Learning from history: How forward-thinking legal professionals approach technology

Onna Technologies, Inc.
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Onna Technologies, Inc.

Don’t let anyone tell you that lawyers can’t change or that they hate technology. Recent history proves that, despite some foot-dragging, the legal industry has completely reinvented itself thanks to technological advances. Whether you’re a tech-skeptic or well-versed in what new tools have to offer, it’s worth reflecting on how technology has shaped the practice of law we know today — and what that history can tell us about where we’re going.

A (very) brief history of legal technology

The legal industry has come a long way in the last 50 years. Once upon a time, dictating letters and briefs onto tapes for secretaries to type out, flipping through the Rolodex before making a call, and poring over law reporter volumes for relevant case law was the norm. Then came word processing software, and with it the ability to cut and paste text and reuse entire sections of argument or research. Attorneys started getting their own computers and connecting them to big clunky printers through local area networks or LANs and in-house email. And, while telephones saw plenty of use, most meetings occurred in-person, necessitating the time and expense of travel. Even then, though, discovery was largely paper-based, with rooms of document review attorneys laboriously sorting and tagging potential evidence.

The next major changes came with the internet, which in turn, birthed social media and eventually the cloud. Portable devices like the BlackBerry, smartphones, and tablets then replaced desktops as vehicles for digital activity. Today’s lawyers assemble documents from existing precedents in a fraction of the time it used to take and manage their cases with sophisticated document and practice management software. Files, billing, and time-tracking have all gone digital, as have calendars and contacts. While discovery (now mostly eDiscovery) is still costly, technology-assisted review or TAR has revolutionized the process to the point where its use is now accepted as black-letter law

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the legal technology evolution into overdrive, demanding an overnight adoption of video conferencing technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, collaboration platforms like Slack, and cloud storage solutions such as Box and Dropbox. Artificial intelligence and legal analytics are no longer pie-in-the-sky possibilities: they’re business necessities. 

Lessons from history

It’s no surprise that lawyers tend to hang back and wait to see how technology works out before jumping on board. The law itself changes slowly: societal norms evolve and cases follow suit, lagging by years to decades as legislatures pass new laws and judges gradually overturn precedents. We’ve seen this initial resistance, and the ability to overcome it, over and over in recent legal history.

From email and smartphones to TAR and document management systems, legal history is rife with tools that lawyers once resisted but now take for granted. 

From email and smartphones to TAR and document management systems, legal history is rife with tools that lawyers once resisted but now take for granted. 

But we’ve also seen that the right motivation can turn that usual pattern on its head, as occurred in March 2020 when offices closed and law firms instantly adopted an entirely remote workforce. This shift gave an immediate boost to cloud-based technology: just a few years ago, many lawyers still feared the cloud, considering it less secure and more risky than on-premise software and file storage. Now, 79 percent of CEOs support moving their operations into the cloud to maintain operations and promote resiliency, leaving lawyers with no choice but to adapt.  

However, some of lawyers’ tech skepticism is warranted due to requirements that the practice of law imposes on tech implementation. Technology used by lawyers — or by companies that don’t want to end up in trouble with the law — must meet stringent requirements around information governance, compliance, preservation, and eDiscovery. Such technology must integrate seamlessly into existing legal and data workflows if it is to gain widespread acceptance. 

But the use of technology is not longer optional, a fact underscored by the American Bar Association’s 2012 decision to amend the rule of competence to clarify that lawyers must not only be competent in their knowledge of the law and its practice but also in their understanding and application of technology. 

Looking to the future

The technological advances of the last 50 years don’t represent an endgame, of course. To stay ahead of the changes that are inevitably coming, lawyers need to be forward thinkers. That means not wasting time and energy fighting against technology, but rather looking for best-of-breed tools that integrate well with existing technology stacks. A recent IDC Market Spotlight proved the value of this approach, finding that companies that adopted three or more integrated best-of-breed applications saw a 37 percent increase in productivity, with productivity gains rising to 75 percent for companies that deployed six or more integrated tools.

So what’s next for legal tech? For our money, there is untold potential in turning vast swaths of data into readily consumable knowledge. With this capability, the most tech-forward legal minds can not only make sense of the mountains of information that come standard in litigation, internal investigations, and audits, but also harness that information to also generate valuable strategic insights for the wider business.

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