Focus: Apps can unchain lawyers from desk: developer

Smartphones have ushered in a new area of connectivity and an increasing number of mobile applications are being developed, influencing the way lawyers work.

Apps are also being designed to bring justice into the hands of more people and those who need it.

Take Clio. Launched in 2008 in Vancouver to address case management needs, Clio now employs more than 130 people and has offices in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland. Geared for solo lawyers and small firms, Clio is a cloud-based tool designed to help lawyers run their practice.

Then there’s StandIn. Developed by Toronto’s Conduit Law, StandIn is a location-based app that allows lawyers to locate lawyers and agents to stand in for them at a court appearance.

There’s also It is geared to connect people with a lawyer practising in a certain area in their geographic district.

Or Legalswipe. The free app offers information to the general public about their rights during interactions with police and includes a broadcast messaging feature to emergency contacts. Its goal is to provide a step-by-step guide to ensure those interacting with police don’t forfeit their rights early on in the process and is geared toward young people.

“There’s lots of room for new players and new companies,” says Mitch Kowalski, a lawyer and legal services consultant. Canada is starting to see an increase in  the number of tools available for the mobile device, he says.

But Kowalski says there’s plenty of potential in the Canadian market for law on the run. He attributes greater advancements with mobile applications in the United States to a larger population and greater access to capital. He says Canada has a harder time connecting with venture capital.

“We’re not knocking it out of the park by any means,” he says.

Garry Wise has his own general practice and a keen interest in the mobile office. Several years ago, he developed WiseLii, a mobile legal research tool that makes CanLii case and legal information accessible through a smartphone for those on the go.

His next goal is to show other lawyers how they can run entire offices on their phones.

“The app of the future should take the tasks that lawyers need to do . . .  and hopefully allows functionality that we can’t even do on our desktops,” he says. “The app of the future is a fairly integrated program that allows lawyers to do everything they do from their desktop and even more.”

Wise says his own office has spent the better part of the last decade on an app designed to address a wide array of needs of the legal office, and it’s currently in use in his own office in Toronto.

The functionality he sought — the ability to draft correspondence, keep time and accounting records, make entries, mark calendar items, save and retrieve documents, perform inter-office communication, notifying and keeping lists, and connecting with others in the firm — can be done on a smartphone, he says. His app is called Assent, a play on the royal assent required to pass legislation.

“I built it because I couldn’t stand opening 10 different programs to do a simple task,” says Wise.

Smartphones play a significant role in the job of the working lawyer, observes Ron Friedmann, a Virginia-based legal consultant with Fireman and Company. Friedmann is a prolific blogger and focuses his work on strategic legal technology for large firms.

“There’s no question that in the large law firm market that mobility has been huge,” he says.

And U.S. lawyers do have specialized apps at their disposal, like ones that can give lawyers access to their computing system and servers in the office. Lawyers, he adds, were early adopters of the BlackBerry phones, embracing that technology. Microsoft Office is now also available on different platforms, including smartphones.

While the ability is there to do work on the smartphone, Friedmann questions if you’d actually want to.

“From an efficiency perspective, it’s good to have access, but if you’re going to create content, it’s far better to have a larger screen,” he observes. “The [smartphone] limitation is really its screen size and keyboard. If I want to be productive, I’m going to be on a personal computer or a Mac.”

Friedmann might well reflect a wider reluctance in the legal profession that Amina Juma is seeing as she prepares to enter the legal profession.

That intersection of where law meets technology so intrigued Juma, a third-year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School, that she decided to post research in a blog she calls Think Legal Innovation. She is also working on a technical legal tool at Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone as she completes her schooling. The web-based tool is designed to provide self-represented litigants with the information they need.

“I thought there was a huge opportunity,” she says.

The opportunities she sees in the legal sector are on the commercial, access to justice, as well as the non-profit fronts. She points to ongoing research and lobbying to bring attention to Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women as an area that could well benefit from an app to help get documentary evidence.

“I think there’s a lot of angles app developers could tackle,” says Juma.

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