Last year, I posted my picks for the 10 most important legal technology developments of 2013. In many ways, this year’s big legal tech stories were continuations of last year’s. Last year, for example, I wrote about the cloud having come into its own, about competence in legal technology becoming a necessity, about mobile becoming the driving force in tech development, about practice management becoming mainstream, and about technology helping to fill the access-to-justice shortfall. All of these continued to be important into 2014 and to develop throughout the year.
But 2014 had significant developments of its own in the area of legal technology. As I look back over the year, here are my picks for 2014’s most important legal technology developments. The numbers are not meant to be rankings — all of these are important in their own ways.
1. Legal research “rebels” join the establishment.
Budget-consciousness at large firms is driving greater use of “value” legal-research services, transforming the importance of those services in the overall legal-research landscape. Let me explain. Loosely speaking, legal research providers fall into three groups. One consists of the 800-pound gorillas, the large and established companies that dominate the market. Here you find Westlaw and LexisNexis, along with Bloomberg BNA and Wolters Kluwer. Another group consists of the start-up innovators, new companies that are introducing new approaches to legal research. In this group, you have companies such as Casetext and Ravel Law. Somewhere in between those two groups are the companies you might think of as “value” providers, most notably Fastcase and Casemaker. These companies were once rebels themselves, bringing primary legal research to the legal market at a cost far more affordable than the gorillas offered.
These value companies are perceived as primarily serving the smaller-firm market and not widely used by larger firms. That, however, has changed. This struck me most clearly when I attended last summer’s annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries. From large-firm librarian after large-firm librarian, I heard the same thing: Fastcase is now a key part of their legal-research line-up. (Not to slight Casemaker, but it was Fastcase I heard mentioned most often.) Large firms have their Westlaw or LexisNexis subscriptions, maybe both, because there is some research that can’t be done anywhere else. Many now also have some number of Bloomberg Law subscriptions, for the specialized areas that it covers better than others, such as finance. But now part of the mix is Fastcase, and to a lesser extent Casemaker, and these larger firms are encouraging associates to use them for routine case law and statutory research. These services, once seen as rebels, have joined the establishment. And that’s a good thing for the market overall, because it is driving cost reductions and product enhancements.
2. ‘Legal Hacking’ is no longer an oxymoron.
A year ago, many legal professionals had never heard of a hackathon and the concept of legal hacking seemed like an oxymoron. Today … well, many legal professionals have still never heard of a hackathon — but a whole lot more have than had a year ago. Now, legal hackathons are a “thing” and legal-hacker groups are active all around the country. By “hacking,” I do not mean breaking into computer systems. Rather, I am referring to people who are skilled in computer coding and who use that skill to develop innovative solutions to problems. In the legal field, hackers are using coding skills to develop computer programs, mobile apps and web tools for purposes that range from streamlining legal practice to bridging the access-to-justice gap. Legal hacking gained its first national stage in 2014 with the ABA Journal’s Hackcess to Justice event during the ABA annual meeting in Boston, a tw0-day competition where three judges (of whom I was one) awarded cash prizes to the teams that came up with the most innovative ideas for improving access to justice. All of a sudden, there are legal hacking events taking place all over the country (here is one coming up in January) and associations being formed of those who are involved in hacking, such as LegalHackers.org. Hacking is a grassroots phenomenon that is already pushing innovations in legal technology and legal services.
3. Encryption becomes essential.
From time-to-time here, I have pointed out that lawyers fall woefully short in their use of encryption and other security measures to protect privileged client communications, and I have reviewed various products that make the use of encryption easier. Even so, encryption-avoiders take comfort in ethics opinions that tell them that encryption is not necessary. The most prominent of these was ABA Formal Opinion 99-413, which concluded that a lawyer sending confidential client information by unencrypted email does not violate the model rules. Well, that was 1999. We know a lot more now than we did then about the state of digital security. Law firms are being hacked. Email is being intercepted. This isn’t a “maybe” anymore. In 2014, encryption became a must-have tool for lawyers. Don’t just take my word for it. Two of the most respected voices in law firm security, Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek, recently said the same thing: “Trust us, it has now reached the point where all attorneys should have encryption available for use, where appropriate, to protect client data.”
4. Businesses and technology are changing the nature of law practice.
The Legal Services Act enabled companies in the UK to offer legal services. And the world did not end. In fact, three years later, the act is widely perceived as having driven innovations that have been beneficial to consumers. (See here, for example.) Meanwhile, here in the U.S., many in the legal profession remain focused on trying to shut down innovative legal companies on the grounds that they are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. But the marketplace is a powerful force. Increasingly, companies are using technology to push the UPL envelope. This was a year in which LegalZoom won significant victories on the UPL battlefront and stood poised to expand the range and types of services it offers. This was a year in which Avvo began providing fixed-fee, on-demand legal advice. This was a year in which even the ABA acknowledged, “Familiar practice structures are giving way in a marketplace that continues to evolve. New providers are emerging, online and offline, to offer a range of services in dramatically different ways.”
5. Docket searching is the new black.
Lawyers have a love-hate relationship with PACER, the federal courts’ system for electronic access to records. We love having electronic access to these records, but we hate the system’s clunky and archaic interface. PACER turned 25 last year and it is showing its age. Thankfully, 2014 brought the emergence of a whole new group of products, all aimed at making it easier for lawyers to get at and use the information PACER contains. Last March, I reviewed one of these, PacerPro, in the ABA Journal. Now, there are several services offering variations on this theme, such as Inforuptcy for researching bankruptcy dockets (which I reviewed in May) and DocketFish (which I plan to review soon). Another service, Patent Advisor, is doing something similar for the USPTO’s Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR) system, letting you slice and dice its data in ways that give you new insights into the patent approval process and into the examiners who drive it.
6. Human + Machine > Human
In last year’s post, I noted that lawyers were at last overcoming their fear of computer analytics and artificial intelligence. The sensational headline of a 2011 New York Times article, Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software, characterized the concern that technology would render lawyers moot. If 2013 was the year in which lawyers overcame their fear of such technologies, then 2014 was the year in which these technologies became accepted as essential and commonplace. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of e-discovery. The volumes of data now common in large-scale litigation render it physically and economically impossible for lawyers to perform eyes-on review of every document, as they once did. No longer are lawyers asking whether they should use technology-assisted review. Instead, the debate has turned to which methods are better for which cases. And no longer is the fear that TAR and similar technologies will displace lawyers. Rather, we now understand that humans and technology can work together to produce results far superior to those from humans working alone.
7. Your father’s legal directory is dead.
When a major legal publication such as the ABA Journal looks into whether a company is about to die, it probably is. Martindale-Hubbell was once an essential resource. Its hard-bound volumes filled shelves in most law offices and its AV ratings were considered the ultimate badges of prestige. But this year saw the completion of a joint venture in which Internet Brands — which operates a portfolio of consumer-facing websites such as CarsDirect.com and ApartmentRatings.com — took over operation of Martindale from LexisNexis. This led Kevin O’Keefe to question whether Martindale-Hubbell and its lawyer ratings “still exist as we knew it” and Jean O’Grady to declare that Martindale had bitten the dust. Meanwhile, the once-controversial and now widely accepted legal directory site Avvo picked up another $37.5 million in financing, for a total raised since its inception of $60.5 million, a LinkedIn profile has become de rigueur for legal professionals, and lawyers’ use of Facebook continues to expand.
8. Practice management goes wide.
My legal-developments post last year declared that 2013 was the year in which practice management “went mainstream,” thanks to a growing crop of sophisticated and established cloud-based practice management platforms. Continued growth in the use of practice management applications remained a major development throughout 2014. But even as that as happened, these applications have been changing the trajectory of their development. From a lean focus on simple practice management, some are looking to go wider — to provide an array of integrated tools and services that bring them closer to serving as a hub not just for practice management, but for all functions within a law practice. The clearest example of this was Clio’s announcement at its conference in September of integrations with Fastcase, QuickBooks Online, and other products. As Clio co-founder Jack Newton told me in a recorded interview, “We want Clio to be an all-encompassing solution for a law practice. We want it to be the hub of a multi-spoked wheel that is providing a very complete and comprehensive solution to law offices.” Other practice management providers are pursuing similar trajectories.
9. Innovation and disruption become the norm.
Early in 2014, I wrote a post, A Time of Unprecedented Innovation in Legal Technology, in which I posited that we are now in a moment in legal technology of unprecedented innovation and creativity. As 2014 comes to a close, I believe that even more strongly. I summed up my sense of this in a recent post, where I wrote, “We live in a time when two guys in law school who think they have a better idea for a legal research site can run with it and create the company Ravel Law by the time they graduate. We have transformed from a time when legal technology and legal information were products driven by large corporations to a time when anyone with a way to make things simpler and smarter can succeed.” I’ve written this blog since 2002 and covered legal technology for more than 20 years. There have been times when I’ve struggled to find interesting products to write about. These days, I can’t keep up with them all. Some fail. Some are just dumb. But many are good and some are really good, and both we as practitioners and our clients reap the benefits.
10. The justice gap becomes a primary driver of innovation.
We are in the midst of a crisis in the delivery of legal services and it is only getting worse. Study after study has documented that our justice system is addressing only a small fraction of the legal needs of low- and moderate-income people. Year-after-year of cutbacks in IOLTA and other sources of funding has only exacerbated the problem. There is growing recognition of the fact that lawyers, alone, will never bridge the gap. We can’t just hope for more pro bono hours or greater funding — and they wouldn’t be enough in any event. All of that said, it is this very gap that is driving innovation in the delivery of legal services. I have an article out this week in the ABA Journal about the widening use of non-lawyers to deliver legal services, driven by the justice gap. The growth of companies such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer has been driven by the justice gap. There is a vaccum in the delivery of legal services, and innovators are coming forward to fill it.