IT & the Lawyer

2004 Legal Technology trends - 1: Do we stand on the threshold of the next Legal Killer App?

Two legal technology stories in 2003 actually shocked me.

First, according to the latest AmLaw Tech survey, some of the largest and wealthiest firms in the United States still use Office 97, now a full three generations behind Microsoft's current release. I don't know what was the bigger shock: that they still used it or that they would publicly admit to it.

Second, Blaster and similar viruses knocked out networks of some prominent firms. Because the vulnerability Blaster exploited and the fix for it were widely publicized, the impact of Blaster speaks volumes about continuing security lapses at many law firms.

Jerry Lawson has called 2003 the "year of the blawg." The explosive growth of legal blogs, commonly called "blawgs," brought back an excitement about the use of the Internet by lawyers that hasn't been seen since the mid-1990s. I'll discuss the blawg phenomenon in more detail later, but if you have not seen what is going on in blawgspace, taking a quick look into blawgs should be the first item on your technology to-do list.

2003 was also notable for the slowing of investment in technology by many firms and a marked absence of innovation, if not retreat. In part, this slowdown reflected the economy, but the inertia of traditional law firm conservatism also played a part.

Unfortunately, this trend happened at a time when clients have focused on higher hourly rates and inefficient delivery of services. The stress caused by the gap in innovation between law firms and their clients has begun to open cracks in the structure of the traditional law firm model, with potentially profound implications for the profession.

Despite that, I am upbeat about legal technology for 2004. Great software tools are available. Hardware is powerful and storage is cheap. Wireless has helped deliver the promise of laptop computers. The Internet is back to front-page news due to blawgs and news aggregators. Young lawyers have tons of great ideas for using technology. Most important, we may be on the verge of the next "killer app" for lawyers.

Seven biggest legal technology trends for 2004
Here are my picks for the seven biggest legal technology trends for 2004, plus a few more developments for you to keep an eye on that I could not resist mentioning.

1. Litigation technology is hot
Lawyers who think that nothing new is happening in technology need to take a look at the litigation tools now available. Litigation technology is the leading area of innovation in legal tech today. In every area of litigation, there are great tools both lawyers and tech-savvy clients should be demanding.

Jurors increasingly expect presentations to include PowerPoint slides, graphics, and multimedia. Presentation tools let you produce mini-documentaries to illustrate complex issues and aid in expert testimony. Holland & Hart, in Denver, even has a litigation graphics and video department.

LexisNexis and others are using artificial intelligence software such as DolphinSearch to decrease dramatically the time required to review discovery documents while increasing the likelihood of finding the most relevant materials, all at a fraction of the cost of the traditional "throwing a bunch of associates at it" approach.

Software allows you to manage discovery materials, get transcripts in real-time and, using CaseMap, map out your strategies, assess strengths and weaknesses in your case, and prepare useful summaries for you and your client.

The courts are very serious about moving to e-filing, and judges want to get attorneys moved to electronic systems. Wireless networking has also provided an alternative in older courts where wiring was an expensive or impossible option.

Finally, computer forensics and electronic discovery tools have become standard tools for some of the best litigators. Increasingly, the evidence you may need exists in the form of e-mail or was never printed out onto paper.

2. Stopping the waste of technology Dollars
What the heck has your firm's IT department been doing with all the money you have spent in the last few years on technology? As technology takes a larger share of law firm budgets, many firms sadly have no idea of what their dollars bought them or what they could have instead.

How can your firm be wasting money? Let me count the ways.
I discuss seven of them in an article at abanet. Lack of direction and priorities, projects that linger on long after you should have pulled the plug, "pet" projects, buying new software when you already have software that would do the same thing if you only knew about it, lack of awareness about less costly or better-suited alternatives in the legal software market, failure to use vendor licensing and discount programs, and more. There might, in fact, be fifty ways to waste your money.

While it is crazy to continue any process that wastes your money, it is the height of insanity to keep spending a large chunk of money only to end up with inadequate tools for you, your attorneys, your staff, and, increasingly, your clients.

Just stopping the bleeding would be an accomplishment in 2004, but the leading firms will be taking the next step and aligning technology projects with business goals and applying return on investment analysis, portfolio management, and other common business practices to save money, make money and set priorities. If you do not have a couple of management committee members on your technology committee, your technology projects and your business goals may well be at odds, and you will pay a price for a lack of alignment, focus and priorities.

3. Big firm lawyers go small
Many tech-savvy big firm lawyers are questioning whether practicing in a big firm makes sense anymore. Expect to see more lawyer departures and spin-offs than we have seen in quite a while.

Leasing, other payment plans, and the continuing drop in technology costs make it possible for big firm lawyers to equip themselves with better technology than they currently have at their firms, for a very small initial outlay of capital. As a result, the financial barriers to moving to a solo or small firm practice have been greatly reduced. Both quality of life issues and future income potential may well be better outside, rather than inside, a big law firm.

With clients looking to control costs, lawyers able to leverage technology, reputation, experience and skills while offering clients alternatives to hourly billing may find some excellent opportunities in 2004. The trend of departures will damage big firms in two other important ways. First, it will hollow out these firms by taking away the core of the next generation of leadership. Second, it will reduce technological innovation and competence because the departing lawyers probably pushed technology improvements.

Part 2 ...

Copyright 2004 Dennis M. Kennedy. All rights reserved.

About the author
Dennis Kennedy concentrates his practice in computer law and also provides legal technology consulting services and seminars. A frequent author and speaker, he was named the 2001 TechnoLawyer of the Year and the 2003 TechnoLawyer Contributor of the Year.

His Web site and blog are highly regarded resources for technology law and legal technology topics. Please contact Dennis for information about obtaining an expanded version of this article.

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