Prairie Business article – Virtual Justice: Ways technology has impacted law schools, private practices and courtrooms

Years ago while a senior in high school, Robert Keogh wrote a paper that won an award after catching the attention of the North Dakota Bar Association.

At the time young Keogh didn’t know what he wanted to pursue as a career, but his award-winning paper got him thinking about the possibility of a law profession. Later, while a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, he read a book by trial lawyer Louis Nizer, which piqued his interest even further.

After graduating from NDSU, he decided to follow his growing interest and enrolled at the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks, graduating in 1971. He’s been in private practice ever since.

While much has changed over the past 50 years, he remains committed to serving the law and bringing justice to those who deserve it.

One of the more obvious changes is that law offices today, especially in light of the pandemic, often rely on virtual meetings and other technology, whereas back when he opened his practice there wasn’t even the internet to make such things possible.

“It is different than when I went to law school,” he said. “It was all books back then. Everything was in a book, and it always made a great picture to have a lawyer in a big library with books; you had them over your desk. … It’s not that way anymore. Of course there’s a library at the law school, but students use so much computer technology right away, something I never did.”

Something else that’s different: There wasn’t a pandemic back then like there is today, which has only accelerated these technology trends.

Conducting the business of law in a digital setting is not necessarily Keogh’s favorite thing to do – “there’s nothing like meeting in person as far as I’m concerned,” he said; nor was it preferable to many other attorneys before the pandemic. But since March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was declared, many law offices have adopted the practice and found its benefits.

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Keogh and his three-member team make up the Robert A. Keogh Law Office in Dickinson, N.D. Like other small-town attorneys, he juggles a number of practice areas: bankruptcy, business and corporate law, estate planning and probate, family law and divorce, and real estate. In recent times, when in-person visits are not possible because of the coronavirus, he has turned to Zoom and other technology to connect with those seeking professional legal counsel.

Keogh, who also serves as a municipal judge, said the pandemic hit the courts hard and many of them, including his own courtroom, have turned to conducting some hearings virtually.

“I never closed my office one single day during the pandemic, but we definitely noticed a slowdown in traffic,” he said. “And the court system really slowed down. … Cases were being delayed and so everything got really set back. I’m not sure we’re fully caught up now. And of course, now we’re having a resurgence of cases.”

Specifically, he said, a number of mediation cases, especially over the past six to eight months, have been conducted by Zoom. These types of meetings, while beneficial during the pandemic, are not ideal for the judge who may want to pass a document to someone in court. They also make it tough for the judge to discern people’s full-body language. But even the federal court system has shifted to virtual hearings, many courts providing the public and news media online access to the criminal proceedings.

There might be some bumps going forward, but Keogh said virtual hearings likely will continue to be accepted in courtrooms even after the pandemic ends.

“I think that will continue,” he said, noting it will be easier for people to call in when they’re not feeling well and cannot physically make it to court. “That might be very helpful. We have the technology to do that … and I think there’s going to be more and more of that.”

But what does virtual technology mean for the future of private practice? Is it paving the way for more permanent virtual law practices? Perhaps, according to the University of Southern California School of Law, which said legal jobs are ranked No. 6 for the largest representation of telecommuters and that the number of virtual law practices continue to rise. The benefits of having a virtual office include, among other benefits, using cloud-based software to manage information that can be accessed anywhere and, in some cases, practicing attorneys not having a physical office at all, which means no overhead costs. About 5% of all lawyers and 9% of solo practitioners work virtually, according to the report.

Perhaps the biggest marker of the continuing trend is that the up-and-coming legal professionals, those who are still in school, are learning how to conduct the business of law virtually, providing them the know-how to jumpstart their careers in this fashion once they graduate.

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Students at the University of North Dakota School of Law, for instance, are being introduced to the new ways of practicing law, including how they complete their intern- and externships.

Through its Rural Justice Program, UND students are placed in rural law firms to gain onsite experience. While the school has a long and positive working history with local courts and firms to make this happen, this past summer saw students complete their obligations remotely, according to Mike McGinniss, dean and professor at the UND School of Law. Instead of going onsite to tutor in an office setting, students met with legal teams through a computer monitor.

It was both beneficial and challenging.

Typically, students do not have direct contact with clients during their internship and externship because they are not licensed to practice, but they may work with a lawyer or meet with a client while the attorney is present. They often do research and draft documents, “those kinds of behind-the-scenes work,” McGinniss said. “Those types of things tend to lend themselves to work that could be done from home or a remote location.”

That is not necessarily ideal, however, because the office attorneys and staff do not get to know the student like they would if the student were in the office; likewise, the student does not have the advantage of experiencing the day-to-day atmosphere of a legal office.

“It may be a little harder to have that sort of relationship building, but I think it does at least create one more option that firms may look to in the future instead of having someone travel to the site and spend the summer there,” McGinniss said.

However, despite its benefits there could be some negative impact going forward, depending on how much the technology is utilized by law offices in the future. For instance, it might not be in the best interest of students if law offices continue to have them meet virtually instead of in person after the pandemic. McGinniss said there is nothing quite like getting the in-office experience.

“I think this may end up having some repercussions in the future,” he said. “They (students) had to adapt to what they would otherwise do in person … but I think what we may see is that some of these offices may see what can be done remotely” and adopt it long-term. “I’m not sure so much about the courts, but firms may decide that it’s a viable option for them. If someone isn’t necessarily in a position to physically travel to work, they may still connect with them using the remote technology.”

UND School of Law first-year students attend class in a classroom where social distance is practiced and face coverings are used. The class of 82 students this fall was split into four sections to accommodate in person classes. Students also participate in mock court trials, some of it using technology.

Skyler Johnson, an estate planner with Sage Legal in East Grand Forks, Minn., told Prairie Business that she had been using technology to connect with clients virtually for several years. That might have been her niche before the pandemic, she said, but now that other law firms have adopted the virtual technology, realizing it wasn’t as difficult to use in their field as many had suspected, she is looking for her new niche.

Indeed, as Forbes said in a January 2020 article – a couple of months before the pandemic was declared – the legal sector had only recently undergone the digital transformation that other industries already have gone through. Also, “because it’s very document-intensive, it’s actually an industry poised to benefit greatly from what technology can offer.” The pandemic has only accelerated the trend.

Tomorrow’s lawyers, according to the article, will be the people who “develop new ways of solving legal problems with the support of technology.”

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McGinniss said the law school remains focused on the future and helping prepare students to meet its challenges and demands.

As in the past, it does this in part by applying for grants through the Edson and Margaret Larsen Foundation. Money from that helps provide scholarships for incoming law students and provides opportunities for students to work in rural law offices as part of the Rural Justice Program.

McGinniss said the school was recently approved for another year’s grant, and it couldn’t be more thankful.

“The reward varies a bit from year to year, but we’re really excited they have supported us,” he said. “We’re really grateful for their support … especially when you’re entering into what may be challenging economic times ahead, having that extra support makes all the difference for our students.”

He hopes students in the program will be back in physical offices this summer.

Keogh said he would enjoy spending a weekend with McGinniss to see firsthand what it is like in law school, because he’s far removed from that arena these days. However, he does offer some advice for those considering a career in the legal profession:

“Pay attention to real life,” Keogh said. “You’ve got to focus on your studies, but really pay attention to what’s going on in the legal field and the world around you, because there is so much going on and it can be learned. When you get out of school and look for a job, I mean, it’s good to have some exposure to the world beyond law school.”

Original Story: Prairie Business Magazine, by: Andrew Weeks, January 6, 2021