What have been 2015’s most important developments in legal technology? For the past two years, I’ve posted my picks of the top developments in legal tech (2014, 2013). With another year under our belts, it’s time to look back at 2015.
What follows are my picks for the year’s most important legal technology developments. As in past years, the numbers are not meant to be rankings — all of these are important in their own ways. I also refer you back to my prior years’ posts, as much of what I said in them remains true today.
1. Case Law Gets Democratized.
To my mind, the biggest legal technology story of the year was the joint announcement by Harvard Law School and Ravel Law of their Free the Law project to digitize and make available to the public for free Harvard’s entire collection of U.S. case law – said to be the most comprehensive and authoritative database of American law and cases available anywhere outside the Library of Congress. As someone who has covered legal and information technology for more than two decades, this was a day I’d long hoped would arrive. Harvard’s vice dean for library and information resources, Jonathan Zittrain, summed up the significance better than I could when he said: “Libraries were founded as an engine for the democratization of knowledge, and the digitization of Harvard Law School’s collection of U.S. case law is a tremendous step forward in making legal information open and easily accessible to the public.”
This news comes at a time when legal-research start-ups continue to develop innovative ways to access and contextualize legal research. Ravel Law is one example, with its visualization tools that show the connections and relationships among cases. Casetext is another, which just this year introduced such innovations as its crowdsourced citator and its LegalPad writing and publishing tool. Developments such as these are helping to realize a long-held vision of the Internet – that it will make the law more accessible and comprehensible to everyone.
2. Analytics Take Center Stage.
The second-biggest legal technology story of 2015 was the acquisition of Lex Machina by LexisNexis. It was a significant deal in itself, but even more so for what it signals about the direction in which legal technology is headed. Why would one of the world’s most-established legal information and technology companies want this small, six-year-old Silicon Valley start-up? The answer, in a word: Analytics. Lex Machina has developed and refined sophisticated analytics that open new windows into court data. It takes data from the federal courts’ PACER system – dockets, court filings, orders – and lets users extract information, patterns and trends that would otherwise be invisible. It provides insights into lawyers, law firms, litigants, judges and courts that inform decision making and strategy.
So far, Lex Machina has done this for only intellectual property law, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. And there is no reason to confine such analytics to court data. There are troves of freely available government information that could harbor all sorts of invaluable information for legal professionals. Even beyond government data, analytics are already being used by lawyers in e-discovery, budgeting, fee negotiations, settlement negotiations, and a host of other applications. Lex Machina is by no means the only legal company in this space – PacerPro recently launched a new analytics tool called Litigant Profiling and Ravel Law offers its Judge Analytics – but its acquisition underscores the growing significance of data analytics in law.
3. The Duty of Technology Competence Goes Wide.
In 2012, when the American Bar Association formally approved a change to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that lawyers have a duty to be competent not only in the law and its practice, but also in technology, I described it as a sea change. But the Model Rules are merely models. Unless and until they are adopted by the states, they have no binding effect on lawyers. It is significant, therefore, that 20 states have now adopted what I call the duty of technology competence. In 2015 alone, the Model Rule was adopted in nine states and became effective in another two that had adopted it late in 2014.
Why does this matter? Because there is no more hiding from technology. You can no longer competently practice law without at least a rudimentary understanding of technology, the Internet and social media. You need to know enough to recognize what you don’t know and to withdraw or bring on help when circumstances warrant. It is safe to say that, a year from now, the majority of states will have adopted the duty of technology competence. Even in states that do not, courts are increasingly signaling their impatience with lawyers who lack basic technology skills. There can be no more Luddites in law.
4. Technology-Assisted Review Becomes Mainstream.
It was less than four years ago that U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck issued the first-ever court decision to approve the use of technology-assisted review in e-discovery. It has been barely six years since the terms “technology-assisted review” and “predictive coding” first began to see use within the legal profession’s vernacular. Yet this year, Judge Peck issued another TAR decision in which he declared TAR’s use to be so widely accepted by judges that it is now “black letter law.” Whereas lawyers were initially reluctant to use TAR for fear of inconsistent results or judicial rejection, 2015 was the year in which TAR took root in the mainstream of legal technology.
The reasons for this were both practical and scientific. As its name suggests, TAR uses technology to assist in the process of reviewing electronic documents for discovery. “Assist” is a wimpy word here, because TAR can dramatically reduce the numbers of documents lawyers ever have to set their eyes on – and therefore dramatically reduce both the time and cost of discovery. With cases today sometimes requiring review of millions of documents, TAR’s impact can be huge. Those savings in time and cost form the practical argument for its use. On top of that, scientific evidence supports its effectiveness. The seminal study on this, published in 2011, showed that TAR was not only more effective than human review at finding relevant documents, but also much cheaper – producing at least a 50-fold savings in cost over manual review. Subsequent studies have reinforced these findings and shown that a particular TAR protocol called continuous active learning is superior to other forms of TAR.
This was the year in which these factors – judicial approval, practical benefits and scientific evidence – gelled and made TAR a mainstream technology.
5. Artificial Intelligence Comes to Legal Research.
In the early days of 2015, a team of students at the University of Toronto created a start-up to bring artificial intelligence to legal research. Using IBM’s Watson – the computer most famous for winning Jeopardy! In 2011 – as their platform, they launched ROSS Intelligence, an AI system that they say can answer lawyers’ natural-language legal-research questions, such as, “Can a bankrupt company still conduct business?”
Initially, ROSS “learned” only a small subset of Canadian law. But in July, after receiving funding from Y Combinator, its developers moved, at least temporarily, to Silicon Valley and set their sights on the much-larger U.S. market. In addition, the global law firm Dentons announced that it was making an undisclosed investment in the company. ROSS’s developers say it can provide a lawyer with a highly relevant answer to a legal research question posed in natural language. The more it does, the more it learns and the better it gets. It can also monitor legal developments for changes that can affect your case, instead of requiring you to monitor a torrent of legal news.
Will ROSS and its progeny someday replace lawyers for legal research? I have no doubt it will at least someday become an integral tool in law practice. Whatever the future of AI in law, 2015 can be recorded as the year it got started.
6. Podcasts Enjoy a Resurgence.
In a post last March, I wrote about The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Legal Podcasts. “They were the next big thing. Then they weren’t. And now they are again,” I said, looking back over the 10 years I’ve had my own podcast, Lawyer 2 Lawyer, on the Legal Talk Network. If podcasts were looking hot earlier this year, when New York magazine proclaimed the Great Podcast Renaissance, they have only gotten hotter as the year has progressed, to the point where the Nieman Journalism Lab is predicting that podcasting is about to explode.
I’m not sure I’d use the word “explode” to describe podcasts in the legal sector, but they are clearly taking off. In fact, for the 12th edition of his annual Blawggie Awards last week, Dennis Kennedy decided not to talk at all about blogs and focus exclusively on podcasts. Once a regular blogger, Kennedy wrote that he now sees his podcast, the Kennedy-Mighell Report, “as the primary outlet for what he was once writing on my blog.” At the Legal Talk Network, which hosts my podcast, there are now a variety of podcasts on a range of topics, including podcasts from both the ABA Journal and the blog Above the Law. In the post from March that I referenced above, I listed a number of legal podcasts that had launched just since the start of 2015. If you do not already listen to legal podcasts, it is a good time to start.
7. Microsoft Re-Surfaces.
Microsoft products have long dominated the legal profession. More than 90 percent of lawyers use some version of the Windows operating system and most lawyers use Microsoft Office for word processing and email. So I do not mean to suggest that Microsoft was in any way losing its footing among lawyers. However, there were indications that the tide was slowly turning against it. Windows 8 was so unpopular that lawyers clung to their earlier Windows 7 or even Windows XP operating systems (until Microsoft this year finally pulled the plug on XP). And as the widespread popularity of iPhones and iPads introduced lawyers to the iOS environment, some lawyers were beginning to migrate their entire offices to Apple systems.
But two developments this year brought Microsoft back into its long-favored status. One was the official release in July of Windows 10. It was hugely successful compared to past OS roll-outs. Not only were there no major glitches, but virtually everyone seemed to love the new architecture. Windows 10 took the best of Windows 7 and 8 and achieved and achieved a truly better, faster and more modern operating system.
The other development was the surprising (to me, anyway) popularity of the Microsoft Surface line of tablets/PCs among lawyers. It is being adopted by lawyers in a range of practices, from a local prosecutor’s office to one of the world’s largest law firms, Clifford Chance, which is buying the Surface Pro 4 for all its lawyers. And it is getting good reviews from sources such as Daniel Siegel in Law Practice magazine and Tom Mighell and Dennis Kennedy in their Kennedy-Mighell Report podcast.
On top of those developments, Microsoft has been helping third-party vendors to develop legal-specific applications for its Office 365, such as the LawToolBox court deadlines app, and its communications platform formerly known as Lync (now Skype for Business) has proven popular with law firms. All in all, for Microsoft in legal, it’s been a good year.
8. The Legal Industry Gets an IPO.
For all the activity in recent years in legal technology innovation and start-ups, there has been a dearth of legal technology IPOs. That changed this year with the IPO in June of AppFolio, the Goleta, Calif.-based company that owns MyCase, the cloud-based practice-management platform, in which it raised some $74 million. I could not think of a major IPO in the legal industry in recent memory until my friend Sean Doherty, writing at Above the Law, mentioned the 2013 IPO of e-discovery and litigation support company UBIC.
Of course, even AppFolio has only a partial connection to the legal industry. Its core business is a cloud-based property-management platform for residential and commercial property managers. With its IPO, it planned to expand that business into other industry verticals. The IPO was expected to have little impact on the MyCase part of the business, Jason Randall, executive vice president of AppFolio, told me earlier this year. “We were marching on a mission before the IPO and we’re marching on the same mission after the IPO, which is giving our customers a great product to use. We’ve been heavily investing in that since day one and that hasn’t changed.”
Still, it signifies the strength of the legal market for investment. As Randall put it when I spoke with him: “We believe in this market. By buying MyCase to begin with and heavily investing in it, as we have and will continue to do, it shows our confidence that this is a great market to be in and that it is one we are committed to.”
9. Legal Blogging Hits a Plateau.
As was the case with Mark Twain 118 years ago, reports of blogging’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But even if blogging isn’t dead, it may have hit a plateau. According to the ABA’s 2015 Legal Technology Survey Report, growth in blogging among lawyers is virtually stagnant. Overall, the percentages of law firms with blogs and of lawyers who personally blog have remained largely unchanged over the past three years. Similar findings were reported by the 2015 Am Law 200 Blog Benchmark Report, a report on large law firm blogs prepared by the blog company LexBlog. While it reported a significant increase in large-firm blogs since 2007, it found only minor growth in the last three years.
However, it would be a mistake to equate the number of blogs with the importance of blogs. As I told the ABA Journal recently and wrote here earlier this year, I see blogs as more important than ever within the legal industry. I’ve cited the prominence and influence of SCOTUSblog so many times that they’re getting sick of hearing me mention them. But ask yourself where lawyers are turning for information. In increasing numbers, they are turning to blogs. Yes, some blogs are dying. But others are thriving. And meanwhile, established legal news publishers are shuttering publications or rolling through owners. Blogging will continue to evolve in the years ahead, but it’s not going away anytime soon.
10. Practice Management Continues to Expand.
You would think that I would be done talking about practice management. After all, in my 2013 post, I wrote it was the year in which practice management “went mainstream,” thanks to the growing crop of sophisticated and established cloud-based practice management platforms. Then last year, I again included the continued growth in the use of practice management applications as a major development, noting in particular that these applications were evolving from maintaining a narrow focus on simple practice management to becoming something wider — providing a variety of integrated tools and services that address an array of functions within a law office.
But here I am again, continuing to be amazed at how this segment continues to thrive and evolve. We still have new platforms raising financing and getting launched, such as PracticePanther; we still see the more established platforms continuing to build out their products, and we even saw the parent company of one platform complete a successful IPO (see #8 above). And then came the recent news from Microsoft that it had decided to open-source its practice management platform, Matter Center for Office 365. Practice management is not a sexy topic, but it continues to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – areas of technology growth and development in the legal industry.