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It’s true that law practice may be more challenging than it’s ever been. And yet I marvel at the ingenuity some have brought to the profession, finding ways to automate the parts that should not require a graduate education to master.

So as we work on our October issue at Arizona Attorney Magazine, dedicated in large part to law office management, my radar is up for tools that take the arrggh out of an attorney’s day.

The smartest tools do not seek to do everything a lawyer does. Instead, they identify a single element of practice that could be improved. And that’s what a new app called “StandIn” appears to do.

How many of you have appeared in court or in chambers for another lawyer on her or his case? I recall doing that in California as a part of my solo practice. The money could be pretty good, and the work was flexible.

Plus, if you were lucky, a standard status conference might yield a few challenging questions from the judge—and who has graduated from law school and not yearned for a little of that? You had become familiar with the case file, so you could handle it, and it definitely got the blood pumping to: (1) interact with an inquiring judge while (2) not royally screwing up another lawyer’s case on what was supposed to be a 10-minute appearance.

But the cost of those great minutes as an oral advocate for your client was often an organizational headache. Getting hired for the appearance required significant back-and-forth with the attorney hiring you, especially if you didn’t yet know each other. It involved phone calls, faxing (remember that?), negotiating your fee, ensuing you knew which court to go to and what time. Plus, of course, getting photocopies of the case elements that were relevant to that day’s hearing. (And don’t get me started on finding a pay phone the day of when something went amiss. That used to be something lawyers had to do.)

Well, all of those concerns may not be eliminated for the lawyer doing appearances, but a recent essay pointed me to a solution to some of them. “StandIn” is called a replacement lawyer app, and it’s described well here by Cathy Reisenwitz. As she says, “StandIn lets lawyers who can’t make it to a court appearance find a stand-in for them. Lawyers log in and see who is available near the courthouse they need to be at. They can sort by experience, expertise, and availability.”

capterra logoLike other location-based apps you’re probably already familiar with, StandIn will also process payments and allow reviews of the hiring and hired attorney.

More about the product itself is on their website. It is based in Canada, but it’s moving into U.S. cities (and you can urge them to come to yours).

Even if you have no need of such an app, I recommend reading the essay anyway. And even though it’s not (yet) in Arizona, I commend the article to you. Why? Well, it’s well written, plus it probes these inventive people for their views of the future of the legal profession. Whether you’re doing appearances for others or writing wills or arguing zoning cases—or whatever—that future should interest you.

I also recommend following Cathy Reisenwitz and her firm Capterra (deets here). She covers many topics that might help your law practice, with just the right amount of snark to make law practice management less legally snoozeworthy. In fact, as we work on our October issue, I was pleased to see that one of our authors is a fan of an infographic that emerged from Capterra. That’s cool, as I am a fan too. You can see the graphic here.

And a final bit of pleasure for my blogging day: I was pleased to see that one of the StandIn founders came out of the Michigan State Reinvent Law initiative. I’ve written about it before, and I’m intrigued at the smart ideas that percolate up from entrepreneurial centers like this one. As I mentioned before, you really should follow their work; if you do that often enough, you’ll probably find other lawyers are following you.

ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State: You've heard that in Detroit they build things? They do the same in East Lansing. Some smart people have your law profession up on the lift, and they've got some bad news.

You’ve heard that in Detroit they build things? They do the same in East Lansing. Some smart people have your law profession up on the lift, and they’ve got some bad news.

Sometimes—especially on Twitter—uttering a great witticism can prove irresistible. Tossing out a touch of snark may even be appreciated. But it may also miss a bigger picture.

Three days after I posted a heartfelt and humorous (I think) tweet, I’ve come to reassess it.

A Funny But Misleading Tweet

Here’s the sitch: I had just arrived at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute on Thursday. I landed at Chicago Midway and took the subway in (oh how I miss reliable mass-transit—the Orange Line to Roosevelt, change to the Red Line, walk three blocks from the Grand station, 25 minutes total!). But that meant I strolled into a session about halfway through.

The speakers’ subject was “Opportunities for Innovation in a Changing Legal Landscape.” And the style was unique: Each of the seven speakers got about 8 to 10 minutes, TED-talk-style.

Arriving late, I got to see about two and a half of the presentations. But that meant I did get to see the amazing Will Hornsby, of the ABA, as his presentation closed out the session.

Will is a smart and talented man. In fact, I had met him when I had been in the editor job for only about five months. Back in 2001, I decided to host a roundtable on lawyer advertising. Much to my pleasure, Will agreed to travel from Chicago to Phoenix to participate (yes, it was in February; what are you getting at?). You can read the result here.

Personally effusive and digitally adept, Will and his humorously delivered insights carried the audience along on a very engaging stream. And so I tweeted:

Great innovative ideas at #BLI14. Someone call the police, cuz @willhornsby is stealing the show! http://t.co/PUU1zRM8i6 #closer

— Tim Eigo (@azatty) March 13, 2014

Was I wrong? No, for Will spoke eloquently on that changing legal landscape we’ve heard so much about.

Rethinking Engagement (and Law)

But then I got to thinking—maybe the tweet wasn’t entirely fair. I mean, you can’t review a movie if you walk in halfway though. So this weekend I started looking at the handouts of others in that session.

R. Amani Smathers, Innovation Counsel at the ReInvent Law Laboratory.

R. Amani Smathers, Innovation Counsel at the ReInvent Law Laboratory.

That takes me (and you, finally) to the work of a lawyer named R. Amani Smathers. Though I stand by my assessment of Will as a primo closer, I am very impressed by the vision and approach of Amani. Here is a video of one of her presentations (similar to the one she delivered in Chicago, which I missed).

That video drew me in and made me interested in the work of the ReInvent Law Laboratory, where she has the job title “Innovation Counsel” (yes, I’m jealous). I had heard about ReInvent Law, but it took her video to make me explore further.

What is unique about this effort, sponsored by the Michigan State University College of Law? Well, let’s start with the website, which is designed with curious legal innovators in mind, rather than law-journal-loving traditionalists. So from the get-go, they are signaling a new day.

Building a New Legal Profession

Others may have their own favorites, but among the Lab’s action words is my number-one evocative verb “Build.” Here’s what the organization says about build:

“Law firms should have research and development departments, but they don’t. ReInvent Law fills the R&D gap for law firms, in-house legal departments, and other legal service providers. We conduct experiments. We beta test new products. We engage in market research. We take risks. We question. We explore. … Learning by doing, learning by building is what we do. Talk is cheap. We build.”

A little in your face, right? Well, what part of “everything in the profession is changing” did you not understand?

What To Do, Who To Follow

Here’s how I can spot a compelling vision for our shared legal future: When I see another of their verbs is “Join Us,” I want to. But short of an offer to take an energetic work sabbatical in East Lansing (which would be pretty cool), I have opted to sign up for their email updates—which is what you should do, as well.

And if you want more news from the Lab, follow them on Twitter here. You should do the same with Amani Smathers here, and for good measure, take a look at her own site, which explains more about her “search of what it means to be a 21st-century lawyer.”

So in my defense: Will did steal the show, at least the part I saw. But more shows are a’comin’, folks, and I look forward to seeing how Amani and her colleagues bring the legal house down.