There is no shortage of discussion in the legal profession about how technology adoption across firms of all sizes has skyrocketed since 2020. From video conference court hearings to practice management platforms, the digitization of legal practices, which resisted these trends even as adjacent industries were transformed, seems increasingly unavoidable.
One sees examples of new legal technologies impacting everything from client meetings to case management and document assembly. In some ways legal tech is creating competitive advantages for modernized firms who are able to streamline pain points for clients while improving efficiency and morale with staff. But even with clear benefits, legal technology can be a divisive topic, with some lawyers hesitant to change processes or worried about the dehumanizing effects of digital solutions.
Most of today’s solutions for law firms are aimed at automating repetitive and tedious tasks, like legal drafting or billing, which can help you focus more on the things you really enjoy — like devoting more time to clients, problem solving, strategizing, or having more time.
But where we are today isn’t necessarily the endpoint of legal tech development. It’s probably only the beginning. So, this article will look at how some of the emerging trends we see today will continue to evolve and shape the law firm of the future.
1. Video Conferencing 2.0
Perhaps no technology rose to ubiquity quite like video conferencing solutions during the pandemic and beyond. The pandemic turned Zoom into a verb, and many courts were forced to rapidly adopt new standards for video and telephonic appearances in order to mitigate health risks. It also gave us all the gift of Cat Lawyer. With the floodgates open, it seems that video conferencing is here to stay, so how will it continue to evolve.
The efficiency, time- and cost-savings of remote court proceedings makes them a benefit to courts, lawyers and clients alike in many circumstances. Changes in regulation may be needed to improve certain aspects of virtual court sessions, but the opportunity to increase access to justice by enabling remote attendance or long-distance pro bono work is undeniable. However, the increase in accessibility brought about by solving distance creates other issues specific to the digital divide in America (people who lack access to broadband or viable technology, for example). This will continue to be a challenge for the next several years.
Firms that make regular appearances in remote courts, or who develop entirely remote operations (forgoing a physical location altogether and making client meetings exclusively virtual, for example), will invest in improving how lawyers look onscreen, including firm-branded backdrops, lighting standardization, and other tools designed to hone the quality of how legal representation is represented. Sound-proof booths in home offices, anyone?
The broader question shaping the future of video conferencing is how it will better bridge distance between remote teams. It’s one thing to see each other during a conversation, but it’s another to be able to pair that ability with virtual rooms, virtual whiteboards and other tools that enable better collaboration and information sharing without having to share the same physical space.
People opposing this part of tech adoption argue that it may lead to unfair court proceedings. For instance, a study of immigration courts discovered that detained individuals were more likely to be deported if their hearings occurred over video conference rather than in person. Better understanding of the impacts of technology on sentencing and other outcomes will be essential.
2. Virtual Legal Practices
If you took bets in 2019 about whether or not “remote work” would’ve been one of the legal industries hottest topics the following year, it probably would’ve been a small number of people who chose correctly. The necessity of the firm’s office as a centralized physical space for its staff has been largely unchallenged for centuries at this point.
But here we are living in a drastically altered world, and according to data from Thomson Reuters’ 2021 Report on the State of the Legal Market found that 76% of lawyers now prefer to have an option to work remotely at least one day a week (a 100% increase year over year).
With the stigma of required office attendance removed and guidelines for use of technology in courts evolving, the question changes to how far this trend can continue. At one extreme, it would be possible to completely decouple law firms from any physical office requirements whatsoever. Lawyers, associates, paralegals and administrators could interact virtually using a combination of video conferencing, practice management tools, chat apps, automated document assembly and other technology without ever needing to be in the same room. Yes, there are still issues to solve with workplace culture, and other challenges, but those will be more practice-specific than overarching industry-wide obstacles. It may be an advantage for smaller practices in many cases.
Extrapolating this trend further into the future, we could one day see firms practicing in multiple states entirely remotely. Many state bars already have 5-10% of membership residing outside of the state, and expanding trends toward alternative service providers, legal innovation sandboxes, and firm ownership by non-lawyers could add to the possibility of legal practices being able to operate across state lines with less capital investment in staff and commercial office space.
While there are some necessary ethics questions to answer along the way, such an evolution could also increase access to legal services in rural areas by increasing the availability of legal professionals in areas with lower populations. Through increased competition, this could also help to reduce the costs of legal services in many places.
3. Workflow Automation and Legal Service Products
As the digitization of the legal industry continues, law firms will continue to find new opportunities to streamline operations and save time on routine tasks that consume so much bandwidth on teams currently. This is something that is already visible from the increasing adoption of tools like cloud-based practice management and automated document assembly solutions.
The goal of firms using digital tools should be to complement and emphasize a firm’s human expertise rather than replacing it. Legal expertise is critical for practitioners, but it’s important not to fall into a trap of sentimentality about current processes. A lot of what lawyers spend time on during the week isn’t the best use of the expertise they’ve developed. Manual processes creating new client documents by finding and replacing text, for example, isn’t the part of the job lawyers love most — especially when a small mistake like a missed instance of a previous client’s name can make a current client question the value of your work. It’s the contents of the documents that matters. Likewise, processes like information gathering can be time-consuming and inefficient for firms and clients alike. Those are two areas where new solutions will make significant impacts.
One trend that will be amplified in the next few years will be the return to popularity of smaller-scale client projects that drive predictable revenue for firms with minimal investment of time, which will enable firms to invest more time in bigger projects and more thoughtful client services. The result will be a greater number of limited scope services that can be automated — using a law firm’s documents through automated workflows that enable information gathering, document assembly and e-signatures with limited intervention from firm staff. These smaller profit centers will enable firms to create positive relationships with their clients without investing a lot of effort. Firms can then provide more customized services for individuals whose situation goes beyond cookie-cutter requirements.
Workflow tools can also eliminate the days of email for approvals and chasing down signatures. Instead, the workflows will direct the actions of clients inputting information, and allow for processes to be completed more quickly and easily. Gathering information, delivering documents, collecting an e-signature and then filing electronically with the court. That process is not far from becoming reality.
4. Data-Driven Practices
As for the actual fundamental changes to how practitioners work over the next ten years, Jordan Couch, Attorney at Palace Law, thinks that “technology and the disaggregation of labor it encourages will push the legal profession closer to the model of the medical profession”.
With more routine and administrative work automated or outsourced, legal practitioners will have more free time to use their creativity and domain knowledge to invent and test new approaches to serving their clients. Like a physician, they will be able to spend more time learning about the client’s problem and devising unique solutions.
Part of what will enable this new free time is the continued evolution of artificial intelligence in legal tools. Legal AI tools won’t make decisions for lawyers, but it will support legal practitioners’ decision-making and provide streamlined access to data.
A few of the examples of ways that AI will help legal practitioners include:
- Track regulation changes — including internationally
- Catalog unstructured data from case notes
- Spot inconsistencies in contracts
- Hasten case research by finding precedent cases with the correct language
- Sift through difficult legalese to find the terms you are looking for
AI might also help law firms make predictions about certain case outcomes by aggregating and analyzing relevant historical data. Or it will be tuned to aggregate relevant changes in case law for specific practice areas. AI is like a pair of glasses. It doesn’t replace the eyes, but can help to improve one’s vision.
And not every application of data within a law practice will be as dramatic as AI-powered tools. There are many other ways data can be leveraged to improve firm performance, such as what types of cases or clients produce the most profitable projects, or how many hours certain types of projects require. These types of data points can help firms optimize toward the clients and projects that will produce the best outcomes.