Undoubtedly, we will remember 2009 for widespread economic difficulty. Lawyers, law students and legal professionals alike faced tremendous challenges as clients cut back on legal services, billable hours fell and jobs disappeared. But 2009 was also a year of rapid technological change within the legal profession, fueled in part by economic pressure. More than ever, lawyers embraced social media, experimented with online data storage and online applications, and used technology to increase their mobility.
As we move into 2010, technology will continue as a major tool for lawyers looking to overcome an economic environment fraught with uncertainty. Used carefully, technology can help lawyers become more effective and efficient. Here are some of the technology trends you're likely to hear about in the next year:
Windows 7 adoption. Released in October, Windows 7 is Microsoft's attempt to close the disastrous Vista era. Businesses of all types have been hesitant to make the switch, but with Windows XP nearing its tenth birthday, adoption of the new operating system seems inevitable. For some lawyers, particularly solo and small firm ones, the switch will probably accelerate, as new Windows-based computers now ship with Windows 7 and most vendors no longer offer the option of downgrading new PCs to Windows XP.
Movement to Macs? While the annual ABA Legal Technology Survey Report has yet to show any large-scale movement, Mac proponents argue that Macs are on the rise among legal professionals. Will PC users facing the Windows 7 upgrade (and the necessary hardware upgrades, for those with older computers) simply choose to go Mac instead? The popularity of the iPhone may provide an added boost, as some lawyers, happy with their Apple smart phones, seek similar satisfaction with Mac products.
E-readers everywhere. Electronic book readers took off in 2009, with the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader leading the way. Indeed, Amazon reportedly sold more e-books than physical books on Christmas day. Other vendors are now stepping into the market as well, with several e-readers debuting at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. Even Apple is purportedly working on some form of an e-reader/tablet device. Thus far e-readers have been primarily targeted at the consumer and academic markets, but their rising popularity seems likely to propel them into the professional market in 2010.
SaaS headed mainstream. Web-based software products, also called Software as a Service, or simply SaaS, grew in popularity in 2009 as some of the fears about their stability, security and practicality were addressed by software vendors. Look for an increasing number of legal software solutions to be SaaS-based as 2010 progresses.
Mobility on the rise. Technology is allowing lawyers to work more effectively on the go. Feature-rich smart phones like the BlackBerry, iPhone and Droid let lawyers carry computing power with them everywhere they go, at all hours of the day or night. Add in the rise in use of netbooks, e-readers and web-based software, and legal professionals are no longer chained to their desks and offices full of paper files.
Social networking—less is more. Many lawyers embraced social media in 2009 with unbridled enthusiasm. They built LinkedIn profiles, started Facebook fan pages for their practices, and Tweeted day and night. But the rewards of such 24/7 networking didn't always equal the hype. Social media offerings will continue to grow in 2010, but expect lawyers to take a more focused and judicious approach to their social media endeavors.
Collaboration tools embraced. Collaboration is an essential part of law practice, whether between co-counsels, client and counsel, or opposing counsels, and technology is playing an increasing role in facilitating and improving these collaborative efforts. Web-based collaboration tools should rise in popularity, as lawyers are increasingly mobile and comfortable with web-based tools.
Ethics at issue. Technology emerges and develops at a rapid pace, sometimes too fast for the bodies governing legal ethics to keep up. As a result, formal ethical guidance can lag behind technology by several years. However, we may see ethics opinions begin to catch up in 2010 as some popular technology—such as social media and SaaS—reach maturity.
This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members. Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.