Lawyers in the smartphone era

There’s been enough written lately about the iPhone 3G release to choke a broadband stream, especially here in Canada. I ended up reading most of the coverage because I happened to be looking for a smartphone for my wife’s birthday last week (I eventually went with the Treo 755p), and you’ll thank me not to repeat it all here.

But in this mass media morass was a series of interesting articles in the Globe & Mail about the smartphone era we’re now entering. This quote from one of the interviewees expressed a common sentiment: “This marketplace is the most rapid-growing application marketplace the world has ever seen….a marketplace that will completely dwarf the computer industry and its growth.” The smartphone is just about the hottest thing going in forward-looking social, business and technology circles — that’s a tough triple to pull off.

Now, on the one hand, these people are enthusiasts on the bleeding edge who invariably have a lot of skin in the smartphone game. On the other, though, it seems foolish to bet against the continued stratospheric ascent of the mobile phone. When African farmers are using cellphones to check commodity prices and sell their crops, and when we’re on the verge of phones that you can wave at a scanner to pay for your groceries as you leave the supermarket, then you know we’re in the midst of something seriously new.

So it might be time for us to start thinking hard about the impact this revolution will have on the legal industry. I’m certainly not the person to explore all the possibilities, but it seems reasonably foreseeable at this point that two smartphone-related developments will soon manifest themselves in the legal marketplace.

The first is that thanks to smartphones, every lawyer is going to be mobile. It’s true that the Blackberry has already made itself a significant presence in the lives of many business lawyers, for better and for worse. But as a general rule, the lawyer’s center of gravity remains where it’s always been: her office, where she keeps her desk, chair, landline phone, files, books, and desktop computer.

That center of gravity is now shifting to the lawyer herself. With the smartphones of the near future at her command, that lawyer will be able to do everything on the road — call, e-mail, Web browse, review files, read cases, write memos, etc. — that she now does in the office. In fact, it’ll be expected of her. A lawyer with a smartphone is a walking law firm — one that hardly ever closes. Lawyers who obsessively check their smartphone messages are considered antisocial nuisances today, but before long, they’ll be the norm. I’m not saying that’s good, but I am saying it’s pretty much inevitable.

The second impact category relates to the ways in which cellphones will soon be able to do work that lawyers now do. We’ve already witnessed, way back in the 1990s, the advent of CD-based legal services like do-it-yourself wills. And the Internet has brought us everything from simple online divorces to complex web-based legal applications like Linklaters’ Blue Flag and Blake Dawson Waldron’s SALT. Smartphones, which will soon be as ubiquitous and affordable as they are portable, will quite literally place the power to engineer legal services in the palms of millions of hands.

If you doubt how soon this will happen, read the linked article at the Globe about the iPhone App Store, which opened for business when the 3G was launched. The App Store already has about 500 applications ready for download, and there’s a $100 million investment fund looking to support the developers of thousands more. Blackberry is pursuing the same strategy, as are other smartphone makers, all with the aim of ensuring their platform becomes the leading brand for mobile Net users.

Some of those apps are already aimed at the lawyer market (witness the iPhone time and billing application LionClock). Among the tens of thousands of future applications will be many that deliver legal services directly to clients. For lawyers, this development could represent either a threat (yet another way in which computers are reducing traditional lawyer work to a series of algorithms) or an opportunity (someone with legal knowhow and experience has to design those algorithms; why not a law firm?). But either way, over the next decade, smartphones will become a legal service delivery medium. Now’s the time for lawyers to start dealing with that.

Some people will say that there’s no way a simple cellphone will ever be able to do lawyer work. Some people used to say that about computers, too. So I’ll take this opportunity to update one of my axioms: the problem won’t be  smartphones doing what lawyers can do; it’ll be lawyers continuing to do what smartphones can do.


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