The Core of Legal Technology

[originally posted at Slaw.ca on May 12, 2011]

Law firm technology is experiencing pressure brought about by the success of consumer-oriented products. As the wave of iPad-toting lawyers begins to wash into the larger law firms, we’re seeing the logical result of the first law students arriving with their personal laptops at schools at the turn of the century. Some law schools initially identified a specific hardware for the students to purchase but that eventually gave way to the creation of systems that could be adapted to whatever technology the students presented.

Now law firms are beginning to adapt to these same consumerization challenges. They are not new but tablets have become the tipping point for a wholesale review of how large organizations deliver technology and information access. This transition will see law firms large and small shifting from providing the software and hardware endpoints for all of their systems to providing some more nuanced mixture to their lawyers and staff.

Take e-mail. For the most part, only legal departments who have highly specialized needs or who do not have real-world productivity pressures have not moved to Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange environments. It handles e-mail as well as providing integration to other Microsoft products and, increasingly, is the linchpin for legal software applications that leverage the communications or contacts data within Outlook.

New software aimed at lawyers will often use this Microsoft reliance as a feature. Law firms licensed Outlook, connected Exchange to their RIM Blackberry Enterprise Servers, and integrated other systems to reduce the silos that required duplicate information. Lawyers and staff used firm-provided smart phones and PCs to access firm-provided software.

That model breaks on this surging tide of consumer products. The breadth of devices powered by Windows mobile OS, Apple’s iOS, or Google’s Android creates a remarkable set of hardware and software combinations. The Web browser and app become the most important pieces of software in this environment. The operating system which kept law firms from adopting new technology will become less important than the version of the browser or capabilities of the mobile device. Instead of connecting from a Microsoft endpoint to a Microsoft server, now firms are dealing with managing e-mail sync between an Apple or open source endpoint connecting to their Microsoft systems.

Legal technology software companies may need to rethink how they develop for the legal vertical market. The majority of lawyers do not use the products specifically developed for the legal profession. While e-mail and word processors and other business and productivity applications are popular with any business providing professional services, lawyers using specially designed case management, document management or other legal products are in the minority in the profession.

One group that can ride this consumer technology trend is the software-as-a-service providers. By placing the application inside the Web browser, they reduce reliance on any given hardware or operating system used to access their application. Suddenly access to a given product is possible regardless of whether your laptop runs Windows 7 or Mac OSX or Ubuntu. Some legal software companies are already making their integration Web-centric, rather than Microsoft-centric, integrating with Web-based productivity tools like Google Apps or Zoho.

Large law firms have been heading down this path as well, with Web-based interfaces to some of their systems, even to dashboards that integrate views into data across the firm. These systems will need to adapt to rely less on browser-based integration that might have leveraged functionality unique to the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. Otherwise, Apple Safari and other browser users will end up being able to get less out of the firm’s systems and investments.

This could be a challenge for commercial software providers. Many continue to develop and sell, through their value added resellers or dedicated sales force, traditional client / server products for the Windows operating system. Solo and small firm lawyers accustomed to managing their own WordPress Web sites or Facebook pages may start to expect the same ease of customization from their legal applications. They are more and more accustomed to seeing – whether they understand how to use them or not – the settings they can use to make their environment fit their practice. These elements that were once in hidden in various configuration files in the back office need to be within easy reach of the lawyer now.

This is not to suggest that all legal software is or should be shifting to the so-called cloud. But as software is developed, it should take as a guide the direction the software-as-a-service vendors have gone. It might be a hybrid, like Google’s Cloud Connect, tying a local system to a Web-based system for greater information availability. Software that isn’t relying on Web browsers or an app that can be used from multiple devices with multiple operating systems needs to be rethought.

Legal software should be designed around ease of access to the data. In many ways, this could make software development easier. Rather than having to overcome the tired tabbed-folder-marbled-background interfaces that seem to roll out for lawyers, companies can develop lighter interfaces. They might even adopt a more application programming interface (API) oriented architecture, where the software is essentially just the core of the apple. The meat and flesh can be developed by other providers, adopting the mindset of Web content management: separate the content from the presentation, and let the developers who do each part the best focus on that part. The legal vertical software market is not that large but there may be developers interested in theming or contributing plugins if the software enabled that opportunity.

The future is a more nimble legal software market. We have seen a flood of new, small, legal technology software applications in the last few years. These companies are addressing the needs of the profession without trying to build a monolithic product. Companies that are not already following this focus on the core should think about rebooting their products, and thinking about how they can make themselves into a source worth bridging to, rather than strengthening their island. This sort of openness to integration with other systems, whether by a software partner or law firm IT staff or consultant, to create opportunities throughout the legal profession.

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