Rocket Back to the Future

August 23, 2013

I had been drinking, it was a wedding reception and a child wanted to dance with me (that’s the only invitations I get these days). I danced and, when the Rocky Horror Show’s ‘Time Warp’ was played next, I felt bound to stay on the dance-floor and go through the motions. Or, given my lack of co-ordination, some of the motions – a chorus of YMCA is as demanding for me as the entire choreography of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake is for a normal person.

I am worried now that this brief involvement in the warping of time has had an effect on my professional life and on the wider use of IT in the legal profession.

At least that is one explanation for a peculiar couple of weeks where ghosts of the past seem to have floated back into the present.

The first ghost knocking at the virtual door was {Rocket Lawyer:}, which has now launched in the UK and which began with promise of free use for three days (you’ve missed it). Rocket Lawyer has been a market leader in the USA for some time and I was curious enough to play with it and attempt to create a document. It felt eerily like my first go with Epoch’s RapidDocs just before the turn of the century. I recall Grahame Cohen of Epoch telling me that it would transform the legal landscape. It didn’t. (Epoch has evolved and Grahame Cohen is now involved with {Epoq:}, still very much leading automated document creation technology.) I have no doubt this document automation has moved on in leaps and bounds in the last 15 years but my play with Rocket Lawyer didn’t really reveal that – answer a few questions and get a document. The main difference seemed to be a charging structure that relies on the free start and later payment and the links with a handful of lawyers who could read my document through to check it. Epoch, rather unjustly in my view, didn’t win the SCL Award in 2000, and I am not sure Rocket Lawyer would have a much improved chance to win it if it could travel back in time.

The truth is that Epoch was ahead of its time – it was great but the market was not ready. In fact there was some confusion as to what the market was – lawyers or business directly. I think lawyers and consumers are ready now and we will undoubtedly see lots of players in this market – a lot of law firms are in it themselves (see Charles Drayson’s comment on {this article:} from Probate Wizard’s Tom Hiskey); internally in law firms it is on the cusp of a boom to rival the transformation created by digital dictation. I know LexisNexis are giving it a big push. Document automation really will transform the legal landscape. It will just take a bit longer than we expected.

The second ghost that came a-knocking was dressed from head to toe in parchment with pink ribbon protruding from every orifice. It asked in croaky tones if it was a breach of professional ethics for solicitors to use e-mail because that was an inherently insecure form of communication. I was worried that the speed of the time warp was increasing and that I would shortly be visited by a ghost wondering what I was doing wearing those new-fangled things I called trousers.

The people questioning the ethical limits of e-mail use by lawyers were once all dinosaurs. Those raising questions now are, for the most part (there is the odd dinosaur saying ‘I told you so’), much more sophisticated and have sensible questions to ask. If Google thinks that users of Gmail have no sensible expectation of privacy and the NSA is reading all my e-mails, there is a real problem. That problem must be worse for those involved in suing governments – legal professional privilege must look like a flimsy tool to some.

And you can encrypt until you are blue in the face but, especially for those dealing directly with individuals, there is a need to interact with people using gmail or even, Heaven help us, aol. The lowest common denominator (figuratively) is the weakest link and, even if you have security to rival that of the intelligence agencies themselves, there is always the human factor that can let you down (ask the NSA).

So my answer to my e-mail ghost is that all you can do is ensure that your e-mail is as secure as it can be. It is a real problem and using a simple e-mail solution does not solve it – it needs thought and planning. But the ethical requirement, and complete commercial necessity, is to communicate effectively with clients. In 2013 eschewing e-mail is abandoning effective communication. It is just not an option. Deal with it.