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ABA summit discusses new paths for providing legal services

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Victor Li

Photo of Victor Li by Saverio Truglia

The ABA’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services focused on new and innovative ways to deliver legal services to the people who desperately need them, and no ideas were out of bounds. The role of technology, the future of lawyers and law firms, new business models and regulatory reforms: These were only some of the many topics attendees at the summit, hosted by ABA President William C. Hubbard, considered as they sought to bridge the access-to-justice gap while staying ahead of the curve.

The invitation-only event was co-sponsored by the ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and Stanford University School of Law and was held May 2-4 at Stanford.

It might seem strange to attend a conference about innovation in legal services and hear the names Carole King and Herbert Hoover invoked, but it worked in the context of the summit’s opening plenary session.

It was Hubbard who invoked King and her song “I Feel the Earth Move” to describe how technology has radically changed the practice of law. Hubbard—who provided the opening remarks along with commission chair Judy Perry Martinez and M. Elizabeth Magill, Stanford Law dean—quoted the song to illustrate his point about how technology has forever altered the landscape for lawyers.

“We must constantly embrace innovation and technology, or we face the threat of becoming obsolete,” Hubbard said. “We can keep acting the way we’ve been acting and risk losing the people we are supposed to serve, or we can embrace tech and innovation in order to help them.”

Meanwhile, our 31st president was a major theme for the plenary session’s featured speaker: Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, associate justice of the Supreme Court of California. Cuéllar, a former Stanford law professor, invoked Hoover’s name as an alumnus of the university and someone who cared very deeply about the effects of globalization.

Legal hacker Tom Ortega II of Omega Ortega—winner of the ABA Journal’s Hackcess to Justice New Orleans contest in March—asked Cuéllar to name specific problems facing the legal industry so that legal hackers would be able to develop solutions. Cuéllar spoke about some family law issues and proposed an app that could help attorneys with basic legal issues to free them up for handling more important matters.

He also noted that it was difficult to give specific examples because “some problems that seem easy actually are easy, and others are actually hard.” However, a panel on the second day presented seven innovative programs—from a nonprofit law firm to digital kiosks accessing a distant court—that are already attacking some of those problems.


Two of the biggest names speaking during the marathon Sunday session drove home the point about the need for the legal profession to bridge the access-to-justice gap.

Author and legal consultant Richard Susskind warned of the dangers of ignoring technology and staying stuck in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The legal industry is too costly, too slow, too forbidding, too unintelligible, too combative and too out of step with the Internet society,” Susskind said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, had a more sobering thought for summit attendees. Referencing the civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, Ifill called on all lawyers to help fix what’s wrong with the legal system and preserve democracy.

“There’s an entire generation now that believes that law is unfair and inequitably applied,” Ifill said. “As the public loses confidence in the rule of law, the less they believe me when I tell them to trust in the law. If they don’t believe me, then what recourse will they have?”

And in the summit’s final day, Hubbard asked featured speaker Richard Barton—founder of Expedia and co-founder of Zillow and Glassdoor—whether he had a positive message for lawyers. Barton answered with two words: challenge and opportunity.

“The opportunity is there to expand the market,” he said. “Aren’t we the least bit curious to learn new ways to deliver the service we are trained to do?”

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Facing the Future: ABA summit discusses new paths for providing legal services.”

Victor Li shares his reporter's notebook at and on Twitter as @LawScribbler.

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