A (Very) Brief History of Legal Technology
January 29, 2020
We’re so reliant on our technology today that it’s easy to forget how nascent legal technology (or legaltech) is to our businesses.
In fact it was only in 2012 that the American Bar Association (ABA) passed Rule 1.1 of its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, noting, “a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” This wasn’t just in reaction to proliferating legaltech, it was also an acknowledgment that more of our communication (e.g. email), research (eDiscovery), and work (efiling) were done electronically and with the aid of technology.
Likewise legal clients are doing more with technology in their search for legal representation: using Google to find lawyers, using web forms to set up consultation, texting attorneys, checking portals for updates, etc. Technology is, in many ways, at the heart of the attorney/client relationship in the 21st century.
Still, it wasn’t long ago that lawyers and law firms depended on typewriters and telephones to do most of their business. The technology used by other types of businesses were essentially the same as the technology used by law firms. Whether you walked into a law firm, a utility, or an advertising agency, everyone pretty much relied on the same technology to do very different work.
However, in the early 1950s, technological industries began to market directly to law firms. Taking a (quick) look at the history of how legal technology has evolved helps us to better understand the problems and needs that drive the adoption of today’s legaltech.
Recording sound on a machine was invented long before the 1950s, but it was in 1953 that dictation machines were first marketed specifically to law firms. Lawyers could record information on dictation machines even if their assistant wasn’t present, but they could have that assistant transcribe the information at some other time.
It was a time-saving device as well as a more reliable method of recording information the lawyer needed transcribed. Unfortunately, the first dictation machines were expensive, clunky, and often broke down. But today, any lawyer with a smartphone can quickly and easily dictate information and have it immediately transcribed with a very high accuracy rate.
Today’s legal software should be equipped with notes, reminders, and email archive features to fill this time-tested need.
The 1970s provided another decade of technological and productivity leaps for law firms as Lexis and word processing computers arrived on the scene. Before the 1970s, lawyers spent an enormous amount of time researching case law by poring over law books, but the ability to research cases on a computer changed everything.
In 1973, Lexis created the “UBIQ” terminal to let lawyers search case law online, which significantly reduced the amount of time lawyers needed to spend researching case law, and allowed them to spend more time on their clients. This is also around the time that personal computers began to appear in workplaces throughout America, and by 1979 many law firms had purchased basic word processing machines that made it easier and faster to create documents.
With the rise of LexisNexis and similar research programs—especially in law schools—attorneys increasingly found the information at their fingertips essential to their jobs. Legal tech that focuses on eDiscovery helps to fill these gaps today, but remains an expensive investment that only larger law firms are likely to be able to retain.
Before the 1980s most law firms were dependent on mail or courier services to deliver important documents to clients. But once the fax machine began appearing in workplaces, the time between creating a document and sending it to a client could be shortened from days to minutes.
But of course that was depending on the client having easy access to a fax machine, which didn’t become widespread until the late 80s and early 90s. This is also the time when the first case management systems began to emerge.
Unfortunately, the early versions didn’t work for most large law firms because they weren’t easily scalable and many law firms were still using DOS instead of Windows. The migration from DOS to Windows didn’t happen on a mass scale until the 1990s.
But as it did so too did regular use of email and publicly available legal forms.
By the early 1990s most law firms were using computers to create documents and even send messages on internal networks (the equivalent of intranets today.) It may come as a shock to some current, younger lawyers, but the ability to send emails to outside networks and computers didn’t become possible on a widespread level—for technological and ethical reasons—until the late 1990s.
Before email, communication within a law firm might happen in face-to-face meetings, intraoffice phone calls, or typewritten memos. And if lawyers wanted to communicate to external clients, they might need to fax or send a letter via the post office (often through courier or certified mail services.)
Networked computers saved a tremendous amount of time because they allowed lawyers to communicate with others in a matter of minutes and get immediate responses; they were also able to confirm receipt of the sent messages in some cases.
Case management software existed during the late 1990s but failed to offer comprehensive, reliable services that included both document management and communication capabilities.
The early case management systems at the turn of the millennium were helpful but flawed because they weren’t scalable, and in many cases they did not address all of the critical needs of a law firm. Most were local downloads only (no Cloud access yet) and replaced, instead of integrated, office productivity software like MS Word. Depending on which case management software a law firm purchased, they may have needed to patch together multiple systems to get all of their critical business needs met.
But beginning in the late aughts case management systems became completely revamped, leveraging many of today’s modern tech tools in ways that help lawyers get the information they need when they need it and to easily manage client matters no matter where they are.
However, many systems (even to this day) contain inherent design flaws that make them susceptible to future technological evolution. Cloud-only systems rely on consistent Internet access, contact-based systems (as opposed to matter-based) rely on remembering client details, and basic case management packages still rely on attorneys finding public forms and repetitively filling them out.
Needless to say Smokeball has answered all of these concerns. But what’s most important for now is to consider the essential component that sets some of today’s case management systems apart from their predecessors: how modern systems are (or should be) “matter-centric,” linking all activity to related matters.
- Email. Today’s case management systems track what emails are sent regarding matters, when they were sent, and by whom. Using a quality case management system, lawyers can quickly find out if a client was emailed specific information.
- Smokeball is fully integrated with Outlook, syncing all of your emails and contacts with your matters. Likewise, with our new Communicate tool, you can send secure client messages via a mobile app; the app likewise gives your clients a secure way of checking in on their case without going through a clunky client portal.
- Tasks and calendars. Electronic calendars and planners are probably some of the most powerful tools out there for any business. However, case management takes this tool and directly relates it to relevant matters. A quality case management system allows lawyers to easily schedule appointments related to a matter and even assign tasks related to a matter to another attorney.
- Smokeball offers shared calendars, tasks, and workflows so that attorneys in your law firm can collaborate on pushing a matter over the finish line, and make sure that no deadlines are ever missed.
- Document management and assembly. Long gone are the days of copy and pasting text from one document to another. Today’s case management systems allow law firms to create document templates for client information. This means that administrative staff can enter client data once and relevant information will populate into documents with just a click or two. The document management and assembly features in case management systems can save lawyers hundreds of hours a year.
- Smokeball is the ONLY legal practice management tool that contains a full library (17,000 forms as of January 2020) of publicly available legal forms based on area of law and geography. Likewise, while most case management document automations are glorified auto-fill templates (meaning that you still have to click through each one and enter information), only Smokeball automatically populates your forms based on your matter information, including matching the right pronouns to your clients.
- Client matter database. One of the biggest challenges law firms faced in the past was keeping a working database of client information. If the lawyer wasn’t moonlighting as a programmer, they might be forced to cobble together very basic Excel databases or patch together a network of different software to get exactly what they wanted for their client database. Now, modern case management systems make it easy to store client data and all the matters related to their case in one place. And lawyers can access that data from the mobile phone or tablet remotely.
- Smokeball is locally installed but Cloud-based, meaning that you can work offline or online. If you’re meeting a client or at court you can easily download all of the files you need. But when you’re back online, your changes will sync, and any changes to your matters (by you or a colleague in the office) will likewise sync to be up to date.
- Time and expense tracking. For a long time, many law firms manually tracked the time spent on a matter. This could mean that time got inaccurately recorded and that clients became suspicious when reported time didn’t seem to make sense. One of the biggest advancements of modern case management systems is that they allow lawyers to accurately record their time. And in many cases, this time tracking doesn’t require any extra work on the part of the lawyer because the case management system tracks how much time is spent on a matter as the lawyer is working on it in the system. It also allows partners to easily check the productivity of individual lawyers in real time so that they can make adjustments when necessary in terms of how an attorney is spending their time when working on a matter.
- Smokeball is the ONLY legal practice management software that offers an in-app, touchless time-tracking tool. No need to hit start/stop, and no need to close windows to find the clock. Our Auto:Time feature tracks everything you do in a matter, and gives you ultimate control to adjust its data in your billing and invoices.
Legal technology tools have been revolutionizing the way lawyers do business and making it possible for law firms to service more clients for less money. Today’s modern case management systems are poised to make it easier for lawyers to do their job more accurately and efficiently.
Success means different things to different people, and that is no less true for attorneys. For some, success means growing the business by bringing in more clients, billing more hours, and adding to the headcount. For others it means working four days a week instead of five. And for others, it simply means being able to work wherever and whenever you want through a variety of offline and mobile experiences.
Smokeball is the industry leader—and in most cases, the ONLY software in the industry—to offer clients a clear road to these multiple views of success. Smokeball is legal software for lawyers, built by lawyers. And it’s Software for life. Your life.
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