If there was any profession in the world singled out for its lagging behind technology, it was the legal profession. Lawyers were renowned for being fond of paper trail files, lovers of letters, and ever so reliant on ‘medieval’ methods of document management and business operation. It took many years before the legal practice began to appreciate the ease of email communication, and even then, many lawyers simply used to attach their letters to emails.
But the last 20 years have witnessed an exponential growth in technology, giving even the legal profession time to catch up and embrace developments. This boom in technological advancements has brought with it specific technology designed for improving the efficiencies within a legal practice. Apps, equipment, and devices have made legal processes easier and quicker to perform, changing the traditional methods of legal practice.
Technology and the law firm of the past
We’ve adapted technology into our lives so swiftly over the last few decades that it’s almost impossible to remember the days before staple electronic devices were in use. The legal practice of today, with its emails and photocopiers, can only operate so efficiently thanks to the technological developments of the past. Before looking to the future, let’s examine some of the ways past technological advancements have changed the way the law is handled.
Photocopier and printer
These machines gave legal practices the ability to have everything easily duplicated and stored on record. With the photocopier and printer, document management had never been easier. Lawyers were, for the first time, given the comfort of knowing that they could make copies of all files for later retrieval. This was an incredibly important shift in the practice of law, not only in the easy preservation of documents, but also in the saving of time that would have been spent handwriting documents.
This technology, particularly its word processing features, allowed for the ability to write a document or court submission far more easily than having to tear out a piece of paper and handwrite it from scratch. The ease of PC use, and the amount of time it saved lawyers in word processing, led to greater productivity in the legal practice. Besides its word processing features, the PC also allowed lawyers to store a number of different files, folders, documents, and images, all on a single machine.
The ability to instantaneously communicate to a team in another location had an enormous impact on thinking - it sped all the legal processes up tremendously. Previously, response time for a letter would be days or weeks, however the instantaneous communication allowed for by the fax machine meant that letters and documents could be responded to on the same day. Time pressures can be significant to the success of a client’s instruction, and the fax machine allowed that pressure to be removed to a large extent.
Naturally, this form of communication is a far more convenient and timely extension of what the fax machine offers. With email comes instantaneous communication, but also the ability to keep an electronic record of all communications. Thanks to the PC and printer, there is also the ability to instantaneously print off records to be kept on file.
Some would also argue that email allowed for the slow removal of formality of communication between lawyers. However the surge of informal communication following the use of email could also have had negative consequences on contractual arrangements, with a lot of litigation regarding contractual terms arising out of informal email exchanges.
A lawyer’s main tool for success is their access to research, legislation, and case law. The internet made that tool not only available and accessible to each and every lawyer, but with ease of access at their very fingertips, no less. This saw the rise of many legal research websites that targeted the provision of this information; websites that allowed lawyers to find case law, journal articles, encyclopaedias, and statutes. This not only encouraged collaboration between lawyers, but also allowed for equality amongst legal professionals as they all were suddenly given access to the same wealth of information and resources.
Technology and the present day law firm
Today, technology offers so much more than just ease of communication and the ability to duplicate and store documents efficiently. There is an emerging trend for technology to address issues in how law firms run and manage their practice, and attempt to fix these. Software programs or mobile apps are being developed to add security to a person’s legal practice, assist with billing, management, or document management of the practice, or simply to be a useful tool in the preparation of court litigation.
So what are some of these emerging technologies, what issues are they solving, and how are they helping to make legal practices more efficient?
The electronic filing of applications, forms, or court documents has already well settled into the legal practice. This form of electronic filing has again allowed for increased productivity, giving legal professionals the ability to file relevant forms close to their due dates.
The Courts are slowly catching up, with many courtrooms installing computers and software programs that allow for complex court hearings with volumes of documents to be conducted and heard electronically. The days of the Barrister and his entourage of document trolleys and suitcases may soon be at their end!
E-conveyancing is an example of technology assisting the work of the suburban solicitor. In April 2014, legislation was passed in all Australian states, adopting the National Electronic Conveyancing system to allow for a range of property transactions to be completed online. This removed a huge physical hurdle in the practices of a suburban solicitor.
Social media has changed the way lawyers market their firms or practices. The rise of the LinkedIn or Facebook legal practice profile, the lawyer blog, the YouTube video, or even the lawyer Twitter page, has changed the nature of the legal practice from one that was formal and distinct, to one that is publically informative and accessible.
Social media is a method of generating business for a legal practice, but at the same time, adds to the topic of ongoing debate within the legal community. In a 2014 ABA survey, lawyers disclosed that their reasons for having a social media presence were:
- Career development and networking,
- Case investigation,
- Client development, and
- Education and awareness.
Technology in the present day legal practice is also changing the way that lawyers charge for their services. The 6 minute billable slots are being replaced by the fixed fee or hourly rate, and this is partly due to technology. Many software programs are more easily adaptable to the billable hour, and clients also prefer the transparency and price certainty of that billing format. Software programs like Tymetrix 360 Mobile, 3E Thomson Reuters, Aderant Expert, and Redwood Analytics are employed by small to large scale law firms to manage billing, payroll, general ledgers, and trust accounts.
In-house document management
Many legal practices have taken to electronic document management systems - electronic discovery or due diligence systems, and electronic file records and sharing, reviewing, and amending of documents. Larger law firms have the ability to invest in new technology and take exciting directions in this area of their practice. Midsize law firms are also embracing this current age of technology in their document management practices.
Programs such as BoardTRAC iPad board portal allow people to review and amend a document online together while sitting at different PCs. These technologies usher in a new age of collaboration, and increased productivity as people are no longer limited by their physical location when conducting legal work.
Government regulatory departments are also looking to have their legal services electronically collaborated with their investigative and disciplinary units, using programs such as TRIM, where all documents are stored in one electronic filing system. This system records who uploads the document, views it, and changes it, throughout the whole department. This introduces a new meaning to the words ‘safety’, ‘discretion’, and ‘privacy’ in the practice of law.
Cloud based technology
The full potential of this technology is yet to be realised, and it’s likely that many legal practices will adopt the wait-and-see approach to see how it pans out for other professionals and businesses. Cloud technology creates endless possibilities for data sharing, storing, and management. Many iPad legal apps utilise cloud based software to securely store documents, which can then be accessed anywhere and anytime, including in court.
The future of technology and the law
The legal profession, like all industries, is being disrupted by technological developments that are changing the very nature of its operation. While still lagging behind other industries in the adaptation of new technologies, law firms are increasingly engaging with softwares and apps designed to enhance productivity and efficiency. The law firms embracing these changes will gain a competitive edge towards those lagging behind, as they begin to adapt to the world around them and the technological advantage it demands.
Technology has changed the way business is conducted; it has disrupted the entertainment industry, changed the nature of advertising, altered the very definition of publishing, and given consumers endless possibilities and agency in their lives. The legal profession, while seemingly untouched by technology’s impact, is soon to undergo its own changes as more and more law firms make use of the possibilities available. So what will the law firm of the future be like? How is the legal industry set to change in the following years?
Vanishing legal libraries
Law and enormous libraries go hand in hand, though this is soon to change. The creation of online legal libraries have increased efficiency by an incredible amount, with electronic search aiding the research process, allowing for more time to be spent on other tasks. Virtual libraries encourage flexibility in work arrangements, as lawyers are able to access legal documents and books from anywhere at any time. This has in turn encouraged growth in the teleworking and virtual firm trend, two other predictions for the law firm of the future.
In a 2014 study, Thomson Reuters found that 43% of legal professionals predicted the eventual disappearance of an offline legal library.
Thanks to the benefits offered by cloud computing and smart devices, teleworking or remote working is being made increasingly possible. The flexibility offered by document management systems, collaboration softwares, virtual legal libraries, and conferencing apps means that legal professionals will have the increased opportunity to work from home, changing the infrastructure of the average law firm.
Virtual law firms
Stemming from the notion of teleworking, and thanks to the very same technologies that make remote work possible, the number of virtual law firms is set to increase. These are law firms whose practices are conducted solely online, offering consumers a deduction in costs due to the absence of large scale IT and HR infrastructure costs that would normally come with a bricks and mortar law firm. It is predicted that these virtual law firms will offer general legal services to satisfy consumer demands for cheaper and more flexible options, however it is unlikely that virtual law firms will carry niche specialisation as many do not engage in court proceedings.
Consumers will increasingly utilise the services of these virtual law firms, as well as the legal resources available online, to manage their general needs when it comes to the law. It is predicted that the increase in availability of these services will drive consumers to purchase legal services as a ‘lifestyle’ buy. With this ‘general legal services’ segment of the market taken care of, firms will consolidate to build a stronger market presence. This will include everything from international mergers to the emergence of niche and specialised firms.
1 in 2 legal professionals expect a consolidated market in the future, with fewer firms overall.
General legal practices will decrease in the future as they are taken over by virtual law firms. Instead, consolidation of legal practices will see more law firms emerging with a super specialisation, or an accredited specialisation that will allow them to reach out to a particular niche market and gain a competitive edge. Law firms of the future will need to have a specified target market to which they will be completely devoted and specialised.
56% of law firms see themselves offering specialised services to some degree in the next 30 years.
Law firms all over the world are being confronted by the changes offered with technological developments. While this may change the very nature of their practice, the advancements in technology are encouraging innovation and efficiency, and lawyers must embrace these changes so as to maintain a competitive advantage. Minor activities that were once time consuming and slowed down the legal process are now made much faster and easier, allowing lawyers to spend their time on more important tasks. Plowing through piles and piles of books in a legal library to find a particular case is no longer necessary with electronic records and search. Law firms must adapt to these technological changes to stay on top and maintain their competitive edge into the future - is your firm ready?
Apps to improve legal processes
The majority of apps developed for the legal market are American oriented. Despite that, these apps can be equally as useful when applied in the Australian context.
This app allows you to store committal or deposition exhibits electronically, using cloud based software. You can introduce, mark, and share exhibits in real time. eDepoze can be used both locally or remotely.
The app is designed to help minimise the piles and piles of paper and documents that sometimes stack up for depositions and when a lawyer is preparing witnesses for testifying. The app allows for the upload, download, and viewing of electronic documents during depositions or witness prep - no more heavy boxes!
This is an iPad app designed to improve eDiscovery processes. The app includes key cases, highlighting the most important eDiscovery issues of the moment, materials for active eDiscovery pilot projects, selected templates and checklists, glossary, and more resources to aid with the eDiscovery process. An 'Assistant' tool is available to guide those who are new to the eDiscovery process. Furthermore, the app allows access to all documents and files from any location.
ExhibitView allows you to organise documents prepared for litigation. The app allows for the annotation, storage, and easy retrieval of documents. Designed specifically with Trial Presentation in mind, the app is complemented by transcript management software TranscriptPro2.
ExhibitView allows for the management of a number of document types, from images, videos, audio, to web-based evidence. These are all designed to be user-friendly with the jury in mind, helping lawyers to communicate their information in an engaging, visually appealing way that will keep jurors focused and able to retain information.
This is another US app with useful application for evidence management and trial preparation. There is less of a focus on sharing and presenting documents, and more of a focus on their organisation and management for court. The app uses cloud storage to manage and host all documents, videos, and audio files, all from the same location. In addition to the document management, the app also allows for the creation of videos and transcripts, the exporting of files to PDF, and the creation of witness and trial workbooks and exhibit lists.
This is one of the most expensive legal apps available on the market, but equally one of the most well designed, and also the top selling. This app works with others such as Dropbox, and is the ultimate when it comes to document management and trial preparation legal apps. Besides the usual document management features we've seen in other apps, TrialPad also includes useful presentation tools to allow for the highlighting of text, creation of side by side document comparisons, editing and displaying videos, searching of documents, and so on.
Created by US civil rights attorney John Upton, CaseManager was designed as a quick and cost effective mobile solution for sole practitioners or small firms to manage their legal practices. The app allows you to virtually control your entire legal practice from a single mobile device. It includes a calendar, daily national legal news, to-do list feature, document and photo archive, case lists or notes, billing information, as well as an appointment planner.
AustLII is the app for the Australian Legal Information Institute, great for finding case law quickly and easily. The app allows for immediate access to the law from anywhere and everywhere. It includes legislation information from Australia and other Commonwealth nations, as well as cases from over 140 courts, tribunals, and boards. The app also allows for the sharing of content and documents.
The legal profession has also benefited from softwares and apps that have been designed to improve the efficiency of general businesses and operations, regardless of industry. These apps simply make the work process easier and more productive. These are just a few examples:
Dropbox is a free cloud storage and file sharing system that enables users to share files across different devices, from the PC to the smartphone to the tablet. This increases access to documents, allowing them to be viewed and downloaded from anywhere. Storage systems are no longer set in a concrete place, rather they have become omnipotent, with the ability to access any document or file regardless of your physical location. This increases processes in the legal system dramatically, as with this app a lawyer can take his tablet to court or to the client, and have access to all his files.
This app manages every kind of document or file, and allows users to highlight or underline certain areas of documents and add notes and annotations. Documents 5 also allows for the creation of text files. Any kind of document can be viewed with this app, including media such as videos, and files can be accessed from anywhere including Dropbox and your personal computer.
GoodReader is another document manager that allows users to view movies, maps, images, eBooks, PDFs, and virtually anything else. The app allows users to comment, annotate, highlight, and sign documents, as well as conduct a text search within the files. Its point of difference, besides its unique interface, is the ability to unzip attachments with a large number of files into separate documents.
This is a taskmaster app that allows users to organise their task lists in tabs separated by date, priority, or any other user-defined criteria. Notes, tags, URLs, audio files, and other comments can be attached to a task. Reminders and alarms can be set, and the app can be linked to an electronic office calendar so that it automatically syncs.