. The whole process can be automated, and the transactions are trusted and registered. The results is higher efficiency and fewer disputes.

Smart contracts, however, come with their own set of challenges. A first challenge is that imprecise data don’t compute. Typically, smart contracts contain conditions that must be met before certain actions are automatically executed. Those conditions must be sufficiently specific and verifiable for the program to evaluate whether they are met.

A related challenge lies in contradictory language. Just as the data must be specific enough, so must the language that specifies the conditions and actions be unambiguously clear. “When stocks are low”, is not sufficiently clear. But it can’t be defined as “below 20%” on one occasion in the contract, and as “below 15%” on another one.

A third challenge has to do with creating logic parameters. When using a Blockchain ledger, transactions are usually registered in real-time. The problem is that the processing of the data by the parties involved doesn’t always happen in real time. The data could be processed, e.g., once a day, or once an hour… This has to be taken in account, which means parameters have to be determined on how and when to process the data to avoid incongruent data sets, which can’t generate a consensus for a contractual condition.

A fourth challenge consists of anticipating data glitches and gaps. Programs contains bugs, and they also cannot anticipate all conditions that might arise. (A lockdown because of the Coronavirus, e.g., may prevent certain tasks from being executed, even if all previously existing necessary conditions are met).

A fifth challenge had to do with scalability. Processing Blockchain transactions requires considerable computing power, as well as sufficient network speed. More complex transactions require more processing power, and much higher network speed to which only some large entities have access.

An inherent risk with all Blockchain-based technologies is the centralization risk. The strength of Blockchain technology lies in its decentralized ledgers. Tsui S. Ng, in an article for the American Bar Association, rightfully points out that there is a risk “if power is concentrated into a small number of hands. Such concentration means that a group of bad actors may conspire together to approve malicious transactions.”

A last challenge has to do with usability. Just as traditional contracts are written in natural language that machines have difficulties interpreting, smart contracts are primarily written in code and therefore not easily readable by the average lawyer. Tools are needed to bridge the usability gap.

Since we wrote our previous article, nearly two years ago, a lot of progress has been made in addressing these challenges. As a result, the use of smart contracts is constantly and rapidly rising. In his article, Eduard Kotysh points out that the technology is maturing, that new and improved tools are becoming available, and that because the problems are systematically being addressed, trust is building. He concludes that “the ecosystem has gathered enough momentum with the media and events worldwide to hit a critical mass to go viral.” Another important evolution is that the technology has become more accessible.

These evolutions are largely due to the creation of several consortia that collaborate on establishing international platforms, protocols and frameworks for smart contracts and Blockchain backed transactions. Once such platform, e.g., is OpenLaw (www.openlaw.io) which started as a joint US and Swiss open source project that allows lawyers to make legally binding and self-executing agreements on the Ethereum blockchain.

Ethereum is one of the leading platforms for smart contracts and was specifically designed for that purpose. Tsui S. Ng: “Although traditional cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, can store and transfer value, Ethereum is also capable of carrying data in the form of arguments, which means that the platform can be programmed to take a specific action once certain conditions are met. Thus, contracts can be programmed to be self-executing because the platform can send money once the specified conditions are satisfied. Theoretically, given enough time, the platform will eventually be able to solve any computable problem. However, in practice, how well the platform runs depends upon network speed and memory.”

Smart contracts have become so popular, that they even have their own programming languages, of which Solidity is most popular. Another sign of how much the technology has matured is that platforms are being created, such as Solidified, that focus on auditing smart contracts.

In summary, smart contracts are changing how legal matters and contracts are drafted. Michael Matthews points out that this inherently implies that we are finding new ways of working: instead of focusing on risk and liability, like traditional contracts do, with smart contracts we focus on the outcome parties desire. He predicts that in the future, smart contracts will force a new methodology, that of outcome-based thinking.

 

 

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Video conferencing

The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way we work. Working remotely has become the new normal. An important part of working remotely, is the ability to have virtual meetings and that is where video conferencing comes into the picture. The sudden explosion of video conferencing affects the legal profession, too. Lawyers meet in video chats with their clients as well as with their colleagues. In several countries, notaries are now offering their services online and no longer require parties to be physically present as long as they can join a video conference. And courts, too, have started handling cases where parties and their lawyers are not attending physically, but in video conferences.

There are several advantages to having virtual meetings. Important at present is that by not having to meet in person, one avoids the risk of getting contaminated by anyone attending the meeting who might be infected. But also important is that virtual meetings save a lot of time and reduce costs, since there is no need for transport, etc.

So, what do you need to start video conferencing? First, you need a device with a camera and a microphone. Most smart phones, tablets, and laptops have built-in microphones and cameras that will do the job perfectly. If you are using a desktop computer, however, chances are you will have to acquire a separate microphone and camera to hook up to your computer. Secondly, you need to use video conferencing software. Let us have a closer look at those.

Several packages are on offer. When deciding which one to choose, you will have to consider what your specific needs and desires are. Do you need the ability to share documents or collaborate on them during the meeting? Do you want to be able to share your desktop with other people in the meeting, so you can show them certain items, e.g., do a presentation? How secure is the software? Is the software easy to use and accessible? Will your clients have to install an app? What devices and platforms are supported? What support options are available? Etc.

When it comes to the cost, video conferencing packages come in three varieties: first, there are packages that are free. Then, there are packages that use a Freemium model, where the basic offering is free, and you pay for additional features. And lastly, there are packages that you always must pay for because they don’t offer a free option.

In recent weeks, both Tech Radar Magazine and PC Magazine dedicated articles to the best video conferencing packages available. (Links below). We will give an overview of the seven most popular options and go into a little more detail on Microsoft Teams.

GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). GoToMeeting is a mobile-friendly app that is available in 3 versions, one free and two paying. Meetings are held in a virtual conference rooms, that can also be accessed by a browser via a custom URL. It is easy to use and offers useful apps for enhanced productivity. It is recommended by PC Magazine for small businesses and consumers.

Skype (www.skype.com). Most people are familiar with Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2011. It comes in 3 versions, a free version, a Skype for Business Basic version, and a full Skype for Business version. A copy of the free version is typically preinstalled on Windows 10 computers. If you have a version of Office 365 or Microsoft 365, you should have access to one of the paid versions of Skype. Skype excels in its cross-platform support and offers features like live subtitles and screen sharing. Skype meetings, too, can be accessed in a browser. It has a limit of maximum 50 people attending a meeting.

Google Hangouts (hangouts.google.com). Google Hangouts come in 2 versions, a free version, and a Google Hangouts Meet version, which is part of the G Suite set of applications, and fully integrates with them. It is accessible and simple, and the paying version is designed specifically to meet business needs. It can handle large numbers of participants. Google Hangouts can be accessed in a browser, or via dedicated apps.

Cisco Webex (www.webex.com). Cisco Webex comes in 2 versions, a free version and a paid one, which you may have access to if you are an existing Cisco customer. It is limited in features, but can handle up to 100 participants, with the restriction that only 25 of them can be included in the video stream simultaneously. PC Magazine recommends it for large organizations and existing Cisco customers.

Zoom Meeting (www.zoom.com). Zoom probably is the most popular video conferencing platform at the moment. It comes in a free and a paid version. It is easy to use, offers many features and excellent performance. It is limited to 100 participants. Zoom has been in the news, however, for security and privacy issues. If you plan to use it, some tweaks in the settings are needed to make it more secure. PC magazine calls it the best solution for small businesses and consumers.

Bluejeans (www.bluejeans.com). Bluejeans comes in three different paying versions. It offers an excellent service that includes whiteboards and screen sharing. Unique is its Dolby-powered directional audio experience, where you hear each participant in a separate location. It can be used in a browser, or via dedicated apps for mobile or desktop. PC Magazine calls it the best option for collaboration and shared meetings.

Microsoft Teams (teams.microsoft.com). Microsoft Teams is part of the Microsoft 365 for Business subscriptions. (Until recently, those were called Office 365 for Business). It is highly customizable and offers plenty of features that integrate tightly with other Microsoft 365 applications. It not only comes as a full-fledged desktop app, but there also are mobile versions, and can even be used in a Chromium-based browser, like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. Certain features, however, like desktop sharing are only available in the desktop app. It is recommended by PC Magazine for large businesses that operate within the Microsoft environment.

Note that as a law firm, you are probably using Microsoft 365 for Business or Microsoft 365 Premium for Business, which means Microsoft Teams is included in the package. It is not a specific video conferencing tool, but rather a collaboration tool that offers chat and video conferencing functionality. Any of the Microsoft / Office 365 apps can be launched from within the Teams desktop app, making it even easier to share and collaborate with other Team members. You can have multiple teams for multiple projects. It is possible to split the work of a team up in sections and channels, which allows for better project management.

Finally, some additional tips that will improve your video conferencing experience:

  • Counterintuitive as it may seem, the audio experience is more important than the visual experience during a video conference. People don’t mind if the video is of slightly lower quality but do mind low audio quality. Make sure you have a decent microphone and loudspeakers.
  • Make sure your camera is at eye-height, and make sure you look into the camera when speaking.
  • Pay attention to lighting: make sure there is sufficient light, that the light source is facing you and pointed away from the camera. (Do not sit in front of a bright window, e.g., where people only see your silhouette against a brightly lit background).
  • When you are attending a meeting with several participants, do not forget that even when you are not speaking, you are on camera, and everybody can see you and your environment.
  • If it is not necessary for you to be visible at a given time, consider switching off your camera for that time.

Happy video conferencing!

 

Addendum 1: on 21 April 2020, Microsoft officially changed the name of Office 365 Personal and Office 365 Home to Microsoft 365 Personal, and Microsoft 365 Family respectively.

Addendum 2: as of May 2020, Google has made Google Hangouts Meet available for free.

Addendum 3: as of 2 June 2020, Microsoft has made a free version of Teams available.

 

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Working Remotely

With the Corona virus pandemic causing havoc, people are urged to work from home for the foreseeable future. For lawyers, that generally is not a problem: The ABA Tech Survey Report showed that in 2019, nearly three quarter of attorneys had worked remotely, and that most lawyers who have children tend to work from home more often.

In previous articles, we pointed out that most law firm management software providers these days offer a cloud solution that allows you to work from anywhere, at any time.  So, if your law firm is using a cloud-based law firm management software package, you shouldn’t have a problem, as you already have access to your cases & documents. And with the Office 365 licenses, you can install the software on several devices, so having it at home should not a be problem either.

What else do you need to work comfortably from home? Let’s go over the list.

  • A PC, laptop, or tablet. While it’s possible to work on a smart phone, once you have to start merging documents, or have clear overviews of reports etc., having a PC, a laptop, or to a lesser degree a tablet, is a better option.
  • A fast, and preferably unlimited bandwidth internet connection. You don’t want to wait for your information to appear on your screen, nor do you want the distraction of having to check whether you have sufficient data left.
  • Robust Wi-Fi that makes that fast internet connection available throughout your house.
  • A backup internet connection. Internet connections do oocasionally go down temporarily and sometimes it can take a while before they’re restored.
  • A UPS. Not only Internet connections can go down. Sometimes the electricity does, too, and you don’t want to lose what you’re working on when it does.
  • A conference speaker. Making conference calls with associates and/or clients are more comfortable with a conference speaker.
  • Webcam. As you’re less likely to have in person meetings, video conferencing usually offers a viable alternative.
  • If you’re going to work many hours a day from home, then a decent monitor, mouse, and keyboard are a must. This also applies if you are using a laptop. And do yourself a favour and get yourself an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Your body will be grateful.
  • Lawyer tend to work with documents and having a scanner at home usually is a necessity. You can scan the documents and upload them to the cloud. A printer, too, is a must.
  • Lawyers work with sensitive information that is attractive to hackers. To work securely from home, you need a firewall. For security reasons, it is also recommended to have a VPN, especially now cybercriminals are increasingly targeting people who work remotely.
  • Headphones or earbuds. There tend to be more interruptions and distractions when you’re working from home. Headphones and earbuds can help keeping those distractions under control.
  • If you’re going to spend several hours a day working, you also want a good, comfortable chair and desk. To prevent being too sedentary, you may consider a sit-stand desk converter.
  • You also need ample lighting, preferably natural light.
  • You may also consider one charger for all your gadgets to prevent a jungle of cables and chargers.

Specifically for lawyers, you probably should consider using a secure client portal, if you aren’t already doing so. It allows you to securely communicate and collaborate with your clients, and also makes it easy for them to follow-up on how their case or cases are going.

There are certain other measures to be taken as well. If you won’t be at the office, you need to communicate these changes with your clients, staff, and colleagues. You have to make sure you have ways to communicate securely. You also may want to consider going to the post office to set up (regular) mail forwarding so the mail that usually arrives at the office now is delivered at home.

Now, working from home comes with its own set of challenges that you have to be aware of:

  • There will be distractions and interruptions. Interruptions are external factors. As Steve Ranger puts it: “Distractions are slightly different. These are mostly the result of being in a different environment to the one which you are used to, and that means habits are disrupted and priorities get muddled. In the office your priorities are (mostly) well defined – you’re there to work. At home your priorities are different; having fun, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV – almost by definition everything not work related.” You need discipline and routine. To make working from home feel more like work, one author suggests dressing like you’re going to work. It is also a good practice to set clear work hours, and to work in the same area.
  • You must find new ways of collaborating with colleagues and clients and remain aware of the fact that all these relationships need in-person attention. You don’t want to rely on written communication only, as the chances of miscommunication are bigger. There are plenty of tools available to collaborate, like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, to name but a few. Just make sure that you set expectations with your clients and colleagues.
  • You have to take your mental health into account. More than a third of people who work from home experience difficulties adapting to the isolation and loneliness that come with it. So, make sure to call a friend or co-worker every once in a while.
  • Many people also feel less motivated when working from home.
  • Security is another challenge. Make sure you have all patches installed, for all devices you’re using, including routers! Invest in the necessary infrastructure (like a firewall). Change your passwords regularly. Use encryption to secure all devices.
  • Stay focused but cut yourself some slack. Make sure to unplug and switch off.

Keeping all of the above in mind, working from home should be a comfortable experience.

 

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Managing your Law Firm in the Cloud

These days, virtually all providers of law firm management software offer a full cloud solution, which is a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution. What does that mean? The Wikipedia teaches us that Software as a Service is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted. It is sometimes referred to as on-demand software, Web-based software, or as hosted software. SaaS apps are typically accessed by users using a thin client, e.g. via a web browser. SaaS has become a common delivery model for many business applications, including law firm management software.

Let us take CICERO LawPack as an example. Effectively, all you need to start running it is a device with a browser, an Office 365 Business Premium license, and the Office apps installed on the device. The software to manage your law firm, your data and your documents are all stored in the cloud, on different servers. As Office 365 Business Premium comes with SharePoint, it only makes sense to store all your documents on the SharePoint server, since it offers many benefits (more on that below).

This set-up is quite different from the olden days where each law firm had to have its own servers and workstations. The main difference with this cloud solution is that your documents are no longer stored on a computer in your law firm, but on the SharePoint servers. In this set-up, you pay per user, and each user has 1 TB of data included in the subscription.

For those who are switching to this SaaS model, it is good to know that all services such as updates and backups of SQL data are typically included in the subscription price for the law firm management software. Typically, there also are no separate start-up costs, and the number of users is can be adjusted monthly. Often, the service provider will offer existing customers a test period where they can already move your database to the cloud, so you can try things out and get an idea of the speed.

In the past, some law firms used Citrix or remote desktop software to be able to work remotely. This typically was done because of licensing issues, i.e. to avoid having to pay multiple Microsoft licenses per user. But that is no longer the case. The subscription-based Office 365 model has entirely different licensing conditions where you pay per user and the user is allowed to install the Office apps on multiple devices. So, this workaround is no longer needed. (The sources below contain a blog article where that is explained in more detail).

As mentioned above, this set-up has many benefits. Having the workload shared over several servers typically increases the speed of the delivery of information, and also lowers the operational risks. If for some reason the data server is temporarily not accessible, you still have full access to all your documents. This set-up also allows you to use multiple factor authentication (MFA) to log into the software.

In a previous article, listed below, we already explained the benefits of using a SharePoint server. It offers a file hosting service, collaborative software, enterprise content and document management, intranet solutions, as well as the possibility to develop custom web applications.

Most users particularly appreciate the ability to share and collaborate on documents, which allows you to work simultaneously with multiple users on a document without the need for any email traffic. Your clients and associates, e.g., can just leave their comments in the text.

Moreover, all documents are indexed, which makes it easier to search through documents from different case files.

There is also an integration with Microsoft Teams to manage chats with clients or employees.

In short, this SaaS solution offers lower costs, less to worry about, and the ability to work more securely, effectively and flexibly.

 

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An Introduction to Facebook for Lawyers

A while ago we wrote an introduction for lawyers to LinkedIn. In today’s article, we’ll focus on Facebook, and how it can be useful for lawyers. From a professional content marketing point of view, both LinkedIn and Facebook have similar offerings. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When something works well on one platform, the other is likely to implement it as well.

Let us first, in the unlikely event the reader isn’t familiar with Facebook, shortly explain what it is. The (Dutch language) Wikipedia defines it as follows: ” Facebook (formerly Thefacebook) is the name of an online social networking site and the eponymous company headquartered in Menlo Park, California, United States. After registration, users can create a personal profile, add friends (contacts, contacts), send messages, post statuses, post photos, share videos, and receive notifications from ‘friends’ who update their profile. Users can also join different groups and categorize their ‘friends’ into groups, such as ‘Friends at work’ or ‘Good friends’.”

When it comes to using social media for professional purposes, Facebook is the second most used website among lawyers. LinkedIn, with its focus on professional connections, is the most used. It’s worth noting, however, that smaller firms and firms that offer their services to individuals rather than companies, tend to prefer Facebook over LinkedIn. (People used to joke that mainly personal injury lawyers were advertising on Facebook).

Why would you, as a lawyer, choose to use Facebook for professional reasons? Carolyn Elefant gives 5 reasons:

  1. Everyone’s on Facebook. As Lexblog’s Kevin O’Keefe also points out, Facebook is by far the largest social media website. Whereas LinkedIn may have 260 million active users worldwide, Facebook has an estimated 2.38 billion active users worldwide. If you want to meet people online, Facebook is good place to start.
  2. Users on Facebook are engaged. Online legal consumers love engagement, and Facebook thrives on engagement: messages are liked, shared, commented upon. Many lawyers first meet their clients through social interactions, and Facebook is designed for that.
  3. Facebook is mobile. Online legal consumers love their mobile devices, and Facebook accommodates them.
  4. Facebook is the most versatile platform, that offers the most tools to interact with people in different ways. And that includes tools for advertising to very specific target audiences.
  5. Facebook isn’t all about the law. Legal consumers prefer to work with people they know and feel they can trust. By having a glimpse at lawyers’ personal lives, relationships and trust can be developed.

 

So, what does Facebook have to offer? As mentioned above, it’s similar to what LinkedIn does, i.e. personal profiles, company pages, groups, advertising & metrics. Apart from those, it also offers Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and chatbots. Let us have a closer look.

 

Personal profiles: the first thing you do when you sign up to Facebook, is to create a personal profile. Where on LinkedIn your profile is more of a résumé, your Facebook profile is more personal. You can post messages, add photos, videos, etc. You also want to connect with other people by asking them to be your ‘friend’. Once people are part of your friends you can start interacting with them in several ways. It is possible to post entire blog articles as messages on Facebook.

 

Company pages: Facebook also allows you to create pages. These aren’t just company pages but can also be dedicated to certain causes, or even certain products or services. As a law firm, you’ll want to make sure your law firm has its own company page where you can provide information about the firm and interact with anyone who decides to interact with you through the page. What makes company pages even more interesting, is the metrics Facebook provides for them (see below). Facebook also offers chatbot functionality, and it’s fairly easy to add a chatbot to your company page.

 

Groups: Facebook also uses groups, where people discuss the topics the group is dedicated to. If you want to build a positive online reputation for yourself, actively participating in groups in a helpful way is recommended. You may even consider starting your own group and inviting people to it.

 

One of the points where Facebook excels is advertising and metrics. When you post a message, photo or video on your company page, Facebook offers you metrics on how many people saw them, shared them, interacted with them, etc. When you sign up to advertise through Facebook, it opens up a whole new world of metrics, and it allows you to use different criteria to target specific users. Say you have published a book, and created a page for it, you could have Facebook show ads to people within your geographical area that have interacted with the page in some way (liked it, commented on a message, etc.) But you could even be far more specific and use anything Facebook knows about its users to target them with your ads. If you’re a divorce lawyer, you could, e.g., target anybody in your geographical area who changed their marital status from married to it’s complicated.

 

Facebook also offers secure communications through Messenger and WhatsApp, which are more secure than non-encrypted emails. Worth noting is that chatbots can be integrated into these, too.

 

How do you get started? Tammy Cannon of the Social Media Examiner suggests the following three steps.

  1. Support your business with a Facebook personal profile.
  2. Market and advertise your business with a Facebook Business Page.
  3. Engage a narrow audience with Facebook Groups.

In follow-up articles, we’ll explore more in detail how you as a lawyer can use Facebook, including how you can effectively market yourself on the platform.

 

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Legal Tech Predictions for 2020

In two previous articles, we paid attention to the legal technology trends of 2019. Most of those are expected to continue in 2020. Apart from those, several authors made their own predictions, too, for what legal technology will bring in 2020. We’ll summarize the most interesting and important ones below.

Now, when looking at all the predictions, three items stand out. The first one is the omnipresence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Whether we’re talking about legal service delivery (to lawyers as well as legal consumers), marketing, cybersecurity, eDiscovery, etc., there is no escaping AI. Secondly, the general mantra for 2020 seems to be ‘automate, automate, automate’. And thirdly, the cloud, too, becomes more and more omnipresent.

Market: The judiciary finally boards the train of legal tech and automation. Authors predict an increase is online courts, in courts using case management software, and in using legal analytics to speed up decision making.

When it comes to the service providers on the legal market, experts expect some cross-industry mashups, where players from other markets (e.g. accounting, analytics & data mining) join forces with legal service providers.

The trend where law firms are being run like business continues, with law firms hiring more people who have joint business and law degrees.

Law Firm Management Software: authors expect the trend of focusing on process automation to increase efficiency to continue, which will allow law firms to scale their services. Many predict that law firms will finally start becoming more client-centred, with a heavy focus on improving the client experience, and on client collaboration through improved client portals.

Cloud: as mentioned before, the usage of the cloud in the legal market is expecting to keep on rising. When it comes to lawyers using the cloud, security will remain a main challenge. The good news is that many predictions see the clouds getting connected, i.e. they predict that the interoperability between the different cloud platforms will increase. Experts also see a rise in edge computing, and an accelerated adoption of PaaS (Platform as a Service).

(Google Maps is a good example to explain what edge computing is. Google uses servers all over the world. When you use Google Maps in your area, you’re presented with a local copy of the information that is stored on a server near to you. Edge computing means that the information storage and the computation power are distributed to bring them closer to where they are needed. PaaS: the Wikipedia defines it as “a category of cloud computing services that provides a platform allowing customers to develop, run, and manage applications without the complexity of building and maintaining the infrastructure typically associated with developing and launching an app.”)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most predictions have to do with Artificial Intelligence. In general, the experts expect advances in NLP (Natural Language Processing), conversational AI (chatbots), Computer Vision, and Reinforcement Learning (a type of Machine Learning). More specific for the legal market, most authors talk about how the work of lawyers changes as AI and automation will take over certain tasks lawyers and paralegals were performing until now, and how this will increase the efficiency of law firms. The increased usage of AI is also expected to have an impact on compliance, research, due diligence, and legal documentation (creation, analysis and review of legal documents).

Apart from that, there are also more specific predictions. Law firms are expected to start using more data-driven legal marketing, predictive legal analytics, and Virtual Assistants. AI is also expected to start contributing to finding new legal solutions.

Most of the predictions about Security are rather dire. All experts warn about deepfakes and that there will be a considerable increase in incidents of security breaches, both on-premise and in the cloud. Artificial Intelligence is increasingly being used by both cybercriminals and by those fighting cybercrime.

eDiscovery: the experts see three trends and three challenges. The trends are a) that eDiscovery continues its move to the cloud; b) that the line between e-discovery and information governance will continue to blur; and c) the continued increase of AI usage. A first challenge has to do with the tension between eDiscovery and privacy legislation with regard to analytics. A second challenge lies in the increase of atypical data sources like ephemeral messaging, IoT device data, collaboration tools and app-based information. A third challenge is how to deal with an increase in deepfakes and fabricated evidence.

When it comes to Blockchain, the experts don’t agree. Some point at the fact that thus far, there has been far more hype than actual results. Most of them, however, are expecting an increase in real-life applications in the legal market. At the same time, they also expect more cases of Blockchain fraud and litigation.

 

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A Chatbot For Your Law Firm

We have talked about chatbots on several occasions in the past. Most of those targeted legal consumers. Today, we’ll have a look at how a chatbot could benefit your law firm.

Let’s start by defining what a chatbot is. A chatbot is a computer program designed to mimic human conversation. It is typically powered by rules or by more advanced Artificial Intelligence technologies like Machine Learning. Most chatbots are text-based, but more advanced ones like Siri or Alexa, are voice-based. In law firms, they are often used for simple tasks like increasing lead generation, client intake, booking an appointment or accepting payments. More advanced legal chatbots can generate, review and analyse legal documents.

You may think a chatbot is not for your law firm, but you’d be mistaken. There are many benefits, both for your clients and prospective clients, as well as for your law firm.

What makes chatbots attractive to the legal consumers?

  • First, there is the unprecedented popularity of messaging apps. One of the reasons chatbots can be found everywhere is because they became popular on messaging aps. The first chatbots appeared on Facebook Messenger and soon after were offered on other platforms like Skype, weChat, Telegram, Slack, Kik, Line, and SMS.
  • People love their mobile devices, and chatbots are typically designed for mobile first.
  • People love to text. Did you know text messages boast a 98% open rate? Chatbots benefit from this.
  • People love interaction, and chatbots are interactive. They increase engagement.
  • Chatbots are available 24/7.
  • Our online culture is an instant gratification culture. Chatbots can give instantaneous responses. Research shows that 70 % of consumers prefer a chatbot to interacting with a human being, if it means they’ll get an instantaneous response.
  • Chatbots can mimic lawyers for several tasks, which means the legal consumers who need those services can get their needs met faster, and typically at a lower or no cost.

What are the benefits for your law firm?

  • Because consumers love interaction, conversational marketing has become a key part of promotion for any business, including law firms.
  • Chatbots can perform repetitive tasks that lawyers do. They have proven useful in:
    • Client acquisition and intake, as well as lead generation.
    • Answering FAQs, so you don’t have to email back and forth answering questions you are frequently asked.
    • Document generation and review.
  • Using chatbots to take care of repetitive tasks therefore leaves you more time for more productive and profitable endeavours.

So how do you get started? Once you know what you want your chatbot to do, there are plenty of tools available. In his article, “5 Often-Overlooked Steps to Building a Useful Chatbot for Your Law Practice“, Tom Martin from Lawdroid explains the best way to proceed. He outlines 5 steps.

Step 1 is to determine what your chatbot’s purpose is. Do you, e.g., want to use it to allow new clients to enter their details into your system and book an appointment? Or do you want a more advanced bot who, e.g., can generate or analyse legal documents? Be as specific as possible.

Step 2 is to determine where your bot lives. Will you offer your chatbot on your website, or on Facebook, or Whatsapp, etc.?

In step 3, you choose your bot’s personality: its name, visual style, backstory, and the conversational tone. (People enjoy a bit of humour). Make sure you also tell people they are dealing with a chatbot.

Step 4 is to determine your chatbot’s conversation structure.  Martin breaks this down in six components. First, you need to do some preparation where you look at some essential questions like who your target audience is (e.g. existing or new clients), what they are trying to do, and what they need for that. Next, you can diagram your dialog tree, where you map how the conversation can unfold. Let your chatbot start the conversation with a greeting, and make sure that you manage the users’ expectations: explain what the bot can and cannot do.  Martin calls the next step the “Glide Path to Goal”: the conversation should lead the user to a goal, and to reach that goal as effectively as possible, open-ended questions should be avoided. So, it’s good to suggest possible answers the user can choose from. Once the conversation is ended, and the goal is achieved, it’s good to thank the user, and to provide him or her with a deliverable or a specific call to action. Last but not least, make sure you pay sufficient attention to error handling.

In the fifth and last step, you choose what tools you will use to build your bot. Martin’s article includes a checklist and a list of available platforms.

The checklist includes the following items:

  • Is creating the chatbot free or paid?
  • Is any coding required?
  • What are the publishing platforms for the chatbot?
  • Does it use or need Artificial intelligence?
  • How are the third-party integrations with apps like Gmail, MailChimp, Office 365, etc.
  • What are the supported languages?
  • What is the recommended use? (You don’t need a bot, e.g., that uses Machine Learning if you only want your new clients to fill out their details).

If you want to build your legal chatbot, the following platforms are currently available:

(In his article, Martin goes over the checklist items for each of these platforms).

Let’s leave it at that for now. We’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this topic. The articles listed below can help you further.

 

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