Technology is forever changing. What was the latest and greatest technology just five years ago is today’s dinosaur. It goes without saying that all businesses, law firms included, must keep up with changes in technology. Today’s lawyers are more mobile, more automated and more data driven than ever before. Thus, we can reasonably take judicial notice that lawyers must address any technology fears, prepare to budget significant funds into our technology and embrace these changes, or risk being that dinosaur in, perhaps, five (or fewer) years. Perhaps even be shunned from the business world for failure to keep up with changes in technology. Below are, in this author’s opinion, seven (7) things to be prepared for in legal technology in the coming years.
1. Electronic Discovery – if you’ve not already embraced and attempted to master E-Discovery in your litigation practice, you’re running late. But, there is never any time like the present to begin to understand e-discovery and how it impacts todays litigants like never before. Frankly, even in a small, boutique litigation practice will have e-discovery issues before them more and more in the coming years. As more and more litigants embrace cloud based storage, social media and electronic communications, more and more litigation lawyers will need to know how to master discovery of data on these platforms. Issues include mastering data analytics, gathering social media posts and communications, preservation of electronic communications and even technology that significantly aids in the presentation of said electronic evidence. E-Discovery is here to stay and if it hasn’t touched your firm yet, it will…any day now.
2. E-Mail and Document Management – quite frankly, as society relies more and more on e-mail and electronic communications, the more we have a need to keep e-mail, document, PDF’s, images, sound files, and the like organized, accurately searched and easily accessible. Lawyers and law firms relying upon their staff to manually file electronic data in manually created folders and sub-folders, the harder and more challenging it will be to find precisely what you are looking for. E-Mail and Document Management software is really no longer limited to “document storage”, but rather it encompasses communication management at a matter level. You need to be able to search for your own content quickly, but more importantly, you need to be able to find what others have created, modified, stored and changed even faster. If you’re still searching for files and/or yelling across the office for someone to find paper files, it’s time to simply stop that.
3. Security, Encryption, and Regulations – if you haven’t begun to internally investigate your own firm’s infrastructure security (i.e. can an intruder get to your data), the time is now. More and more corporate clients such as banks, insurance companies, and the like are beginning to ask law firms about their internal procedures, protocols and equipment in place to ensure that the client’s communications and data are protected. Take e-mail as a perfect example. Attorneys have an ethical duty to protect the confidentiality of client communication. This is no longer limited to the written word and paper documents. This duty now extends to electronic communications (email and attachments thereto) as well (1). Sending a simple email message potentially exposes the contents of same to interception by the unsavory population of the world, if not our own government. And this issue extends further to how you handle, store and discard litigant (or employee) medical records (HIPAA), client credit card information (PCI), banking and financial data (CFPB), and the like. If this issue hasn’t been on your mind of late, it’s time to start taking it seriously and begin taking reasonable steps to protect data which has been entrusted to you.
4. The Cloud – OK. Let’s be perfectly frank and open. There are no computers in the clouds. The term “the cloud” refers, simply, to off-site data storage. Basically you either rent a software platform (Clio, RocketMatter, Cosmolex, Facebook, Linked In, SnapChat, G-Mail, DropBox, Words-With-Friends, etc.) or you rent or buy a server that is maintained outside the four walls of your office (for example, companies like Procirrus Cloud Technologies, UptimeLegal or Mindshift) and you pay someone to maintain that infrastructure, usually a monthly payment cycle. Many state bars have made statements related to ethical obligations of lawyers and law firms that want to embrace this new technology. To this writer’s knowledge, not one state bar or provincial law society has affirmatively stated that lawyers and law firms CANNOT store data in this proverbial cloud. However, before investing in cloud technology, I humbly suggest that you check with your state bar or law society for any steps you must take before moving to a cloud based infrastructure. Having said that, in all frankness, if your servers in the office are more than 3 years old, NOW is the time to investigate cloud technology toward your future. The Cloud is simple, fast, and managed by companies who are experts. No longer do you risk the “break-fix” model of technology (i.e. install the server until something breaks and then call someone to hopefully fix it, pay them a lot of money to do so, and cross your fingers that something else doesn’t break soon). Plus cloud providers typically securely back data up and many can provide needed security levels and data encryption. Cloud technology also helps with budgeting for technology because it is generally offered on a subscription (monthly-fee) basis making technology budgets more predictable.
5. Budgeting and Finance – Every year I pretty much say the same thing. Budget for technology, review financial statements, evaluate productivity and do so at regular intervals. However, this year, unlike in years past, more and more of your colleagues and competitores have taken this advice and are following it. Thus, your competitors out in the world are creating business budgets, reviewing data, changing position to be leaner, meaner and more competitive and may, in the future, put you out of business because you cannot keep up with their new lean, mean, efficient law practice. They service clients faster, more accurately and cheaper than you will and they keep analyzing their numbers and make changes thoughtfully and nimbly. Nervous? You ought to be.
6. Mobility – Just five years ago, most law firms were relatively stable work environments. Many lawyers worked within the same four walls of their offices for decades…many from law school to retirement. Today, law schools are pumping out thousands of graduates who many never work within the four walls of an office. They’re young, hungry, agile and most importantly, not tied down to a physical office. Even in traditional firms, you all probably have had inquiries with people who want to (a) work from home, (b) work while traveling, and (c) wish to work while on family, maternity, and/or medical leave. In 2016 and beyond, mobility will be a major concern for all businesses including law firms. Now is the time all firms should figure out how to reasonably accommodate partners, associates, paralegals and staff to work outside the four walls of your office. This also touches upon most of the subjects above including cloud computing, budgeting, security and the like. If no one in your office has expressed any interest in mobility yet, trust me, they will. Be prepared or beat them to the proverbial punch!
7. Master Your Technology – Having said all of the above, you can invest in the most sophisticated equipment, software, cloud technology, mobility platforms and the like, but if you and your staff don’t know how to use it, or only use 15% of what your platform is capable of, then you’ve not made a wise investment in technology. Accordingly, while this recommendation may sound self-serving, since it’s written by someone who makes a living providing training and customization services to law firms, it really is deeper than that. Training, customization and more training is the BEST money you can spend to ensure that everyone in your firm is not only able to properly use the technology in which you’ve invested, but also ensures that it’s being used properly and securely. Why invest in e-mail encryption technology if only to find out that no one in your firm really understands it and many do everything they can to by-pass it in the name of convenience or lack of knowledge as to how to use it. Why provide sophisticated e-discovery tools to lawyers who don’t know how to use and analyze the results and in the worst of circumstances, commit malpractice because of it. Simply put, initial and regular follow up training is simply, a no-brainer.
You know, many of you reading this article may not remember a time when your life wasn’t touched by technology. I remind my children (as they roll their eyes) that when I was a kid, I had to get up and change the channel on my old analog TV, get up to answer the wall phone (the one with a receiver tethered to the dial unit), and look at a map to figure out how to get from point A to point B. The point of the statement prior is that those that still do that are not only practically shunned from modern society, but also those folks “can’t keep up” with those of us with remote controls, smart-phones and GPS systems (on our phones or in our modern day vehicles). The same is true for your business (i.e. your law firm). Thus, in 2016, like never before, it truly is time to invest in, budget for and embrace legal technology or prepare to expend enormous amounts of energy keeping up with your competitors. That same energy could be used in many more productive activities. If you needed medical care and had two choices, would you hire the doctor with a thirty year old x-ray machine, or the doctor with the latest and greatest technology at her fingertips? Think about it.