Evolution of Legal Technology: A Look Back

January 9, 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.

Around 15 years ago, I was employed as a network administrator for a mid-sized law firm of approximately 30 attorneys and an equal amount of support staff. If you recall the times, this would have been around the peak of the tech boom. Internet and network technologies had been widely adopted by this point, but they were by no means universal and did not possess anywhere near the functionality that they do today. Currently, as an attorney practicing at small technologically progressive law firm, it is interesting to reflect on how things used to be.

Early Legal Computing

Fewer and fewer attorneys these days can remember practicing without some form of information technology. The desktop PC has been common in the workplace since the mid-80s, but until the mid to late 90s they were largely used only as word processors. It wasn’t till then, when desktop computing had been merged with the internet and small office networks that we see anything like what we have today.

Fifteen years ago, the firm I worked for had recently made the transition to network computing. The network comprised of approximately 60 desktops computers with a few attorneys using laptops that could dock to the network or connect remotely through a dial-up connection. Aside from the workstations, the network consisted of a file server, exchange email server, document management server, and a dial-in remote access server – all connected to the internet by a T1 connection. All dynamic data was backed up by tape on a round-robin schedule with partial offsite storage of copies.

Despite what was at the time a fairly state-of-the-art network, information practices at the firm trailed what could be supported by the technology, and redundant physical copies of documents existed in parallel. Every client file existed as both a paper file in a file cabinet and electronically on the network. Paper documents were scanned in and electronic documents were printed out. Reference materials were largely unavailable online and existed in paper volumes or searchable CD databases.

SEO was largely limited to embedded keywords. If you searched on the terms “attorney” and “our city,” our firm’s web page would be on the first results page. This enviable result in retrospect is diminished by the fact that most legal consumers did not have regular access to the internet at the time. Most of the advertising was still done in the yellow pages and newspapers.

From an attorney’s prospective, almost every technological aspect of practice was physically tied to the office. Cell phones had no informational capability, and many attorneys had no better than a dial-up connection at the time. Documents were stored on the document server and had to be electronically “checked out” in order to be worked on, assuming you had a laptop.

Legal technology going forward

I can only guess what my old law firm looks like today; however I can tell you that from my prospective as an attorney, the biggest change would probably be the decentralization of information technology at the office. Our firm has no local storage of files. Our computers are just connections to the internet and as such any computer connected to the internet has the same functionality as the one at my desk. In the future, both our data and the interface I use to manipulate it may be in the cloud. I can only imagine this phenomenon will increase as online connectivity improves and mobile computing becomes more ubiquitous.