Let 2012 be a year for improvement

February 1st, 2012
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By Kim Hawkey – editor

Over the past few months, this column has highlighted a number of changes the legal profession is facing, such as those brought about by the imminent Legal Practice Bill, legal process outsourcing, court-based mandatory mediation and the growing number of attorneys practising in South Africa. Although many of the changes brought about by these factors are beyond the control of the average attorney, there are other changes to the way attorneys are able to practise that are within their grasp.

Various types of technological developments, for example, have the potential to improve the practice of law in many respects.

Technology has advanced to the extent that it is possible to draft urgent court documents on a tablet device or even on a smartphone that fits in the palm of your hand.

Video conferencing, including some reasonable costing options, allows attorneys to ‘meet’ clients and others without the need to leave their offices and thus incur travel expenses (with a concomitant saving for clients) and without unnecessarily taking up more of their most valuable commodity – time.

No longer is it necessary for attorneys to haul reams of paperwork and legal texts to the court room, as these can be accessed on a laptop or tablet device with ease. Research can be done quicker and more efficiently electronically, as case law, legislation and other legal resources can be found online, and WiFi facilities are now available in some of the country’s courts. And it is not only wealthy attorneys that stand to benefit from these new technologies, as millions of South Africans are able to access the internet via their mobile phones, often at affordable prices, and many of the legal sources available on the internet are free.

Some of the court rules and legislation such as the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 have recognised and provided for these developments.

Despite this, there has been some reluctance in the uptake of the new ways of practice opened up by such technology.

In practice, lawyers may be adverse to change, seeing it as a threat to the traditional ways of doing things that have proven to work.

However, it is worth noting that the old way of doing things does not need to be set aside merely for the sake of it, but where a new way of doing things can improve practice without compromising the high standard of work and professional ethic required of attorneys, then these new ways should, at the least, be considered as a viable alternative method.

Adaptation in a developing world, where clients’ needs and wants are changing, is necessary. Information is available in a variety of mediums and is delivered faster than ever before.

Clients’ deadlines are increased and the attorneys that are able to keep up with their demand for faster output are the ones whose services will be retained.

Brendan Hughes, the author of an article on electronic discovery in this edition of De Rebus (see p 24), says that ‘once customers have experienced a newer and better way of doing things, they no longer tolerate the older way’. He adds, in reference to the post office adapting to the 21st century by introducing secure electronic communications services: ‘This example forces lawyers to contemplate not only what their competitors are doing, but also to what extent they have embraced the technological changes being experienced by their clients. How can lawyers adapt to and thrive in their new competitive environments?’

Rather than shy away from these technologies that carry the potential to improve practice, attorneys should focus on managing the risks associated with any new course of action, including putting in place appropriate policies and ensuring that there is proper regulation.

Above all, when contemplating the technologies available, attorneys must ensure that their professional obligations, especially in terms of client confidentiality, independence, integrity, providing quality legal services and reputational protection, continue to be met.

In conclusion, I repeat Richard Susskind’s challenge to lawyers to ask themselves ‘what elements of their current workload could be undertaken differently – more quickly, cheaply, efficiently, or to a higher quality – using alternative methods of working’ (R Susskind The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services 1ed (Oxford University Press 2010) 2).

Let 2012 be a year of improvement and increased productivity that sees your practice flourishing.

 

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (Jan/Feb) DR 3.