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New territory for the law office

Big advances in data-crunching programs and other legal software are shifting how the legal profession approaches work.

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. • John Oelke, an associate attorney at German Law in Grand Forks, says law practice is changing — and that the change isn’t done quite yet.

The coronavirus pandemic changed work and the office in far-ranging ways, and that same change has come to law practices around the upper Midwest. Oelke points out that, as German Law handles estate planning, it’s a lot easier to work with clients around the Red River Valley when they can just hop on Zoom instead of asking clients to make a longer drive to the office.

“In North Dakota, it can be a huge drive to get to a bigger city, Grand Forks or Fargo or Bismarck, to meet with an attorney who specializes in estate planning,” Oelke said. “It's made it easier for us to connect with clients on first consultations, where they can do it from home and save the trip, save the 90-mile drive or whatever it is to drive from Cavalier to Grand Forks.”

It’s not a competitive necessity just yet, Oelke said. But it soon will be, as offices are forced to keep up with changing times to maintain a steady flow of clients.

It’s not just COVID that’s changed the way lawyers work — it’s a tidal shift that’s unfolded over years. Lawyers of today — and especially lawyers of tomorrow — have a lot more than Zoom at their fingertips. Big advances in data-crunching programs and other legal software are shifting how the legal profession approaches research and writing and promises a faster, easier way to work.

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Tammy Pettinato Oltz is assistant dean for law library and information services at the University of North Dakota School of Law, where she’s also an assistant professor. She teaches a class called “law practice technology,” and says the technology that lawyers need to keep pace with is constantly moving forward.

One of the most exciting changes, Oltz said, is in “artificial intelligence” in the law, a phrase that conjures an image of a thinking, whirring robotic legal assistant. The reality is a little less exciting — they’re sophisticated research tools, not C-3PO. But they’re still helping advance lawyers’ efficiency by leaps and bounds, like a data-crunching program that can quickly analyze vast amounts of rulings, diagnosing trends in how a certain judge might rule or think.

Oelke is familiar with this kind of thing, recently arriving at German Law from a litigation firm.

“There's companies that compile all this data, and you can see exactly how often each judge grants each type of motion, type of thing,” he said. “If you're representing a client, are you going to waste their money on a motion that's not ever granted in front of the judge?”

One other tool that’s particularly helpful is Compose, Oltz said. It’s a legal writing program that comes with a long list of templates that suggests and connects writers to relevant case law.

“I would say what it’s doing is, for a certain part of the process, it’s collapsing the research and writing,” Oltz said, helping free up attorneys from the rote minutiae of research to focus on strategy — something a computer program can’t do (cross your fingers).

Oelke said that he’s sure that legal tech is going to keep surging — with remote signatures one particularly promising field for improvement. Legal documents that once had to be signed in person might soon get the DocuSign treatment, allowing parties with computers to attach electronic signatures without the hassle of hard-copy paperwork.

What lawyers and clients are seeing now looks like it’s just the beginning.

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“I’m not that old. And I can look back and see what technology was when I was in grade school and where it's at now,” Oelke said. “It's obviously night and day, I think it's just gonna get more and more convenient, especially for clients.”

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