How technology is changing the law

2012-05-27 11:37

Twenty five years ago, a law office was a much different place. Technology for the office staff consisted of a typewriter, a telephone and possibly a transcription device. A secretary would type a page and the attorney would normally read through it, if a typo was found the whole page had to be redone. Hours were spent on the word processing side of the practice but with the introduction of new technology attorneys and staff started to multi task with one secretary working for more than one attorney. Without the internet, legal advice could only be obtained by visiting an attorney.

No one would deny that the world has changed immensely in the past ten years. Today we are doing almost everything online. We shop online, listen to music online, research online, book flights and accommodation online.  The internet is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially the sector of online e-commerce. New generations are considering it as the conventional method of purchasing goods and services.

Businesses which fail to embrace this large catchment of clients and customers will certainly perish. The legal services profession is one that has already fallen way behind the rest of the business fraternity.

It is a fact that clients and customers can purchase legal documents and templates at certain stationary shops. Contemporary legal customers have an expectation of wanting everything for the cheapest possible price and in the quickest possible time. It is for this reason that many people these days make use of online legal services instead of the conventional way of visiting a firm of attorneys.

Although it is true that not all the services offered by the legal profession can be offered online, a wealth of legal services is readily available on the internet. We have seen over the past year a definite increase in online legal document services. Even Google tapped into the market with Rocket lawyer® a free legal document service mainly for the US market with more than 70 000 users a day and its rival Legal Zoom® boasting more than 1 million customers. In the UK alone online Divorces Service have increased by over 50% over the past few years.

Over the past three years has been an increase in online legal document services in South Africa.  eDivorce® launched in 2009, the first online DIY divorce document service for uncontested divorces in South Africa. An uncontested divorce is a divorce where the spouses agree on the division of the assets and the care and contact (custody) of the children. The advantages of such services  are their affordability and a result can be achieved without meeting face to face with an attorney. For instance, eDivorce® charge a fee of R 950 to draft all the documents needed in an uncontested divorce. In comparison an attorney will charge anything from R 3000.00 to R 6000.00 to conclude an uncontested divorce. The only downside is that once you have the documents the process is on a do-it-yourself basis, you still need to do the run around at court. Almost like booking a flight, you still need to visit the airport.

Where a divorce is contested, for example where the spouses are not able to agree on how to divide their assets, it will be in their interest to rather consult an attorney who specialises in Family Law and Divorce Law.

Not only are there services offering divorce documents, but online legal services where you can  draft a Will, a Family Trust and even a Antenuptial contract online. Antenuptial.za.net offers ante nuptial contracts online. Where a law firm owns such a service a customer may have recourse to the Law Society should anything go wrong. However, where the service is not associated with a law firm or attorney the customer may end up at a dead end. It is therefore important to know who you are contracting with.

Technology is changing the way we do things and as technology evolve so will the legal profession to adapt to the changing times. Will lawyers be casualties in the digital revolution?  This seems to be the controversial prediction of Richard Susskind, author of The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.  He predicts that attorneys will have to ask themselves what elements of their current workload could be undertaken more cheaply, more quickly, more efficiently, or to a higher quality using  new methods of working – because if they don’t, he says, their competitors will. The market is unlikely to tolerate expensive lawyers for tasks that can be better discharged with support of modern systems, technology and techniques.

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