Lawyers have always used technology to practice. In the past as now, tools were selected because they improved the practice of law. More communication, faster sharing of information, better understanding of the law, all of these featured in the development of better tools for lawyers. We joke about lawyers with dated technology as being among those who “still use quills” but those were formidable word processors in their day. Indeed, there is strong evidence that writing helps information retention better than typing on a keyboard.
Law practice technology has come a long way even in the few decades of the personal computer-powered profession. Software developers focused on the word processor as the hub of all work in a law firm. It made sense, because lawyers are purveyors of words expressing ideas, legal concepts, relationships, and arguments. Just as a lawyer in the mid-1800s could take advantages of improvements like steel pen nibs, a lawyer in the early 21st century has a wide variety of tools to improve not only how she writes but how quickly and efficiently she can produce these integral words.
This early focus on the word processing function made some sense. Many of the other parts of a lawyer’s business were not yet automated. Accountants and billing staff handled the money systems, e-mail was percolating but not anywhere near as universal as it has become. Lawyers and developers began in the 1980s creating add-ons for programs like WordPerfect or WordStar, using built-in macro languages to extend the capabilities of the core application.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Law practice technology still revolves around the word and we continue to use systems that enable us to do more with those words and more quickly. Improvements in technology have incrementally increased what lawyers can do by themselves in their law practice and raise ongoing debates of what they should do and what they should have others do.
One significant discussion that has emerged centers on the so-called business of law. In fact, the practice of law has always required the business of law. A lawyer who doesn’t get paid or who doesn’t have clients will not have a very successful practice. But lawyers were a bit cloistered when it came to the business side. Sure, they may have known how to develop clients but they may not really have understood marketing, client relations, billing, budgeting and forecasting, and other aspects of running the business.
Those roles continue to exist and the lawyer can choose to do them or hire others, as in the past, to do them for her. At the same time, technology has emerged in other parts of practice – e-discovery, customer relationship management, trial presentation – that have increased the granularity with which a lawyer must review practice technology.
What things in a law practice do you do yourself? What do you have someone do for you? And what type of technology do you use in each case?
The business and practice of law retains an individualized aspect. Large law firms will standardize and automate, and solos will do so as well. But within all of the automation and all of the default technologies deployed, there are individual approaches. Some lawyers will opt in or not to given technologies even within large organizations.
It is fashionable to label lawyers as technology laggards or luddites, as shown by this Google search. This gets stuck in my personal craw. Many of these statements are bland hand waving. There is substantial data available from the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center stretching back to 2000 on lawyer use of technology in the United States. Those annual surveys have documented the progression of lawyer adoption of technology. Similarly, the annual technology surveys from the International Legal Technology Association, focusing on mid-size and large law firms, have shown similar trends in that narrower category of practices. Before you imbibe truisms about the legal profession and technology, look to see whether they are based on data or not.
Individual lawyers make independent choices about what technology to purchase. Those decisions are driven by personal convenience, financial resources, practice area, practice location, interpretation of professional rules and obligations, among others. What good is a Web-based service if you live in a rural area with poor Internet or wireless coverage? Why would you be interested in mobile technology if your practice is entirely transactional and out of your office?
You will find lawyers on the bleeding edge of technology and those who are hanging at the back of the pack. Most North American lawyers are solos or work in small law firms, according to the American Bar Association and the Federation of Law Societies. The American Bar Association is a non-profit, voluntary membership association representing less than half of the lawyers in the United States. It does not regulate anyone, although it does create accreditation standards for US law schools. The ABA also keeps track of lawyer demographics that are a good starting place for understanding lawyer work environments. Canadian Law Societies are regulators and, through the Federation of Law Societies, capture similar statistics for the lawyers and paralegals they oversee.
These lawyers are trying to get their legal work done and run a business at the same time. Technology adoption requires testing and review, in addition to blending into the lawyer’s current method of practice. Disruption is fine so long as it improves the delivery of services to clients. Disruption for the sake of disruption doesn’t make professional or business sense.
This will take on greater significance as lawyer regulators focus on technology competence as part of the lawyer’s professional obligation. When a lawyer takes on a new technology, there is an evolving expectation that they understand how it works. Quill and paper? No problem. Cloud, Internet, and secure sockets layer? Perhaps a bit more complicated.
As you prepare to practice law, you will be making a lot of choices about how to use technology in your practice. There is no reason for the paper yellow writing pad to be banished in order to avoid being labeled a Luddite. This text will walk you through technologies that are used in law practice. Whether they fit within the law practice that you are going to build will rely on the type of practice you want to have.