Abstract

Law struggles to keep pace with innovation. Twenty-first century advancements like artificial intelligence, block chain, and data analytics are already in use by academic institutions, corporations, government entities, health care providers, and others but many questions remain about individual autonomy, identity, privacy, and security. Even as new laws address known threats, future technology developments and process improvements, fueled by consumer-demand and globalization, inevitably will present externalities that the legal community has yet to confront.

How do we design laws and systems to ensure accountability, equality, and transparency in this environment of rapid change? A solution can be found in a surprising source — the regulation of professional ethics. Lawyers have the capacity to play a critical role both in assessing the risks and benefits of innovation generally and also in deploying innovative tools to enhance the delivery of legal services. This Article is the first to articulate a formal obligation of ethical innovation as a component of professional discipline and licensing rules. This proposal comes at a time when the legal profession is increasingly immersed in innovation — whether measured by the number of “NewLaw” providers, exponentially increasing financial investment in legal tech, or by the American Bar Association’s 2020 Resolution supporting innovation to address the access-to-justice crisis.

Rather than taking a particular side in the debate over whether lawyers and judges should adopt innovations like artificial intelligence or machine learning, this Article acknowledges that technology advancements inevitably are part of modern society, including the practice of law, and advocates for reforms to professional conduct rules to protect individuals in the midst of innovation. This protection is especially warranted when innovation is forced amidst a moment of crisis, for example as seen when the 2020 coronavirus pandemic abruptly halted law practice in its traditional form, canceling office meetings and jury trials and other in‑person interactions. Some lawyers and courts were prepared, others were not. Some clients received the legal advice through virtual consultations or apps, and had their cases decided by judges via Zoom hearings, but many found themselves without the justice they needed. The lawyers and judges at the forefront of ethical innovation before the pandemic hit were the ones best able to serve their clients. Formalizing a duty to innovate as an ethical obligation will make the profession better prepared to serve the public in the future.

(Newman) Knake Jefferson, Renee, Lawyer Ethics for Innovation (April 20, 2021). 35 Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 1 (2021), U of Houston Law Center No. 2021-A-7,
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