Top Law Firm Technology Trends to Watch for in 2017

What law firm technology trends should you be watching for in 2017? Legal technology moves fast, and to be the best lawyer you can be, you’d be wise to stay on top of the latest news and offerings.

To get some insight into the latest trends, we reached out to a few legal industry commentators for their thoughts, including:

Everyone on this list has a unique perspective on the legal industry, but a few clear trends arose. Here are a few highlights:

  • A.I. was the legal tech standout in 2016. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely heard big announcements from A.I.-powered legal tools like Ross Intelligence and Kira Systems last year. However, practical application for AI, particularly in the solo and small firms of America, remains to be seen. Author and consultant Jared Correia provides some great insight into why solo and small firm lawyers remain mostly indifferent to AI in this post. Will this be the year legal AI gains traction in small firms?
  • Lawyers need to communicate securely. If you’re not using an encrypted channel to communicate with your clients, you could be putting client information at risk. Both Sam and Joshua pointed to the Signal app as a potential solution, but stressed that lawyers should be on the lookout for the latest tools in this area.
  • Lawyers should be kinder to themselves. When asked about the single most important change lawyers could make in their life this year, three out of our five respondents highlighted an increased focus on personal wellbeing. As Mike stated, “[m]isery is not a badge of honor, and not an ennobling requirement of the profession. Despite the jokes, you are one of the smartest, most qualified, and most compassionate members of your society.”

Respondents also discussed the importance of the 2016 presidential election, the rise of solos and small- to medium-sized firms, and an increased investment in online, alternative dispute resolution systems—plus much more. Read a sample of the responses below.

Clio: What was the biggest news in legal tech in 2016?

Sam: I don’t think there was a single legal tech event that would headline the year, but the biggest trend was definitely “A.I.” In 2016 you could finally point to a handful of “A.I.”-powered legal tools that lawyers might actually want to use. Legal-research platform ROSS made a big splash this year, and “A.I.”-powered chatbot platforms are still clunky but show a lot of potential. And yes, I think “A.I.” as it is currently used should almost always be in quotation marks.

Keith: Without a doubt, artificial intelligence (“A.I.”) was the biggest news. It’s just part of the current cultural zeitgeist anyway, but there was a surge of A.I. news, stories, and reports from almost every corner of the legal press.

And of course most of them sucked.

Lawyers are generally technology-adverse, if not outright luddites. As A.I. was suddenly the shiny hot new topic for people to talk about, lazy reporters fell over themselves to cover it. There were stories on all sorts of silly things that were barely related to A.I. Besides, most of the A.I. stories came down to: “A.I. is an alarming new technology! Are lawyers doomed?!?” Awful.

That’s not to say that all A.I. news was crap. Noah Waisberg and his team at Kira continue to make strides with machine-learning and contract review. They’ve been quietly pushing forwards on that front for awhile.

But without a doubt, the big A.I. story of the year was ROSS. Andrew and the rest of the guys over there did a great job of getting a platform developed and then made sure everyone heard about it. Seriously, what legal publication didn’t cover them this year?

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Willie: There wasn’t a whole lot—a lot of stalwarts maintained or improved their products, but I didn’t see any game-changers.

I do think we’re in for a period of consolidation, as there are too many startups and “features” operating as products. The acquisition of Lex Machina by LexisNexis may be a sign of things to come—where tools get purchased by a solutions provider to be bundled and/or integrated with the main product.

Joshua: I think the biggest news in 2016 was how fast large law firms raced to announce A.I. vendor contracts. It seemed like a weekly event, another law firm announcing a Kira Systems or ROSS Intelligence contract. Utility and utilization of these new A.I. tools still needs to be proven by law firms in 2017.

Clio: What was the biggest surprise for you in legal tech in 2016?

Sam: I don’t really think there were any big surprises. Maybe how easy it continues to be to earn media by slapping an “A.I.” label on an app.

Keith: I was surprised by the reaction the legal press had to A.I. It’s something that has been a regular part of everyone’s lives for years, but once it got mixed with the legal industry everyone freaked out.

Otherwise it was the same old thing. Lots of shout-from-the-rafters hype, but little in the way of actual impact. The legal industry does not lend itself to the disruptive change that technology often enables in other industries.

Largely speaking, legal technology offers only evolutionary change. The sooner legal technology companies recognize that, and align their marketing to follow suit, the better off they’ll be.

Willie: A lack of innovation for small firm products. I don’t recall a single “whoa” moment: A lot of new competitors launched clones of practice management software. There are still only one or two intake or customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, and Avvo let Ignite stagnate, which is a shame considering there are almost no other legal CRMs (Lexicata, perhaps?).

Joshua: I think 2016’s surprise was the public recognition by large law firms that investment in technology must happen. For many years, small firms had the advantage of being nimble and investing quickly in new and emerging technologies.

Large firms were often referred to as “large ships, that can’t turn quickly.” Those ships have turned, and they’re about to build up speed.

Clio: What do you think will be the most important trends in the legal sphere in 2017

Sam: I don’t think you can understate the importance of the 2016 presidential election, if for no other reason than that there are over 100 vacant judicial seats. And granted, we don’t really know what Trump’s administration is going to do, yet. But his tough talk on so many issues could have profound legal implications across the board. To say nothing of what a “tough-guy” executive branch might do with the government’s sweeping surveillance programs.

Keith: Cybersecurity—Lawyers continue to lag behind other industries in security for their IT systems. Expect more law firms to make noise about how their IT infrastructure is secure. Also more training on IT security for employees at firms (identifying spear phishing, etc.).

There will also be a growing focus on cybersecurity/privacy as practices expect growth in areas related to Internet of Things (“IoT”) devices.  

Healthcare (along with all practice areas related to it)—Boomers continue to get older, and with age comes health issues. Not to mention that the ACA is likely to come under fire with the new American administration and Congress. There will be lots of regulatory and compliance work in the next few years.

Cannabis—Marijuana laws, both medical and recreational, continue to be passed around the country. There will be an increase in regulatory and compliance work in all such jurisdictions.

Push to the middle—There is going to be continued consolidation in the legal industry. Big Law will likely remain flat and experience little to no growth. Expect mergers.

More solo practices will emerge out of sheer necessity. But solos with a few successful years under their belts will increasingly band together to form small- to mid-sized firms for operational efficiency (if they’re smart). Small- to mid-sized firms seem to be best suited to navigate the changing legal industry.

Joshua: With both large and small firms investing in technology, competency is going to differentiate the players from the played. Lawyers need to not just sign technology contracts, but take the time to get the maximum return out of their investments. That means taking the time to learn the minutia of their technology and applying it in creative and innovative ways.

Clio: What about the most important trends in technology in 2017?

Sam: The two trends that have the most potential to transform the practice of law are automation (powered, in some cases, by “A.I.”) and project management—specifically the Lean and Agile disciplines. When you put those together, I think you start to see a very different way to practice law, with better results for lawyers and clients.

Mike: I expect continued marginal improvement, but nothing that fundamentally changes how we interact with technology. Consumer electronics will become more usable and more intuitive, with natural voice commands and smart home features improving. But all of these technologies need greater adoption rates to reach their full potentials. Most of the movement this year will be toward adoption of existing technologies.

Willie: For once in my life, I have no idea. Wearables are a bust. Tablets are dying out. Smartphones are stagnating into annual incremental upgrade cycles. VR seems like the second-coming of 3D: a gimmick or fad that will soon disappear. I must be getting old, because I, for once, do not have gadget envy.

Joshua: One major legal technology trend in 2017 will be investment in online, alternative dispute resolution systems. Some, like Rechtwijzer Uit Elkaar in the Netherlands, have shown amazing success in reducing the costs and pain associated with the “disputes of personal plight.” Others, like many privately developed legal “chatbots,” will only confuse the public with potentially improper misinformation. Cash-strapped governments will flock to these rushed chatbots anyway, as it is cheaper to build than it is to fund an adequate legal system.

Clio: Which new legal tech services and products are you most excited about for next year? Why?

Sam: I actually get excited about steady improvement. I think we’re in the middle of the beginning of legal tech getting good, and every improvement lays the foundation for the next one.

Keith: Very little excites me. Legal technology just doesn’t change/innovate in a way that that technology does in other industries. Legal technology moves forward at a slow, methodical pace because lawyers will almost always prioritize thoroughness over efficiency.

That being said, as with my previous answers, expect security to be a big feature for legal technology this year.

Willie: I’m looking forward to seeing more platforms like Clio add features and thin the herd of products a modern law office needs or wants.

Joshua: Not to sound biased, but Clio’s Apollo project excites me. The lessons of eight years, and hundreds of thousands of lawyers’ input are coming together into the next generation of practice management. From accessibility to compliance to user design, this project will enhance the Clio features that lawyers recommend and add more they didn’t even know they needed. One hint of the future? Look at other diversified professional service verticals for best practices. We’re going to bring those to law firms.

Clio: What’s the number one product, service, or app that savvy lawyers NEED to have going into 2017?

Sam: A way to communicate securely with clients. I think Signal is probably the easiest and most client-friendly way to do this, but I want to hear from more lawyers to report back about using Signal day-to-day before I declare that it’s The Answer.

Keith: Adaptability. But that’s an attitude and mindset that you have to develop, not something you can buy. Sorry.

Mike: It seems a bit biased to say Clio, but that’s the obvious choice for someone more interested in smooth operations than in technology per se. All of the tools solos and smalls adopt must provide an obvious boost to service for the client. And, to that end, I’d strongly advise new Clio users to limit their use to only those features that serve the end client. Either adopt Clio in a limited way, or get some Post-it notes and set up a Kanban board. Only adopt that technology that you’ll implement.

Willie: A CRM. If you handle volume cases, you want to start tracking notes on potential clients, especially the most important question: How did you hear about us? CRMs allow you to track call and email sources, keep notes on contacts (in case they aren’t ready to move forward now, but call back later), and quickly send form messages confirming conversations, addresses, or appointments.

Joshua: For legal communications, encryption is the single-most important tool a law firm can have right now. Whether it is a client portal or Signal, there’s no longer any excuse for sharing confidential information over email.

Clio: What represents the biggest opportunity for solo and small firm attorneys in the next year? What represents the biggest threat?

Keith: Opportunity—The Internet remains the biggest opportunity for solos and small firms. It allows you to market your firm to almost anyone. Small firms are able to compete for clients in a way never before possible.

Threat—Non-lawyer legal services. They’re here and not going away: Legalzoom, Rocket Lawyer, Avvo, etc. Lawyers in the U.S. are insulated due to the practice of law being highly regulated, but those barriers are going to come down in the next ten years or so. When it happens, large companies will crush many small firms.

Mike: The greatest opportunity is a focus on service; the greatest threat is a focus on knowledge work.

Willie: The biggest opportunity comes from intelligent marketing. If you’re still running magazine ads because that jerk Helen does, or using a website provider that cannot demonstrate success because all of your friends do, you’re doing it wrong. Track where your leads come from. Measure the quality of the calls. Allocate money to places that produce quality, qualified potential clients. Adopt this motto: What gets measured, gets funds.

Joshua: Unfortunately, we live in interesting times. The U.S. looks poised for large legislative changes that will affect many aspects of our personal lives. It’s both the responsibility of and a boon for lawyers to help people with those changes. Due process doesn’t vanish just because someone changes the law. Whether it is the changing tax code, access to health care, redefining family and immigration rights, or obtaining earned benefits, only lawyers can help people through changing times.

Clio: If a lawyer only makes one change in their life next year, what should it be?

Sam: Eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise.

Keith: Add a new skill to your “talent stack.” Learn a new language, how to build a webpage, take up Judo.

Pursue something that forces you to learn new skills that you don’t currently have. Don’t pick a dozen things and then half-ass them all. Find one or two things and really go deep on them. Your legal practice will get better.

Mike: Either be happy or quit. We tend to come to this profession with a definition of what it means to be a lawyer, then we listen to institutions that prescribe (for their own reasons) an even narrower definition. You are not your job. You’re not a form or a process or a case. Resolve to bring individuals and communities closer to the promise of their own potential, however you can best do that, and cast off anything else. Accept that this resolution might lead you down paths that make you question everything you’ve done before.  

Willie: Pursue happiness. It’ll take guts to leave your miserable firm job to start your own shop, or change careers, or ask that girl of yours to get hitched. Think of a few things that’ll make you happy this year: getting a pet, making a major life or career change, or simply balancing work and life better. Make a plan for how you’ll do it. And then give it your best shot. We’re getting older folks—I can’t even find a gadget that I lust after (a first in my more-than-three-decades), which means I’m really getting old. Don’t spend 2017 churning away at files and forms in a basement for some verbally abusive senior partner or sipping Pabst alone in a recliner every night: Take a chance and get your life back.

Joshua: Turn on two-factor authentication for your email and other software with client data. It takes five minutes and is the bare-minimum for reasonable precautions nowadays.

Clio: Anything else you’d like to add?

Mike: Misery is not a badge of honor, and not an ennobling requirement of the profession. Despite the jokes, you are one of the smartest, most qualified, and most compassionate members of your society. Reject cynicism and be a tool for progress. Change comes faster than most people can process. It’s up to us to see beyond the horizon and ask the hard questions. That is why we exist.  

Willie: Drink more coffee.

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