Image [cc] Kaptain Kobald

There was a very interesting article on Neota Logic’s blog yesterday that has really had me thinking ever since I read it (and re-read it a few more times.) The article, what will the lawyers do now? Dancing With Robots, The Second Machine Age, and The Hammer Song, covers the whole issue of “running with technology” versus “running against technology” in the legal space, but there was one section on legal services and the second machine age that has really made me think about where we are as an industry, where most of us are within this second machine age, and who will be the winners and who will be the losers. Let’s breakdown the six “steam engines of legal services” that Neota Logic identifies:

  1. Online legal research, the law’s first foray into big and digital data For those of us in the law library and research fields, this is our baby. We’ve been the engineer and conductor of this steam engine for the past thirty-odd years. It is one of those technologies that you would have thought by now would be such a standard in the industry that everyone practicing law would be experts. However, we all know there are still Luddites out there that fight this advancement, or simply ignore the technology as much as possible. In fact, think of the number of attorneys that proudly say things like “I don’t even know what my [insert online resource here] username and password is.” So we keep pushing to limit those that ignore the technology and work on those (usually, but not always) younger attorneys to keep them up to date on the latest changes, advancements, and innovations that help them practice law more effectively.
  2. Electronic mail and networks, the harbinger of infinite interconnectedness
    Email has been the biggest bringer of change in the way lawyers conduct business, maybe since the business of law began. No other technology has been as widely adopted as email. However, the use of email has become stagnant, and many attorneys use it the same way today as they did when they adopted it back in the 90s when they signed up for AOL or CompuServ email addresses. They use it as de facto databases and as historical archives. In a way, email has begun to eat its own tail and its usefulness has plateaued and in a way has become a barrier for new and better communications tools. In addition to email, the networked computer system has been so integrated into the daily life of law firms, that when the network is down, work comes to a standstill. Email and the network are the two big steam engines in this category. However, items like Document Management Systems, Client Relationship Management Systems, and shared network resources have also entered the day-to-day lives of  the law firm, but not nearly as widely adopted as the first two engines.
  3. Document automation, drafting contracts with software rather than pencils
    Most, if not all, firms have these resources. The idea being that no document should be created from scratch and you should use the wealth of prior documents to assist you in the creation of the next document. Whether it is add-ins for Microsoft Word like Westlaw Form Builder or standalone products like HotDocs, the process of document automation and drafting tools should be something that every transactional attorney understands and uses. As most of you may have figured out by now, that is typically not the case. Once again, a technology is there that can significantly assist the attorney, reduce risk, and decrease the amount of time and effort spent by the attorney, and decrease the cost to the client, yet the struggle continues to do things the way we’ve always done them, and fight the advancements in technology.
  4. Search, from Recommind for lawyers’ own stuff to Google for everything else
    Ah, search. Only slightly behind email when it comes to overall technology adoption by lawyers. Of course, the easiest (and most widely used) is Google. Many attorneys start (and sadly some end) their research with Google. Librarians brought in an internal version of Westlaw and Lexis with resources like westkm and Lexis Search Advantage that mimicked the legal search tools’ capabilities to identify legal citations and structured language. IT Departments brought in Enterprise Search Tools like Recommind to index everything else. All of those great tools still pale in comparison to the comfort and amount of use that Google still plays in the everyday life of the attorney. When a technology like Google is so overwhelmingly adopted, it makes it that much more difficult to get attorneys to see, and use, other technologies that actually create a better result simply because they are so comfortable with Google. In fact, most of the new search tools attempt to mimic Google’s simplicity in order to trick/convince/ease the attorney away from the massive search engine. As most of us are finding out, that’s still a difficult feat to accomplish, and as Ryan McClead mentioned in his Why You Can’t Find Anything At Work post, user expectations and the reality of Enterprise Search tools don’t exactly mesh very well.
  5. Predictive Coding (a/k/a technology-assisted review), replacing armies of junior lawyers
    This technology is maturing in the e-discovery market, but I think it is still in its infancy when it comes to its overall potential. Replacing hundreds of lawyers with technology has been the steady mantra of Predictive Coding, and as courts remove barriers to this technology, the e-discovery cash cow that has helped many law firms over the past decade, may start to dry up. I’ve been a big believer that Predictive Coding has been too narrowly focused on document review, and that there is much more opportunities for law firms to use this technology to better index internal documents, use it to enhance project management, and tweak it for projects that we normally hire data stewards to conduct. Document Review attorneys aren’t the only ones that will eventually lose their jobs to this technology.
  6. Expert systems, context-specific guidance at scale and speed
    This is where products like Neota Logic and in some regards products like KMStandards (formerly kiiac) are making inroads to the legal market. Processes that rely upon rules, precedence, and fact sets will be automated. Those that don’t believe this are destined to find themselves left out of this great change that is coming to the legal industry. This steam engine is different from the five previous advancements. Expert systems will create ways for savvy law firms to produce revenue streams that are completely unlinked to the time their attorneys spend on client work. Law firms will work with these providers to leverage the firm’s knowledge, experiences, and expertise to create products that are licensed to the client and supported by the firm and provider. The client will use these tools without the aid of the firm, and this can open up opportunities for law firms to recapture work that was shifted in-house years ago. Although there is great opportunity here, it also means that those that ignore the advancements in technology will be left behind and eventually marginalized.

When you hear reactions to these technologies in the form of “clients pay me to practice law and advise them, not to be a techy” remind the attorneys that this list of six steam engines aren’t about the future of the legal profession, they are about today’s legal profession. If they can’t handle these six advancements, then how can they be expected to handle the next big change that is coming?