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Seven Legal Technology Trends for 2007: Widening the Digital Divide in Law Practice

By Dennis Kennedy, Published on February 12, 2007

Lawyers and law firms have an uneasy relationship with technology. Never known as "early adopters," lawyers approach technology with wariness and often see technology as a necessary evil. There is, however, a general consensus that, good or evil, technology is a necessity in the modern practice of law.

William Gibson has famously said, "The future is here; it's just not evenly distributed." In the practice of law, the future is starting to arrive, but it's definitely not evenly distributed. The variations in use of technology from lawyer to lawyer and from firm to firm will astound even the casual observer.

By the end of 2007, we will be talking about a clear and growing digital divide between technology-forward and technology-backward firms. It will happen slowly, barely perceptibly in some cases, but we will see growing evidence of that gap and a restructuring of the practice of law.

Expect uncertainty and confusion over new Microsoft versions and electronic discovery to create a bit of a lull in legal technology. Some firms will take advantage of that lull to re-evaluate and refocus making solid business decisions, but many firms will not. More than any other factor, this will lead to a growing digital divide between the technology-forward firms and the technology-backward firms, with fewer and fewer firms left in the middle, which probably will not be a great place to be over the long term. Security and portability will be important watchwords. However, the place to watch is the Internet and the tools to consider carefully are the collaboration tools.

It might be a slow year, but it should not be a dull year. There will be a lot of opportunity for firms wanting to increase their competitive advantage.

If that is the big picture, then what specific trends must lawyers watch in 2007? I suggest that the following seven trends should be on your radar screen, and the agendas of your technology committee.

Trend #1. Reacting to Microsoft

With the double whammy of a new Windows release and a new Office release, Microsoft will occupy a lot of legal mind space in 2007. My first trend simply notes how deciding how to react to Microsoft issues will become a top priority in 2007. Note that I emphasize reacting to Microsoft, not necessarily moving to new versions.

A. Upgrading to New Microsoft Versions

Much time will be spent in 2007 making decisions about moving to Windows Vista and Office 2007 and when to make that move. Vista has a welcome emphasis on security and Office 2007 has a radical interface overhaul and a new document format. That's all good news for lawyers in the long haul, but Vista probably will require hardware upgrades and the initial stories of upgrading have raised concerns. Decisions on these products will not go away. It makes good sense to get started on thinking about these issues sooner rather than later.

The decisions here will not be easy, but they won't get any easier by ignoring them or deferring them indefinitely. With the expectation that the corporate world will go slow on moving to new versions, law firms have less pressure than usual on these upgrades, and that's a large part of the reason I've described 2007 in terms of a "lull." It will be easy not to make the upgrade, but will it be wise for you?

B. Macintosh and Linux

One reaction to Microsoft will be to consider and move to non-Windows operating systems. The Intel-based Macintoshes with the ability to dual-boot or run Windows have changed the thinking of many lawyers about Macintoshes. Linux has an excellent track record, especially for servers. In the right settings, both might be reasonable alternatives to Windows.

C. Open Source, Freeware/Shareware, and Web 2.0

Expect lawyers and law firms to take a much closer look at alternatives to other to other Microsoft software. Cost, or lack thereof, will play a big part, but well-featured programs and web-based services have become reasonable option, especially for small forms and solos.

Trend #2. Electronic Discovery – The 8,000 Pound Gorilla?

I am going to be a bit of a contrarian by saying that we will see less happen in the area of electronic discovery than most people expect in 2007. The ability of lawyers and law firms to resist the move to incorporating electronic discovery as part of the day-to-day practice of law is legendary, and they still have a few tricks up their sleeves to slow down this process, but the big EDD ship has set sail and we won't be turning it back.

A. Basic EDD Tools for Everyday Cases

Let’s face it, in the vast majority of litigation matters lawyers handle involve only a limited number of electronic documents and some email. That’s still a lot to handle, and that’s where we will see a lot of action in e-discovery in 2007. Watch for heightened interest in lawyer-oriented litigation database management applications like CaseLogistix, all-in-one "EDD appliances," and the use of Adobe Acrobat 8 in conjunction with the new CaseMap 7.

B. Lit Support Managers – The Next Generation of EDD

Leading law firms needed a skill person at the intersection of litigation and technology. My bet is that the growth and professionalization of the litigation support manager role will be the most important trend in EDD in 2007. For any firm dealing with electronic discovery, the decision how to create and fill a litigation support manager position should be number one of the priority list.

C. “Big Iron” for Big E-Discovery

Big cases have truly big data sets. Watch what happens with data repositories. Most law firms will eventually decide that it is not realistic for them to host huge amounts of data within the firm. Data repository vendors will play a bigger role in how litigation is conducted.

Trend #3. Making Sound Business Decisions about Technology

The best firms will make to apply business principles and make sound decisions about where they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to be with technology.

A. Audits and Cost Savings Efforts

This trend cuts across all firms, big and small. Too many firms have little idea of what they have, how money is being spent, and whether they are spending too much or too little for what they are getting. If you are not upgrading and installing, it's a great time to inventory, measure and assess what you have. The emphasis should be on thoughtful cost reduction, not simple cost cutting.

B. Applying Honest-to-Goodness Business Principles

Firms that audit and measure technology will have a solid basis for making business decisions. In 2007, look for an increase in the application of standard business principles to legal technology efforts. Expect to see an increased emphasis on tradition business measures, business processes and standard business approaches.

C. Outsourcing Revisited

What is the core business of a law firm? In 2007, outsourcing will pick up momentum. Should all of the technology services your firm provides be handled internally?

Trend #4. Security and Disaster Recovery – The Necessary Relationship

I read recently about an unprotected, un-updated Windows computer being attacked and compromised within a minute of being connected to the Internet. The nature of security has changed, for the worse. Security and disaster recovery require continuing attention, and the two areas have become inextricably related.

A. Recent Redefinition of Disasters

After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, can we really assume anymore that our building or even our city will remain after a disaster? Expect to see some new twists on what “disaster” means in 2007. While you cannot plan for it all, 2007 is a year for more planning rather than less planning.

B. Applying Recent Learning to Setting Priorities

You must try to learn some lessons and take some actions based on what you learned. Those who have suffered disasters have a completely different mindset than those who have not. The most tech-savvy firms will learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. A good disaster recovery plan is always being rewritten.

C. The Combo Disaster - Is Security the Biggest Disaster Issue?

We tend to think in terms of single disasters with single solutions. But what happens when disasters or security threats come at you in combinations? A security compromise can cause a spiraling set of technical and other problems, including massive public relations problems if confidential data is exposed or stolen. Are you prepared?

Trend #5. Portability Becomes a Priority

Lawyers need access to the Internet, their office and other resources on a constant basis, and others need similar access to them. Expect to see portability, in its many forms, become a significant factor in every legal technology decision in 2007.

A. Movement to Laptops

Almost all solo lawyers consider a laptop computer as essential to the way they practice. The prices of laptop computers have dropped dramatically over the past few years. The often underestimated value of notebook computers is that they let you take your entire office with you wherever you are. Expect to see more lawyers than ever carrying notebook computers, and you will definitely see more Macintosh notebooks being carried by lawyers.

B. The Decline of the Blackberry?

There are a number of forces at work - WiFi, the need to read attachments, spam - that suggest to me that we may have seen the high point of Blackberry use by lawyers. While I don’t expect to see any big move away from Blackberries in 2007, I do suggest that we have seen the high point in their usage.

C. Encryption Arrives

Portability is no panacea. Portable devices of all kinds can get lost, stolen or damaged. Expect data and drive encryption to become a significant trend in 2007. Fortunately, a number of tools exist. Some are free. Certain versions of Windows Vista also have encryption tools built into them.

Trend #6. The Internet is Back

In 2007, the Internet makes its mainstream comeback as lawyers begin to see and take advantage of Internet tools and opportunities that other businesses have been taking advantage of for the last few years. The Internet never really left, but it will be getting more of our attention.

A. Yellow Pages and Local Search

Some of the most fascinating statistics I saw last year involved the dramatic decline of the use of yellow pages to find local products and services and the move to search engines to find the same information. Given the disproportionate use lawyers make of yellow page ads, lawyers will need to re-evaluate how best to reach their target audience. The answer is increasingly going to be through some form of Internet presence – website, blog or otherwise.

B. Blocking and Tackling – Creating a Helpful Web Presence

The vast majority of lawyers have websites that are dated, unattractive, not regularly maintained, and not especially relevant to their target audience. Law firms will spruce up and revamp their websites in light of the growing role of the Internet in the way people shop for and purchase services. We will see more blogs, podcasts and video on law firm sites, but largely integrated into existing sites, with a greater emphasis on publishing information relevant to the likely audience and with a concern for giving the website a contemporary look and feel.

C. Email Alternatives

Email is broken and lawyers should be considering appropriate alternatives. Depending on what study you read, perhaps 90% of email sent over the Internet is now spam. Expect to see movement to email alternatives, especially for communications where email is not the most effective vehicle. RSS feeds and newsreaders are great alternatives to email newsletters. Instant messaging plays a growing role in business communication, and I’ve found a good number of lawyers who have clients who want to communicate by instant messaging. Blogs, wikis, and collaborative spaces offer attractive alternatives to group discussion and collaboration and are more effective than email.

Trend #7. Collaborative Tools and Toolboxes

Last and by far not the least, we will see the move toward collaborative tools and toolboxes. In our electronic world, people work together, even if separated by geography or other differences. If you are looking for one trend to explore and take advantage of to set you and your firm apart from the crowd, this is the trend on which I suggest that you focus.

A. Document Tools

Today’s documents are shared, and several people often work on the same document. It’s not enough anymore simply to be able to type an edit a document. Especially for transactional lawyers, there is a new set of skills for document preparation and a whole new set of issues to consider, from designating what is an “original” to determining how electronic signatures work to handling metadata and other hidden data associated with documents. Metadata in documents may reveal revisions, comments and other information about a document. It’s an important issue in electronic discovery and garnered some headlines in 2006 for mistakes made in handling it.

B. Let’s Conference

Technology certainly creates alternatives to the traditional office meeting. It also places pressure on lawyers and firms to provide those alternatives. There are now a variety of free and paid conference call services that let even a solo put together professional conference calls with 800 numbers and meeting IDs, and no need to learn how to put people on hold. Inexpensive web cameras let you videoconference. Webex and GotoMyPC let you create webinars and web conferences. Expect use of these tools to grow quickly in 2007.

C. Web 2.0

Web 2.0 refers to a set of lightweight Internet applications that essentially turn the Internet into a software platform. What each has in common is that it offers a way to share your information with others on the Internet and to work with others. Of the Web 2.0 tools, lawyers probably have used the combination of blogging and RSS feeds more than anything else. In 2007, we will see lawyers, like many others, moving toward some of these Web 2.0 applications.

Conclusion

My sense is that 2007 will be another year of a legal technology lull for most lawyers, in some ways much like 2006, with much less visible movement in legal technology than you might expect, but potentially large structural changes happening under the surface. It will be easy, and, in some cases, prudent for law firms to move slowly and cautiously. At the same time, however, some law firms and legal departments will be taking advantage of great new technology opportunities to modernize the practice of law, improve client service, and move toward something that I and others have called "Law 2.0." As a result, they will creative a competitive and technological gap between themselves and most other lawyers, firms and law departments. In general, lawyers and law firms will do well to use this general “lull” in 2007 to plan, to make good business decision about what they have and how to move forward, and prepare to move forward at the time of their own choosing. The legal technology landscape is becoming much more complicated, and, as some have told me, scarier than it's ever been.

[Disclosure: I have, have had, and might in the future have modest financial relationships with some of the companies mentioned in this article. I don't think that any of these relationships have an impact on my judgments, but you might, and I encourage you to do your own research on products and services, whether mentioned by me or anyone else. There is no more important skill we can have than the ability to read critically.]