How Lawyers Can Improve Their Practices and Access to Justice With Open Source Software – Jeff Cox Writes in Law Technology Today

on Future Law, Legal Tech

How Lawyers Can Improve Their Practices and Access to Justice With Open Source Software – Jeff Cox Writes in Law Technology Today

Open source software or OSS is a critical component and fundamental building block for most of the technology tools we use today. From Mozilla Firefox, to OpenOffice, and WordPress, which we used to publish this blog today, OSS is all around us, and it’s an important ingredient for improving access to justice through providing lawyers and consumers with better tools for interacting with the legal system.

We’re thrilled to share UniCourt’s Director of Content, Jeff Cox’s latest article that was published in the American Bar Association’s online publication, Law Technology Today. Jeff’s article, “How Lawyers Can Improve Their Practices and Access to Justice With Open Source Software” features input and insights from leaders in the legal OSS movement on what OSS is, how it can and currently is increasing access to justice, and what we can expect to see in the future for OSS in the legal industry. 

Here below is an excerpt from the introduction of Jeff’s article:

Over the last couple of months, the legal profession in the United States has experienced seismic shifts in the wake of COVID-19 with the introduction of basic technology that has greatly enhanced access to the legal system and the way lawyers practice law. As lawyers are integrating new technologies into their practices to better provide remote legal services to their clients, they should also look at introducing another type of technology that has been widely used across other industries for decades: open source software (OSS).

In this article, we will explore what OSS is, how it’s been used in other industries, how it can improve lawyers’ daily practices and improve access to justice, and what efforts are already underway to introduce OSS more broadly into the legal profession. We will also provide insights from leaders in the legal open source movement, including John Tredennick, Lourdes Fuentes Slater, and Mary Mack.

What is Open Source Software (OSS)?

Most everyone has heard of OSS by now, but the bigger issue is that few people can define it, let alone grasp its ubiquity. According to Lourdes Fuentes Slater, CEO of Karta Legal, LLC: “We all work on OSS every day.” Windows, for example, is built on an OSS structure. John Tredennick, the Chair and Executive Director of Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation, agrees, saying: “Indeed, the harder question is to find cases where open source is NOT used.” Linux, he explains, was the very first open source project, initially started as a Windows alternative. Now, more than 80 percent of the world’s web servers run on open source software. Other notable examples of OSS are WordPress, Mozilla Firefox, and Open Office.

OSS and Access to Justice

Mary Mack, Chief Legal Technologist at EDRM, shares one of the greatest limitations of OSS: “It is important to note,” she says, “that while open source software is free, and the source code available, there is still a learning curve and a time investment to implement and maintain [it].”

Further, the presence of OSS development in legal tech is still small, compared to the level of funds raised in recent years. According to data compiled by Bloomberg Law, 2020 Q2 saw roughly $178 million invested in legal tech, trumping last year’s Q2 total of $122 million. In fact, legal tech companies have raised $339 million thus far in 2020. Still, most legal tech software development has not been OSS, with a few notable exceptions:

  • Docassemble is an open source system founded by Jonathan Pyle of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, that allows users to create legal apps using built-in integrations for e-signatures, SMS-based reminders, and machine learning.
  • CaseBox is a file management system that allows users to control the servers on which they store their data, enabling the use of filtered searches, smart folders, and graphics.
  • Accord Project is a collaborative nonprofit initiative committed to creating open source tools to draft smart contracts. Specifically, it provides a common framework for contracts, allows sharing and reuse of agreement templates, and provides domain-specific functionality, created for building and running commercial agreements.

However, despite these insufficiencies in funding and education for OSS resources, these programs have nonetheless been used for decades to improve access to justice. According to Tredennick: “Lawyers have been using software to improve their practices since I was practicing in the 80s and 90s.” They started on programs like WordPerfect and later Microsoft Office, then moved on to productivity applications like calendars, docketing, document assembly, and email. “All of these improved a lawyer’s access to justice.”

In the past decade, software has moved largely to the cloud. “Many of the programs we use run on open source software programs,” Tredennick notes. “The software we license may be proprietary, but it runs on open source components, and companies like Google, Microsoft and even Amazon are releasing thousands of open source programs and components every year.” This collaborative model benefits the broader community, and many of those same programs and components are being used downstream to improve access to justice.

You can read the full article here on the ABA’s Law Technology Today.

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