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 cell phones 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 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.
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 tech industry, meanwhile, is eager to see lawyers on board.
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.