The Evolution of Legal Technology: Key Trends

January 15, 2013

Legal TechnologyEditor’s note:  This month we have asked technologically savvy attorneys to share their thoughts on the future of legal technology. Big Data, Mobile, and Cloud Computing are all on the docket, but first a look at how far legal technology has come in the last fifteen years.

Week 1: A Look Back

Businesses and organizations in virtually every sector and industry, including law offices, corporations, non-profits, and government agencies, have been profoundly affected by the evolution of information and communication technology over the past decade.  The following advances in information technology have had perhaps the greatest impact on legal professionals.

The Rise of “Big Data”

“Big Data” is the phrase commonly used to describe the ability to capture and effectively analyze vast amounts of information.  Significant advances in computing power and dramatic expansion of data storage capability have made Big Data possible.  The legal profession now routinely applies Big Data technology in support of the delivery of the full range of legal services.

Ubiquitous Computing

A wide and ever diversifying range of devices now have computing capability.  This trend is generally characterized as “ubiquitous computing.”  In a ubiquitous computing environment, computers are everywhere, and diverse equipment and devices have advanced computing capability.  For example, cell-phones are no longer merely voice communication devices, but are instead “smartphones” providing data network and digital media capability.  Legal service providers are now active users of the many computing devices made possible by the ubiquitous computing environment.

Advanced Computer Networks

In the past decade, computer networks have blossomed into global computing systems which can be accessed at any time from virtually any location using a wide range of devices.  Significant advances in mobile data communications technology, including sophisticated smartphones and tablet computing devices, along with wireless data systems such as Wi-Fi played a key role in computer networking.  Legal professional now routinely use advanced computer network systems, such as “cloud computing” platforms to support legal services.

Shared Software Applications

Many useful and important software applications are now accessible through shared access systems.  Stored on servers instead of the computers of end-users and provided to organizations by outside parties, these shared software applications are accessed by individual users on an as-needed basis, providing a more efficient and cost-effective platform for software use.  A range of software applications, document processing and e-mail for example, are provided through shared systems.  Legal professionals now commonly use a range of shared software applications.

Important Challenges

The technological advances outlined above have greatly enhanced the effectiveness and efficiency of legal services.  They have also, however, raised important challenges which have not yet been fully resolved.  Perhaps the most critical of those remaining challenges are the following: 1.) computer and communication security; 2.) information privacy; and 3.) effective data management.

Security

In the current environment in which computer and communications systems relied upon by legal professionals are global, can be accessed from diverse devices, store and process vast amounts of data, and make use of shared software and hardware, network security is very difficult to ensure.  Yet, legal service providers operate under a variety of data security obligations imposed by regulations, statutes, and professional responsibility requirements.  One of the greatest current and future technology challenges facing legal professionals is creation and maintenance of a highly secure computing and communications environment.

Privacy

Advanced computer and communications technology make it possible to collect, share, and use vast amounts of personal and proprietary information.  Legal offices operate under a particularly extensive framework of legal and ethical obligations requiring respect for privacy of sensitive personal information.  Development and maintenance of appropriate data privacy systems, policies, practices, and procedures pose critical and difficult challenges for legal service providers.

Data Management

Legal professionals, like their counterparts in virtually all other industries and sectors, now have the technical capability to collect, store, distribute, and analyze vast aggregations of data.  Effective management of data in this environment is a substantial challenge.  Advances in technology have dramatically increased the legal community’s ability to gather and distribute information.  Those advances have not, however, ensured that the vast collections of information made possible by Big Data are effectively used or understood.  Data management remains an important challenge today and for the foreseeable future.

Conclusions

Advances in technology have dramatically enhanced the effectiveness, efficiency, and profitability of many businesses, including law offices as well as government and corporate legal departments.  Those advances have, however, also created several important challenges which have yet to be effectively resolved.  Technology will continue to evolve, offering more operational capabilities to legal professionals.  The ultimate impact of those advances will depend, in large measure, on the ability of the legal community to meet effectively the key challenges associated with the enhanced capabilities offered by the technology.