ABA’s Innovation Trends Report: What law firms should know


Law firms and the legal profession as a whole have the long-held reputation of being slow to innovate andstymied in tradition. In 2016 the American Bar Association launched its Center for Innovation to guide “innovations through people, process and technology in order to improve the effectiveness, accessibility and affordability of legal information and services.”

While the ABA Center for Innovation has steadily guided the legal community forward, even the most innovative minds could not have predicted the shifts of 2020. As we have discussed, the events of 2020 had sudden and lasting impacts, both big and small, in the legal world and beyond.

This year the ABA Center for Innovation released its inaugural Innovation Trends Report, an examination of innovation within the Bar Association, along with regulatory and technology shifts that impact legal services.

Within the report the ABA included a series of video interviews – via QR code, another pandemic innovation – with additional insights. In case you haven’t had a chance to read the report, we have you covered when it comes to legal tech.

We’re getting app-solutely overwhelmed

If you have a smartphone, you know there is an app for everything. Google Play has approximately 2.3 million apps, Apple boasts more than 3.5 million in their App Store.

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are the things that make those apps work. In simple terms, APIs retrieve information from computer servers. For example, when you want to see the current temperature on your weather app, an API request is made to a server containing current weather data. The answer comes back in code, and the app displays the information you asked for.

The API code for your weather app can also be written to answer legal questions, fueling a LegalTech boom. As Joseph Raczynski of Thompson Reuters writes, there were a few hundred API and Legal Platform start-ups several years ago; today there are a few thousand. APIs hold the key to quickly unlock specific details buried deep in pages of documents.

“For example, a firm could leverage a universal search to find answers from remote data as well as from their own internal repositories of information. Apps can connect with other apps passing information and ushering in the ability for developers to build possibilities limited only by imagination,” Raczynski writes. “No longer is software or data siloed, forcing people to swivel back-and-forth as the only path to solve problems and find answers.”

Across the Metaverse

Digital currency, non-fungible tokens, virtual worlds … the Metaverse is making headlines. But where is the practicality for the law?

As Raczynski writes, “In the Metaverse, people will interact, transact, own assets, have relationships, build things and companies, create intellectual property (IP), have copyright issues, and advertise. Further, crimes may happen, insurance likely will be developed, and a massive host of other IRL (In Real Life) concepts that now all now require physical dimensions will evolve, all of which will require professional legal advice and assistance.”

Business is already booming. OpenSea, one marketplace where virtual assets are bought and sold, processed $3.3 billion of transactions in a recent month.

There isn’t just virtual currency. There are virtual businesses: DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations). Raczynski reports DAOs are entities that have been built by humans, but once code for the DAO has been written, the code, not humans, runs the business autonomously.

Our own Julia Helmer explored what the Metaverse might mean for eDiscovery. She noted that while “the eDiscovery world takes time to catch up to technological innovation,” as usage of new technologies becomes more common, eDiscovery providers work to provide guidance for the unique questions that arise from emerging tech.

Helmer indicated that even in new digital frontiers, experienced eDiscovery providers have pre-existing insight, “basic questions of ownership, storage and what kinds of information are collected tend to be answered in some form long before eDiscovery vendors need to sort them out.”

Beauty is in the AI of the beholder

According to the ABA, 90% of the data humans have collected was done in the last two years. We are positively swimming in data. But with this much information – can we effectively analyze it? Not on our own. That’s where AI comes in.

Document review and classification has long been assigned to first year lawyers. However, between traditional documents, audio, visual, video, database, collaboration tools, and social media, the amount of information for review in cases has grown exponentially. For even the biggest and brightest legal teams the ability to process, analyze and understand it all would be nearly impossible. The ABA posits, “[m]achine learning can deal with the volume, variety and velocity of the data in ways no human being is capable of doing.”

Are we looking at a future full of AI, Esq.? Probably not. Even in Technology Assisted Review, human experience has a chance to shine. As we noted in a blog post earlier this year, “[t]eams can use [technology] to immediately reduce the pool of responsive documents and put their teams on reviewing the responsive documents.” By reducing the amount of time swimming through an ocean of data, teams can focus their efforts on providing meaningful, insightful counsel.

The elephant in the Zoom

When discussing technology trends in the 2020s, Zoom invariably makes an appearance. In a major shift, the ABA permitted fully remote J.D. programs to be accredited where they previously only permitted up to one-third of required coursework to be completed online.

Though some may lament the perceived loss of connection, the ABA’s report suggests the opposite. Seeing professors up close in an online classroom provides a more human experience than large lecture halls and instruction from behind a podium. This pushes educators to rethink how they deliver material, which also drives innovation in legal education.

Beyond how law students receive instruction, the introduction of fully remote programs changes who can access J.D. programs. Students with disabilities or those with niche practice interests have better access to a broad range of programs when not limited by physical location. Ultimately, this may mean the growth of more specialized legal counsel.

Like many industries the change to remote settings was a quick pivot rather than a slow transition, but productivity – the major concern of most leadership teams – was widely unchanged or even improved. While the ABA recognized the challenges of remote classrooms, they also noted the overall opportunity to move legal education into the future. But in a move familiar to many law graduates, they’re waiting on results from the bar exam to understand what’s next.

Time to upgrade your operating system

The ABA has long-held that lawyers have a duty of competence requiring attorneys to have “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” In 2012 that duty was extended to include “the practical application of technology.” In short, to meet the duty of competence legal practitioners need to stay abreast of evolving technologies that can enhance the delivery of services. The ABA noted three specific areas of focus: cybersecurity, client communications, and process and workflow.

In its Model Rules of Professional Conduct the ABA requires counsel to “make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.” Yet, with a quarter of responding firms reporting a data breach the expectation of confidentiality has fundamentally changed.

Cybersecurity incidents have shifted in recent years from personal information being leaked to ransomware attacks, holding up key business processes. Though the objectives have changed, the method of entry still, often, hinges on human error. This requires law firms and practitioners to have a proactive approach to cybersecurity including education on best practices.

Additionally, firms must have a plan in place to mitigate and respond to a cyberattack. According to the ABA, “[i]t’s not a matter of if a cyber-attack will happen; instead, it’s a matter of when. We are all one day closer to the inevitable breach of our systems. Thus, establishing a plan to respond to and mitigate that future breach’s impact is essential to effectively delivering tech-enabled, tech-competent legal services.”

While the report notes it is important to consider how firms protect themselves from external threats, they must also consider how they interact with the outside world, especially their clients. Conference rooms made way to virtual meeting places, client lunches morphed into Slack messages. People expect the same ease of access with their legal professionals as they do every other aspect of their lives.

The ability to interface with legal teams online is more than a matter of convenience for clients – it proves profitable for firms. “In 2020, firms that utilized client portals, online payments, and customer relationship management (CRM) software collected nearly 40% more revenue per lawyer in comparison to firms that lacked these tools,” as shared by Clio.

Increases in revenue are always of interest but does creating a technology-first firm require significant financial investment? Not necessarily. An array of low cost options with minimal barriers to entry exist. From scheduling intake calls to invoicing clients, firms and solo practitioners can adopt technology to reduce friction for clients that ultimately increases productivity and profitability.

The ABA leans in to the advantages of using technology in conjunction with good old fashioned legal know-how saying, “[t]hese tools perform consistent searches, edits, and analyses, allowing legal professionals to ditch the manual work and, in exchange, focus on the more advanced, nuanced legal needs of their clients that technology cannot execute.”

Creating technology-enabled processes and workflows represents a tremendous opportunity for the legal industry. “When used in combination, automation tools, artificial intelligence tools, and client communication platforms – along with the other tools in a growing tech toolkit – will significantly reduce redundancies, broaden access, and streamline the workflow of many legal professionals,” according to the ABA. It is important to note that where there is opportunity, there is also risk. We must recognize that as technology-enabled touchpoints increase, so does the importance of cybersecurity awareness. The future of competency for lawyers will increasingly include not only tech literacy, but tech mastery, in addition to subject matter expertise.

Where do we go from here?

The only direction the legal industry can move is forward. From education to research, client meetings and billing, the legal industry stands at a precipice of change. Where previous generations had the luxury of evolving at their own pace, lawyers of today were forced to adopt change as a result of the pandemic. The nature of how law is practiced from scheduling to the courtroom is changing – quickly. There will be a continuous learning curve. Staffing challenges at every level of the legal industry make the technology shift both more necessary and more challenging. While we know that the only way to move is forward, how we do so is still to be determined.

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