William Palin is a 32-year-old lawyer who passed the bar exam in 2013. But it didn’t take him long to wonder why, when the rest of the world is increasingly conducting business on cellphones and tablets, the legal profession is so tied to paper, desktop computers, and e-mailed Microsoft Word documents.
So as a child of the digital age, he decided to act, joining a growing group of young, tech-savvy lawyers dedicated to developing technology to deliver legal services more efficiently.
Palin taught himself how to write code for mobile applications. He built two apps to speed up how lawyers work with each other and their clients. And in December he’s launching a Boston-Cambridge branch of a nationwide group called Legal Hackers, young lawyers focused on creating and adopting technological tools.
“My computer was dying,” Palin said of his motivation, “so I thought, ‘What if I could do my work through my phone?’ ”
While many attorneys see mobile technology as a way to better serve existing clients and recruit new ones, the partners at major law firms play a big role in how aggressively the law business will adapt. And those established practitioners may be leery of adopting some new technologies for fear that will lead to breaches of confidentiality.
Legal Hackers hopes to bridge that generational divide — and the group seems to be making progress. In August, at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting, one panel was titled “Cracking the Code: Everything You Wanted to Know About Coding, Open Data & More But Were Afraid to Ask.”
“Technology is transforming how legal services are being delivered,” said Andrew Perlman, a law professor at Suffolk University, which this year started a concentration for students called Legal Technology and Innovation.
“If lawyers want to be competitive, they have to learn a new skill set and that is what the Suffolk program provides its students.”
Legal Hackers has almost 1,800 members, concentrated in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and North Carolina, as well as a new chapter in Stockholm. The group holds monthly events, from panel discussions to demo nights. And once or twice a year it holds hackathons to develop apps for the legal profession.
Through Legal Hackers, one of Palin’s apps was born.
PaperDeal helps lawyers create and exchange documents using their smartphones. His other app, PaperHealth, lets users assign a health care proxy or create a living will in Massachusetts through a phone.
Legal Hackers was formed in 2011 by a Brooklyn law students who noticed many lawyers were more comfortable using pen and paper than mobile devices and apps. The group started organizing hackathons, with support from Brooklyn Law School’s Incubator and Policy Clinic and other sponsors.
“This is just our passion project; we all have full-time jobs,” said Lauren Mack, an intellectual property attorney in New York and the director of outreach for New York Legal Hackers.
The organization has worked on apps that make trademark searches easier and software to help parties in complex business deals mark up documents without wondering who has the latest version.
Julie Tolek, a family law and estate planning practitioner in Boston, said technology has paid big dividends for her firm, Think Pink Law.
The firm uses Clio, a cloud-based application that lets lawyers track billings, schedule meetings, and collaborate with clients. Tolek said her clients already do everyday tasks online, “from ordering shoes to online banking,” so managing the attorney-client relationship through an app seems natural to her.
With new technology, Tolek said, lawyers can be “anywhere and everywhere. And that’s the beauty of being online and mobile.”
Lawyers, by nature, are “risk averse,” said Abe Geiger, founder of Shake Inc., a New York company that develops software to create, sign, and send contracts through mobile devices.
The Shake app comes with contract templates, such as buy/sell agreements, that can be easily customized before being sent via a smartphone. Lawyers can slap on their own logos and change terms in the templates to tailor the service to their needs.
Palin said the legal profession’s goal should be to “remove computers from the equation” and build complex legal documents through mobile devices.
PaperDeal, for example, allows attorneys to lock a portion of text in their documents, indicating it is non-negotiable and cannot be changed; the other party could receive it, sign it, and send it back — or challenge it.
Michael D. Molloy, an attorney at Marcotte Law Firm in Lowell, said it would be a mischaracterization to dub all lawyers who refrain from using technology as risk-averse. He said that “nobody likes change,” especially those with a successful practice where internal processes don’t seem broken. And Molloy said many lawyers have legitimate security concerns about technology.
The tech industry, meanwhile, is eager to see lawyers on board.
Hewlett-Packard Co. contributed $2,500 toward the New York September hackathon. The tech giant sees Legal Hackers as being valuable to the software industry because of their expertise in legal issues surrounding the handling and storage of large amounts of data.
The New York hackathon resulted in 16 programs. The first prize, for $2,500, went to Ryan Trinkle, 27, and Ali Abrar, 28, for an app called Obsidian Redline. It lets lawyers negotiating a deal review a document without sending multiple files back and forth. Trinkle and Abrar attended Harvard Law School and have computer science backgrounds.
As for Palin, his PaperHealth app won the American Bar Association’s Hackcess to Justice Legal Hackathon, held at Suffolk last summer. It’s available in the app store.
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote about the legal profession to Abe Geiger.
Samar Warsi is a global journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School.