By Paul Fletcher, Dolan Media Newswires
RICHMOND, VA – Twenty-five years ago, law practice looked very different from today.
Consider the accoutrements that a lawyer in 1986 did not have:
- A laptop computer
- A tablet computer such as an iPad
- A cell phone
- The Internet
- Online research (although the firm might have a new Westlaw or Lexis terminal in the firm library) .
What the 1986 lawyer did to work with clients and solve legal problems wasn’t too different from what the 2011 lawyer does today. It just requires different tools.
So what will law practice be like in two, five, 10 or 25 years?
The New York State Bar Association has just published a comprehensive and sure-to-be influential report from its Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession.
At the onset of the recent recession, many lawyers could tell that law practice would be different when the downturn ran its course. They just weren’t sure what the other end would look like.
And they still may not know. But the NYSBA task force took a global look at law practice, both in New York and throughout the U.S., to draw that picture.
The task force examined four areas: law firm structure and billing, legal education and training of new lawyers, work-life integration and technology.
This piece will focus on the task force’s findings and recommendations on the last of these topics, technology.
Law firms should be careful not to focus on a “tools-first” approach to satisfying their technology needs, cautioned the task force.
Still, the current technological infrastructure, along with notable emerging tools, provide a good jumping-off point for discussion.
With the cloud, all applications and data are kept in a network of servers hosted off-site by a third party.
The upside is that the cloud makes it easy for lawyers and clients to connect.
Concerns about confidentiality and data security sometimes put a dark lining on the cloud, particularly for larger firms.
Sharon Nelson and John Simek of Sensei Enterprises in Fairfax, Va. keep their ears to the ground on technological issues. Simek said that “we are seeing a lot of movement” in the direction of cloud usage.
However, lawyers should pay attention to prices, he said. Cloud use may or may not be cost-effective, and a lawyer, particularly a solo practitioner or a small-firm member, should take a look at the overall price of a cloud contract before signing, he added.
The task force recommended that bar groups need to develop and establish standards for cloud security.
Simek noted that cloud security may be better than security currently practiced at many firms.
What does the future hold? Simek predicted that hybrid clouds will be developed in which a firm has some information held on-site for its own control and some information held remotely for business continuity purposes.
Nelson observed that leaders at ABA 2020, a technological project of the American Bar Association, say that cloud usage is outsourcing and therefore subject to ethics rules that cover hiring outside help to do a job.
Most lawyers “aren’t doing their due diligence” and making the necessary inquiries (including reading contract language) when it comes to using outside sources, she said, citing recent security lapses at PlayStation and Amazon as examples of what can go wrong remotely.
Nelson said lawyers are at the head of the pack for mobile computing. They own and use smart phones at a higher rate than any other profession, she added.
But they are often clueless about the security issues that smart phones raise, she said.
Tablet computers such as the iPad and its competitors may soon take over the marketplace, the task force observed. These devices have the potential to become the primary mobile work machine with their fast start-up time, touchscreens, mobility and flexibility.
Mobile computing has its disadvantages, though. Lawyers tethered to an Internet connection are always at clients’ beck and call.
Law firms need to develop standards and guidelines for client access to counsel, the report authors urged. “It may not always be necessary or wise to have an instant response to every issue,” the task force counseled.
No single technology has changed the daily practice of law more than email, the task force said.
Previously, lawyers wrote traditional letters or talked on the phone. Now communications are instantaneous, and they do not have the time for reflection a letter gives or the degree of personal interaction provided by a phone call.
Clients want answers immediately.
The task force observed that many lawyers complain that their days are consumed by “the tyranny of email.”
The task force pushed the search for a solution back on the law firms: “Firms should work to develop tools that will assist their attorneys in prioritizing and organizing the ever-increasing flood of emails.”
The file cabinet full of color-coded paper folders is a thing of the past at most law firms. Important documents are filed on hard drives and servers.
Retrieving information or finding a particular file is a daunting task, unless all the information is properly organized.
Enterprise search tools allow workers at the firm to search for and locate documents in any of the firm’s systems, including document management, email or financial systems.
Both Nelson and Simek said they were surprised at the level of attention the NYSBA report gave to this topic, noting that the authors really seemed to be hitting on overall document management.
Nelson said that the NYSBA report did not go into e-discovery in any detail.
She said that in her experience, courts are forcing lawyers to become more savvy about technology.
“Predictive coding” will become important – this is a method for categorizing e-documents for later easy retrieval and review, she said.
Also, “proportionality” has become a “big buzzword” in e-discovery practice, Nelson said. The proportionality doctrine applies a cost-benefit analysis to an e-discovery request, weighing the amount of information sought with the burden of producing it.
Simek identified another important issue not addressed by the report: Law firm standards on the use of personally owned devices.
Lawyers or staffers may own personal cell phones or tablets and want to tap into firm e-mail for their own convenience, raising a host of potential security problems, he said.
This question “will hit firms head on” very shortly, Simek said.