What ABA Techshow Shows about Tech

Law Technology News editor Monica Bay interviewed me yesterday for a forthcoming episode of her podcast. The topic was a recap of ABA Techshow. In looking back on Techshow, I saw that four themes predominated there, and it struck me that they pretty well summed up the state of legal technology today.

Practice management is burgeoning. Practice management, in all its various forms, was the dominant theme of Techshow. This was evident in the three days of programs, which focused on practical topics geared to solo and small firms. Speakers covered the paperless office, document assembly, speech-recognition software, cloud applications, remote access, social media and tablet computing. And it was evident among the vendors who showed off their wares in the exhibit hall. The booths were brimming with companies offering practice-management applications, time-and-billing programs, document-assembly software and legal-research services.

You could argue that this is nothing new. After all, ABA Techshow is sponsored by the ABA’s Law Practice Management section and it has always been about practice management. My sense, however, is that solo and small-firm lawyers have started paying greater attention to the use of technology for practice management within the last few years. Practice management software is nothing new, of course, but how many lawyers ever used it? Not a lot. Now, lawyers’ use of practice management technology appears to be burgeoning. I credit this to the new generation of cloud-based practice management applications. Rocket Matter and Clio deserve credit for starting this trend back in 2008. Today, as the Techshow exhibit hall made clear, the space is crowded with vendors big and small offering full-featured and relatively inexpensive platforms.

Cloud computing is now mainstream. Lawyers were slow to embrace the cloud, and for good reasons. Early cloud vendors might be here today, gone tomorrow. The Internet access required to use cloud software was not always or easily available. And then there were the very real ethical concerns about storing client information in the cloud. Now, however, the vendors who offer cloud platforms are mainstream, well-established companies, Internet access is ubiquitous, and every ethics panel that has considered the issue has cleared the way for lawyers to use the cloud.

Wandering around the Techshow exhibit hall, one almost had to wonder whether any company makes desktop software anymore. Why would they? Cloud applications offer so many advantages to lawyers, including that they are platform and location agnostic. Use them anywhere, on any device. Yes, vendors do still sell desktop software, but all the new products, it seems, are being launched in the cloud and established companies are moving their products there. Many programs, too, focused on cloud applications at Techshow. In fact, there was a track devoted to cloud computing.

The Mac is back. In an article I wrote way back in 2002, Web Resources for the Macintosh Lawyer, I noted that my then-colleague at American Lawyer Media, Mark Voorhees, had set off a virtual maelstrom of angry e-mail by declaring in the National Law Journal, “In the legal market, now and forever more, the Mac is dead.” Mark survived, and so did the Mac. In fact, not only have Apple products survived within the legal community, but they are thriving — at least judging by what lawyers were carrying around at Techshow.

Credit the iPhone and iPad with spawning a new generation of Apple lovers among legal professionals. Credit also the aforementioned cloud, which lets us easily switch from desktop to tablet to smartphone, all the while using the same technologies. Sure, the majority of lawyers still use PCs as their primary computer, but their infatuation with the iOS operating system has lured more of them to replace their PCs with Apple products.

We are insecure about security. Who’d a thunk a few years back that programs about digital security would draw big audiences at Techshow? One of the most popular programs there was a presentation on digital forensics by Sharon Nelson and John Simek of Sensei Enterprises, and one of the most talked-about events was John’s “prank” in which he tricked a majority of his audience into connecting to a bogus wireless network.

Lawyers are becoming more tuned into the need to understand the security issues technology presents. In a time of cloud computing and ubiquitous wireless connections, lawyers have a professional obligation to at least have a basic understanding of the threats to their data. The ABA drove this home last August, when it amended the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that a lawyer’s duty of competence encompasses the duty to keep abreast of “the benefits and risks” associated with technology.

These four themes prevailed at ABA Techshow. To my mind, they pretty well sum up the state of legal technology.

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  • Barry Bayer

    Practice management has always (at least as long as I’ve been doing this) an important part of the legal marketplace, although emphasis on thin client applications has increased lately. Once you go browser-based applications in the cloud, obviously mac or PC (or smart phone or tablet) doesn’t matter a lot. But applications like TABS or Amicus Attorney or ProLaw (to name three off the top of my head that have been around for quite awhile) had many adherents in the old days as desktop products, and to the extent that they exist today either have or will move to thin client applications. Something to be said about products with a history of a few years of development and improvement, over products on display at TechShow which result from some smart programmer whose brother is a lawyer and who decided to reinvent the panoply of services — timekeeping, billing, document management, scheduling and so forth — from scratch. Although I haven’t thoroughly tested any of the newbies yet, I can’t believe that such a complex can be implemented by one guy, or a small team in a short time, so that it works all that well. These thing take time and a lot of testing.

    (CLIO, for example, has taken a lot of development work in the last few years, and is mightily improved from the early iterations I saw a few years ago.)

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