LegalTech 2013: Old habits die hard, but die they do

It's February again. And if you're a regular reader of mine, you know what that means: it's once again time for my annual article on LegalTech.

If you're not familiar with this conference, which was held in Manhattan last week, it's a legal technology conference sponsored every year by American Lawyer Media. Each year, it's attended by thousands of legal and IT professionals seeking to learn about the latest legal technologies and innovations. Attendees are primarily from large law firms, ranging from attorneys to IT staff, although firms of all sizes are represented.

LegalTech 2013 included multiple educational tracks, focusing on a variety of legal technology issues, with e-discovery dominating even more so than usual. Aside from e-discovery, other tracks included knowledge management, information governance, records management, project management, practice management, risk management, and big data-lots and lots of big data. And, interestingly, there were no tracks devoted to mobile technology or cloud computing, although there were a few individual sessions which addressed these topics.

The minimal focus on mobile and cloud computing was in glaring contrast to last year's conference, where these topics were covered extensively. My colleagues and I discussed this curious shift at length, eventually concluding that the apparent lack of interest was likely due to the ubiquity of these technologies and a reluctant acceptance by the legal field that mobile and cloud computing is here to stay.

This hypothesis is supported by the fact that nearly every e-discovery software company that exhibited at LegalTech offered a cloud computing option. Further support comes from Iron Mountain's new offering. Iron Mountain, long-time provider of legal document and file storage, now provides law firms with digitized versions of their documents which are then stored in the cloud and are thus accessible at anytime from anywhere via computers or mobile devices.

More evidence includes the fact that both Thomson Reuters and Lexis now offer cloud-based law practice management platforms, with Lexis debuting their solution, Firm Manager, at last year's LegalTech, and Thomson announcing their new product, Firm Central, this year. That means that both companies have joined the ranks of veteran cloud-based law practice management providers MyCase (the company for which I work), Clio and Rocket Matter, among others.

Also relevant is that the "bring your own device" (BYOD) phenomenon is now a reluctantly accepted reality for most large firm IT departments. Instead of prohibiting lawyers from using iDevices and Android devices, most IT departments are, at long last, allowing lawyers to use their mobile devices of choice. This is because many lawyers were already using them without their IT department's blessing, thus presenting obvious security risks.

So, these factors -- cloud platforms as the default and the BYOD phenomenon -- suggest that the inevitability of cloud and mobile computing is now a given since fighting the tidal wave of technological change is no longer an option. These technologies are now accepted as viable alternatives to more traditional IT setups and are no longer viewed as the "new kid on the block." For that reason, they weren't mentioned as frequently at LegalTech because they simply merit less discussion than in year's past.

In other words, old habits die hard, but die they do -- which was the topic of the Keynote given on Day 3 of LegalTech: "The Power of a Crisis: Remaking the Habits of Lawyers." The keynote was given by Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times and author of the book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business."

Duhigg's premise was that the science of habit formation could help the legal industry to change its ways and thus better serve clients. First, he discussed the benefits of examining old habits and chipping away at the building blocks upon which they are based. He explained that the "habit loop" consists of three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward.

The cue is the event that sets the loop in motion. So, for example, a stressful event that causes you to crave a cigarette. The routine is the act of smoking. And the reward is the rush you get from the nicotine. According to Duhigg, the key to breaking destructive or counterproductive habit loops is to become aware of the cues and then alter the rewards.

He then applied this theory to the legal profession, explaining that historically, lawyers have been unwilling to change the ways that legal services are delivered. However, in order for lawyers to continue to thrive, they must break the habit loops to which they've become accustomed but that no longer work in the midst of an unprecedented and rapidly changing legal landscape. And, to break those habits, the cues and rewards for doing business as usual will have to change. He then assured us that it could be done, but didn't offer much by way of example.

As I thought about the issues Duhigg raised in his keynote, I realized that whether the legal field likes it or not, it's being forced to break its habit loops. This is because, in recent years, rapid technological change, increased competition from non-traditional sources (such as do-it-yourself websites like Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer), and the ailing economy have drastically affected the profitability of doing business as usual. In other words, both the cues (the demand for traditional legal representation) and the rewards (profits) for delivering legal services as we've always done are decreasing.

So, because the cues and rewards are changing due to factors outside the control of our profession, larger law firms will be forced to change the way that legal services are delivered, or pay the price, as Dewey LeBoeuf did.

In order to thrive in this new world economy, innovative lawyers will necessarily have to re-imagine the delivery of legal services in order to thrive. These forward-thinking lawyers will meet the changing demand for affordable, responsive legal representation, all the while providing legal services in more efficient, cost effective ways. Those lawyers who meet this challenge head on and break the habit loops that no longer serve our profession will ultimately provide better representation to their clients and, as an added bonus, avoid extinction in the process.

Old habits die hard. But I'm confident that our profession can and will change. In fact, it's already in the process of doing so -- and for that reason, I can't wait to see what the future will bring.

Editor's note: this article was first published in The Daily Record ©2013 and in Sui Generis--a New York law blog. Reprinted here with permission.