2004 Legal Technology Trends:

Do We Stand on the Threshold of the Next Legal Killer App?

Two legal technology stories in 2003 actually shocked me.

The first was finding in the AmLaw Tech survey of large law firms that 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.

The second was the damage law firms suffered from Blaster and similar viruses. Blaster problems 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- 1990 s. 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.

Here are my picks for the seven biggest legal technology trends for 2004 , plus a few more for you to keep an eye on for developments 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.

LEXIS 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 never was 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 http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/tch12031.html . Lack of direction and priorities, projects that linger on long after you should have pulled the plug, "pet" projects, buying new software when you 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 a good 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 why 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 now 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.

4 . Blawgs and RSS Feeds. How many of these names are familiar to you? "Ernie the Attorney," "Bag and Baggage," "NetLawBlog," "Inter Alia," "beSpacific," "LawTech Guru," "ethicalEsq?", "tins," "My Shingle," "The Trademark Blog," "George’s Employment Law Blog," "GrepLaw," "LawSites," "Stay of Execution," "How Appealing," "The Indiana Law Blog," "Copyfight," and " DennisKennedy.Blog ."

These are names of a relatively small sampling of the blawgs that have given the legal profession a new and vibrant image among the growing number of influential opinion-leaders who have flocked to the world of blogging. A blog, as you may know, is a new kind of content-focused web site, typically built with blog authoring software, that displays new content as postings or articles in a reverse chronological order. They are cheaper, easier and, arguably, more effective than most standard web sites.

Have you heard of RSS feeds, RDF feeds, XML feeds, news feeds or syndication? These terms refer to a method that allows you to "feed" your content over the Internet as headlines, excerpts, abstracts or full-text (including images). People who "subscribe" to your feed receive new material as soon as you add it, without needing to return to your website. Subscribers use a program called a "newsreader" or a "news aggregator" to subscribe to, receive and manage feeds. Feeds are usually associated with blogs, but not all blogs have feeds and not all feeds are sent out by blogs. In fact, many newspapers, publications and services now have news feeds. Some courts and government agencies have or are working on news feeds.

I called news aggregators a life-altering technology in the December 2003 issue of Law Practice Magazine in my article, "Beating Information Overload with News Aggregators" ( http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/articles/v29is8an4.shtml ).

A good way to get your initial exposure to blogs and feeds is to visit the Daily Whirl site ( http://www.dailywhirl.com ), which allows you to see headlines from a large number of legal blogs and other sites with news feeds.

Blawgs will evolve and grow in 2004 and help change the public’s impression of lawyers in a positive way, but the news aggregator tools and feeds are a "must investigate and use" technology for lawyers in 2004 for many reasons, not the least of which is how they let you get information you need without sifting through the spam and clutter of your e-mail inbox.

5 . The Impending Security Disaster. As Microsoft advises, there are three essential steps that you must take to provide a basic level of security protection. They are ( 1 ) install all updates and patches, especially those designated "critical security updates," ( 2 ) use and keep current at least one antivirus program, and ( 3 ) use a hardware or software firewall. I add a fourth step: backup on a regular basis, verifying that files can be restored.

The three standard steps are like locking your car doors. Locking the doors does not mean that a determined and skilled car thief cannot steal your car, only that an opportunistic thief looking for an easy target will pass by your car.

The troubling aspect of Blaster is that the critical security update that patched the Windows vulnerability that Blaster exploited had been available for two months prior to the appearance of Blaster. There was a lot of publicity about the need to install the update. Doesn’t this imply that some, perhaps many, of the affected firms had not followed the first step of standard recommended security practices?

Computer and network security is difficult and specialized work. Many firms are lucky to have a full-time IT person, let alone one with security expertise. Law firms are also vulnerable to walk-in theft of computers from offices, theft and loss of notebook computers, compromised and wide-open access by attorneys at home and on the road, and inadequate screening of new employees and exiting employees. Add to that mix the reluctance of law firms and lawyers to encrypt sensitive data, and you have a big train wreck waiting to happen.

In the good news, however, the use of key-chain password generators and biometric login tools will reduce the notorious tendency of lawyers to use common and easily-guessed passwords. New security and patch management software will also help, as will exploring outsourcing options. But, is it too little, too late?

6 . Clients Fire Law Firms Due to Tech Shortcomings. Let’s consider four facts. First, for the last several years, surveys of corporate general counsels show that 50 – 60 % of them either fired or seriously considered firing one or more outside law firms. Second, the number one reason for firing law firms is "lack of responsiveness." Third, the most common answer to the question of what innovation did your law firm bring to you was "none." Fourth, the overwhelming answer to most important priority was "controlling legal costs."

Do I have to paint the picture for you?

Client patience is nearing its end. The law firms that will do well will be those who use client-centric technologies, especially those who bring cost-saving ideas to their clients without the clients asking. The firms who do not are likely to find more pink slips. Good corporate business may instead be moved to those tech-savvy lawyers leaving big firms to build a new business model on a technological foundation.

7 . Are We On the Doorstep on the Next Killer App for Lawyers? The Tablet PC, WiFi, OneNote and Practice-Specific Applications. I recently spent a few weeks trying out a Motion Computing Tablet PC generously loaned to me by Jeff Danielson, of M 7 Wireless Services in St. Louis ( http://www.m7ws.com ). The Tablet PC had wireless capabilities and was loaded with OneNote, Microsoft’s new "informal" word processor and electronic notepad that allows you to write or draw on the screen into your document, insert audio, and insert text by hand-writing recognition as well as by typing. OneNote works like an electronic version of a legal pad, but you can also search for what you need, move things around and share documents in a way that you cannot do with paper.

My reaction to the combination was overwhelmingly positive. You can be connected all the time and access and enter information in several ways in a form factor similar the legal pad you carry all the time. It gets better. Imagine that the Tablet PC, since it is a full-fledged PC rather than a PDA, also has your case management software and the programs you use in your everyday practice. If you are litigator, you could have a Tablet PC, enter your notes, check information on the Internet, use CaseMap, find and review information in Summation or another discovery tool, get real-time transcription, run PowerPoint presentations, present audio and video, all from something that has the familiarity of a legal pad. As a bonus, the head-turning factor of the Tablet PCs is sky high. The cost is about $ 200 more than a comparably configured standard laptop computer.

Is it the next legal tech killer app? It has my vote , and the votes of some of the legal tech experts I trust the most.

Other Trends to Watch.

1 . Has Microsoft opened opportunities for competitors? Are Linux, Open Source and Macintosh becoming real options for lawyers?

2 . Wireless + Mobility = Productivity. And what is wrong with working on the beach?

3 . E-lawyering, Virtual Law Firms and Internet Delivery of Legal Services Start to Get Very Real. Keep up with developments is the eLawyer Blog at http://www.elawyerblog.org .

4 . Cheap Storage Makes Video, Using Large Databases and Carrying Your Office with You More than a Dream. "Oh, I have all of the discovery files here on my key chain."

5 . Lawyers at that "Awkward Age" for Technology. Do you find that both your children and your parents are more comfortable and adept with technology than you are?

6 . Will the unwillingness and/or inability of lawyers to conduct electronic discovery result in malpractice cases? Despite the fact that businesses are moving to electronic records, computer forensics expert report that many lawyers make no effort to discover electronic evidence. Other lawyers who seek electronic evidence often make mistakes in handling it that destroy its admissibility.

My Conclusion.

Legal technology in 2004 looks really exciting, with lots happening. Firms who saw the down economy as a good time to take a nap on technology had better hear the alarm clock. The blawgers woke up the Internet community in 2003 . In 2004 , it’s morning again in legal technology and, from where I stand, it is a sunny day.