Executive Director’s Report

Embracing Innovation: Adapting to change is essential for law practitioners

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Jack Rives. Photograph Courtesy of the Executive Director’s Office

The legal profession is at a critical juncture. As the world’s pre-eminent association focused on the rule of law, the American Bar Association has a vital role to lead responses to the challenges facing today’s attorneys, including such issues as legal education, increased competition, and underemployed and unemployed lawyers. In the future, people will look to the actions we take—and fail to take—as a profound moment of opportunities embraced or opportunities missed.

Just one example of change: Many courthouses now offer a kiosk for public use. The kiosk is designed to help a nonattorney do a range of things from simple tasks all the way to filings in court. Such an innovation epitomizes the legal profession’s new reality, where online legal forms cause many to believe they don’t need an attorney since they can get “everything they need” on their smartphone.

Has our profession become less relevant? If so, what can be done about it?


The Luddites came to prominence 200 years ago in England. They famously demolished labor-saving machines. But it’s important to realize they were not opposed to all technological advances; they only destroyed those machines that threatened their jobs.

A similar attitude can be found across the legal profession today. Attorneys are concerned about the kiosks and online legal forms and the impact they have on their livelihoods. But more than that: Does technology threaten today’s legal profession? Of course, we cannot turn back the clock. The technological advances are here to stay and will continue to grow.

What happens to entities that do not adapt to change? Consider Kodak. Forty years ago, Kodak held the first patent on a digital camera. But the company’s leadership refused to pursue that innovation. In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and produced 85 percent of the photographic paper in the world. By 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy—because the company did not adapt.

Likewise, in 2004 Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. Company leaders assumed people would continue to come to their brick-and-mortar stores to get VHS tapes and DVDs. They did not feel threatened, even as Netflix began to grow. By 2010, Blockbuster was bankrupt.

taking the lead

But how about entities that do adapt? When you first hear the name Western Union, you probably think about one thing: telegrams. Western Union sent its last telegram more than 10 years ago. It’s now in the business of transferring money through more than 515,000 locations in over 200 countries. Western Union is thriving, and clearly not because it stayed with the telegram business.

Another organization that adapted was the National Geographic Society, which has published National Geographic magazine since 1888. By the mid-1990s, leadership realized times were changing and print magazines were not going to be as popular in the future. So the nonprofit society transformed its business model by adjusting to online versions of the magazine and creating the National Geographic channels for cable television. By so doing, they transitioned from the traditional magazine format that has seen so many business failures in recent years to a thriving, modern multiplatform model.

We are at a historical inflection point. We must embrace change, or in the future people will wonder: “Whatever happened to the American Bar Association ... and to the practice of law?”


On Sept. 1, 2016, the ABA took a big step to help the profession develop new and innovative ways to improve how legal services are delivered and accessed. Our new Center for Innovation seeks to drive technological change to improve and modernize the practice of law. The center will serve as a resource for ABA members, maintaining an inventory of the ABA’s innovation efforts and those of the domestic and international legal services community. It will also operate a program of innovation fellowships to work with other professionals, such as technologists, entrepreneurs and design professionals, to improve the justice system.

The center is off to a busy start. It is developing a nationwide “call for project proposals” competition to facilitate the development and implementation of projects that advance legal technology and improve access to justice. The center is assisting the New York State Unified Court System with a court-annexed online dispute resolution pilot project to address consumer debt cases more efficiently. It is developing a free, online legal checkup tool to help members of the public identify legal issues in specific subject areas and refer them to appropriate resources. And the center has partnered with Stanford University, CuroLegal and leading national civil rights groups to launch a new comprehensive online application to assist victims of hate crimes.

Another major technological development is Free Legal Answers (abafreelegalanswers.org), which launched in August and provides income-eligible users with the ability to pose civil legal questions to volunteer attorneys. The site helps to expand legal services for low-income individuals who must meet income eligibility guidelines in each state. More than 40 states are or have committed to participating in the website. By the end of November, pro bono lawyers had responded to nearly 1,400 questions from clients under this program.

These and other new and innovative approaches will drive the ABA and our profession forward.

I do not underestimate the sincerity of those opposed to change. But like the bands of English workers 200 years ago who destroyed machinery they believed threatened their jobs, actions we take today will have significant consequences. We cannot limit technological improvements to everything but our profession. We must modernize and adapt to continuing technological changes in the legal profession.

Innovative lawyers must work alongside innovative technologies and show the enhanced relevance of our profession. Yes, there are significant challenges facing the legal profession and our association and the public we serve. They present ideal opportunities to make needed changes. It’s time for us to embrace the challenges and overcome them smartly!

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