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10 technology trends shaping the legal industry

10 technology trends shaping the legal industry

By Emily Ortman

Technology in society has grown at a very quick rate in the past decade and in the legal profession as well. Some firms and lawyers have embraced the changes more quickly than others. 

According to the American Bar Association Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1, lawyers are expected to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology. While not all lawyers are expected to follow every trend in new technology, it is vital to understand the trends because they are increasingly important to handling cases and to running a law firm.

The ABA webinar Ten Tech Trends for 2014: The Legal Benefits and Ethical Risks of the Latest Technology” brought together a panel of experts in technology to advise lawyers on the new trends and how they relate to the law industry. The panelists referenced the ABA’s TECHREPORT 2013, an annual survey of practicing attorneys that asks about their technology.

1.      Budgets and Planning

Only 58.5 percent of law firms budgeted for technology expenses in 2013. The number for solo law firms was even lower (38.9 percent). Some small firms may lack the resources, according to panelist Paul Unger, a partner at Affinity Consulting Group in Columbus, Ohio. But he points out that all firms need to be more proactive when it comes to technology budgets. He recommended moving away from a “break-fix” mentality. 

“Firms should move toward a replacement of all workstations every three to five years,” he said. He also suggested replacing all machines at once to make maintenance more efficient and using a lease option on them to gain more cost predictability.

2.      Technology Training

While only 39 percent of lawyers thought training was very important, interest in training is on the rise. Adriana Linares, a technology trainer and consultant at LawTech partners in Winter Park, Fla., blamed the problem on a lack of understanding of why training is needed. Many lawyers believe they know enough about technology. But Linares pointed out, “When technology fails, it’s rarely a technology issue. It’s most usually a training issue where people give up.”

Internet resources such as programs offered by the ABA and local bar associations can help bridge the training gap. Offering in-house technology training for CLE credit could be an efficient tool.

3.      Legal Research

While 96 percent of lawyers use some form of online research, a full 41 percent still use print products regularly as well, so paper is not dead yet. The study found the most common first stop for online research was fee-based (40 percent), but 37 percent did use free research such as Google search as their first stop. Linares pointed out that an alarming number of attorneys do not know or use Google’s advanced search features. Among fee-based sites, Westlaw was more popular than LexisNexis.

4.      Security

Law firms are surprisingly weak on security, and a full 25 percent of firms have no security policy at all. Encryption is greatly underutilized. Even at large firms with resources, less than 50 percent use encryption of files.

Many firms allow a “bring your own device” system where employees’ personal technology is used for work. “It’s unsettled what kind of security fallout will come from using personal devices,” Unger said, adding that individuals will have to take on personal responsibility for security with their devices.

Panelists cited existing concerns that law firms could be a weak link when it comes to protecting information. “The FBI has already expressed concern about law firms being a vector into a client’s most-personal information,” said Dennis Kennedy, MasterCard vice president and senior counsel.

5.      Cloud Computing

With the cloud, software isn’t on a device, but is stored on the Internet. Use of cloud computing has increased dramatically, led mainly by solo and small firms. The document storage and sharing application Dropbox saw the most dramatic increase in usage, going from 4 percent in 2012 to 58 percent in 2013.

6.      Litigation Technology

The federal courts have had electronic court filing for years, but states are beginning to use it as well. In fact, 40 percent of jurisdictions with it have made it mandatory. It may still be a long time before all states and rural areas catch up, however. And while a majority of lawyers have laptops, they do not fully utilize them. Only 25 percent have used a laptop for a courtroom presentation, and17 percent have used litigation support software.

7.      Firm Hardware

The panel concluded that Windows is still dominant with lawyers and will probably stay that way for a while, but Apple products for mobile (iPads and iPhones) are most popular. Small firms have cut down on server use and are more likely to go to the cloud.

8.      Social Media

Individual blogs from lawyers have declined, but law firm blogs have increased, often taking the place of a company newsletter. LinkedIn is most popular, with 79 percent of lawyers using it, compared with 26 percent for Facebook and only 20 percent for Twitter.

Kennedy pointed out that Facebook can reveal a lot of important information, including photos, in many different types of cases, and that attorneys run the risk of doing their clients a disservice if they do not make use of it.

As far as social media policy, only a third to a half of firms have one. “It’s a cowboy world in social media,” Kennedy said, warning of ethical issues that could arise with it in marketing and confidentiality.

9.      Mobile Technology

In the world of mobile technology and lawyers, BlackBerry devices are out and iPads are in. BlackBerry use fell from 45 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2013. Over the same time period, iPad use rose from 15 percent to 48 percent. The iPhone (62 percent used) dominated Android phones (22 percent) in the legal world. The main reason for Apple’s dominance: the prevalence of legal-specific applications on their platform. CLE programming and ABA books available on iPads have added to their popularity.

As far as mobile security goes, Unger pointed out that 90 percent of mobile users used passwords, but he said that number should be 100 percent. Meanwhile, only 13 percent used encryption, which he said was “way, way, way too low” and put lawyers at risk of ethics violations if they lost client information.

10.  Big Firm/Small Firm

Fifty-eight percent of solo firms say they meet with clients face to face, compared with 33 percent of large firms. Solo and small firms lag behind large firms when it comes to Internet and video conferencing with clients, but advances in technology have made these options more affordable for everyone.

As far as advice for the attorney looking to move ahead with technology, Linares said you need to pick the right hardware and software for the right reasons. “Pick the right tools to run your law firm,” she said. “Not just the current trend.”

Joshua Poje, the director of the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center moderated, the webinar.

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