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March 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 2 | Page 22
Technology

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Tomorrow in Legal Technology: A Potpourri of Predictions

The Star Trek era is coming (we know it). But closer at hand, crystal-ball gazing at technology affecting lawyers in this galaxy.

In the not-too-distant future, lawyers will stride through their office doors and command: “Lights. Music. Computer on.” We already have voice recognition technology and “smart-home” devices in abundance. All this will one day converge, so that much of what we now do physically can be done by voice command alone. The Star Trek era is coming. We can feel it in our bones.

We may still be short of the “beam me up” epoch, but we are getting closer all the time. Consider how tabletop computing, which once looked like a fantasy, is poised to take off this year. With tabletop technology, you can arrange graphics, photos and other digital elements by manipulating them with hand gestures on the tabletop, rather than in the current, tedious keyboard-and-mouse fashion. By the end of 2008, you can expect to see tabletop computers in high-tech companies, in hotel bars and on cruise ships—since at first, they will be used mainly by the technologically advanced (with deep pockets) and for entertainment purposes.

But rest assured, their use will spread. And tools to expand their capabilities will undoubtedly follow in short order. For example, cameras made for tabletop computers will interact with the table and upload photos without any physical connection—it will all be wireless. And just look at the surfaces around you—not only tables, but walls, ceilings and everything in between. They can all be turned into computer monitors by the simple use of projection devices. The virtual world grows in amazing ways!

But let’s look closer to home now, by peering into the crystal ball regarding tech tools and issues affecting lawyers and their practices in the nearer future. Here, in no particular order, are some of our predictions on that score.

 

Office Productivity Applications

Technology moves so fast that no one can truly keep up with it, not even the technologists. And right now, most of those that cater specifically to the legal market are merely guessing at what lawyers want. (We can only hope the guessing becomes more astute over time.) Perhaps that’s why the non-legal-market vendors still have such an impact on us. Are we not all shackled to Microsoft, after all? And we predict that for the foreseeable future, we will remain shackled to it—until and unless, that is, the third-party software that lawyers need becomes available for other operating systems.

Hope looms in the form of Web 2.0 applications such as Google Docs, which allows users to create and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. In fact, we recently read an article about three of the Fortune 100 companies exploring the possibility of replacing the Microsoft Office suite with Google’s rendition of it. So, while Microsoft may have dominance now, will its high prices and notorious inefficiencies play into the competition’s hands?

Truth is, we are not certain. While Google is now solidly the second “800-pound gorilla” in the land, its privacy policies are under intense scrutiny in the European Union and growing scrutiny here in the United States. Still, thus far, the public has warmly received virtually every new Google venture. Thus, at a minimum, we anticipate a fierce battle of the gorillas in the office suite productivity space. Google is already the leader in Web 2.0 applications as desktop replacements, and Microsoft is turning the tables by going after Google’s market with its Office Live applications. Plus, the acrimony between these two gorillas has now escalated with Google’s recent $44.6 million bid to buy Yahoo. This is not a marriage that Yahoo wants, but it is vulnerable, so as of press time, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the outcome of this offer and a lot of debate about the impact an acquisition, or even a mere partnership, might have. The ongoing clash of the titans will be very interesting to observe (from a safe distance, of course).

But one area in which we firmly expect great progress is collaboration capabilities, from both the clashing titans and elsewhere. It isn’t fair to call collaborative technologies nascent—they’ve been with us for a while, in the form of both desktop software programs and Web-based tools. Yet the fact remains that right now, lawyers are still struggling to collaborate easily, whether in working on documents or attempting to hold a meeting. So cheap collaborative technologies that are easy to use—oh boy, is there a demand for those!

And something else that we expect to be in increasing demand are the types of utility programs that make lawyers’ days easier so they can do what they really want to do—practice law. There are lawyer-geeks to be sure, but they represent a small slice of the profession overall. So let us also predict that lawyers will keep looking for technology tools that perform efficiency-enhancing functions at a budget price. They may not yet be able to escape Microsoft’s clutches in the office suite and operating system departments, but they are keenly looking at low-cost or no-cost utilities and services. The new, free voice-to-text service Jott is just one example of a simple need being fulfilled. Now that we all live in our e-mail boxes, why write down messages and to-do reminders on scraps of paper when you can leave a voice mail that will be converted to an e-mail that’s delivered directly to your inbox? (Face it, how many scraps of paper have you mislaid? We lost count a long time ago.)

 

Vista vs. XP vs. Macintosh OS

Elsewhere in Microsoft-land, what about the Microsoft Vista operating system? Don’t rush in. Microsoft still hasn’t finished mucking with the kernel, and current word is that Service Pack 1 won’t be released until sometime later in the spring. At press time, the word on the street from ZDNet is that SP1 will indeed improve Vista’s performance, but we remain wary. We do predict the next year will see growth in Vista usage, but most of it will come as a result of normal upgrade replacements, with firms buying replacement PCs that have Vista preloaded, versus a rush to buy Vista itself. And at that, most consultants are telling folks to order replacement machines with XP where possible, at least until Vista stabilizes. Recent studies have shown that no matter what machine you run Vista and XP on, XP will run significantly faster. Tell us then: Why would you trade a racehorse for a nag?

What about lawyers just ditching PCs and shifting to Macs? Nope, we don’t predict that. Macs are easier to switch to now, given the new Apple operating system’s interoperability with Windows, but the Windows applications will continue to dominate the market. Granted, some lawyers will purchase a Mac and dual-boot to a Windows environment—most, though, will just stick to a straight Windows machine. Still, there’s more interest in this area than ever before.

 

On the Road-Warrior Front

When we think of all the things we can already do with one device or another, the frenetic trend to cram still more functions into one device is remarkable. One thing Apple’s Steve Jobs has always keenly understood is that it is important to cast your net upon the waters and reel in the functions that consumers want. Not all functions belong on a device simply because you can put them there. The device will be too cluttered and complicated. So it’s critical to identify selected functions that consumers crave and make them available in a simple, user-friendly fashion. Hence the frenzied purchasing of the iPhone.

But will legal professionals jump aboard the iPhone train? This device is new, it’s slick, and it isn’t made for anyone who wants to conduct business. However, we’ll go out on a limb and predict that the iPhone will begin to infiltrate the business market as appropriate third-party applications become available and Apple opens the connectivity options. At the end of the day, though, it will probably fall short of meeting the real needs of the business community.

Or are you instead thinking of getting a BlackBerry? Our advice is not to do it. We predict that smartphone options running Windows Mobile (like the Treo 700wx), which integrate with an Exchange server, will be too alluring to resist. BlackBerry usage may well have peaked, especially since it requires additional software and hardware that Windows Mobile devices do not.

 

Trial-Related Forecasts

Another arena of change will be the courtroom. We see judges becoming more receptive to technology in the courtroom, and some local court rules will change to make it clear that lawyers can indeed bring laptops into courts as a matter of course because that is where their cases and calendars are. The rules may even allow cell phones, too—but mind you, it is likely that if the phones go off (as they were wont to do in the old days, when rules originally allowed them), irritated judges will do what one of our judicial friends did—throw the phone out the courthouse window.

In all probability, lawyers’ courthouse IDs, which are sweeping the nation as a way to avoid security lines, will also provide for the entry of the lawyer’s technology in the process. (Get firsthand advice from judges about using technology in court by turning to page 36 of this issue.)

Yes, technophobic judges still abound, but they are lessening in number, and the larger legal world is pushing hard for corresponding change. All of the U.S. district courts now have mandatory electronic filing, and it looks like the appellate courts will
follow in the not-too-distant future. The states are clearly moving in the same direction, although some faster than others. But in the hinterlands as well as the cities, adoption of the
e-filing standard is a major domino that will topple other dominoes and overall accustom the legal world to working electronically.

Electronic discovery? Look for a steady shift to native-format production and a consequent saving in costs. Those who are married to TIFF production will limp along for a while with gullible clients, but the smart e-discovery vendors are making the move to native now and using TIFF only in situations where native format doesn’t work, primarily where redaction is involved.

Also in the next year, and for years to come, watch for a shakeout among the e-discovery vendors. Many can’t do what they claim they can, many others don’t do it well, and many charge highway-robbery prices because that’s what the market has borne in the past. Lawyers and law firms, however, are getting shrewder and the days of charging astronomical prices that bear no relation to time and effort are numbered.

 

Quick Predictions on Data Preservation

Lastly, here’s a bit of prognostication about backups, since what good are all your tech tools if you don’t safeguard against losing your data? The biggest change in this area is that more and more lawyers are moving to the relative simplicity of an external hard drive for backup. Because these drives are cost-effective, reliable and easy, more adopters are likely.

But a growth in outsourced backup? We don’t think so. The prices are (relatively) high, there are still security concerns, and more than a few of these services have outright failed to deliver on their promises. We guess that some lawyers will continue to
use this option, but now that do-it-yourself backup devices have gotten easier and cheaper, the trend should grow in that direction.

 

Change Comes at the Speed of Light

The list of predictions could go on and on, but our crystal ball is murky and, undoubtedly, we have already written words we’ll have to eat. That’s just how it goes in the legal tech world. Technology’s evolution is a constant source of surprise, and no one has a perfect record of predictions. The only thing we can say for sure is that the computer you just bought is already well on its way to obsolescence because those in development are assuredly faster, smaller and contain more robust resources. We are moving at warp speed, with no sign of slowing down.

Even the guru among gurus has been known to be wrong, by the way. Witness this one-time prognostication from Bill Gates: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Predictions are a dicey business.

About the Author

Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek are President and Vice President, respectively, of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a computer forensics and legal technology firm based in Fairfax, VA. They are coauthors of The Electronic Evidence and Discovery Handbook: Forms, Checklists, and Guidelines ( ABA, 2006).

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