How Much is Technology Really Changing Law Practice?


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The practice of law has changed in a lot of ways in recent years. Technology has changed how lawyers interact with clients, it has changed the way we advertise, the way we bill and the way that we run our business among many other things. In nearly every respect, the practice of law is becoming unrecognizable. But for several reasons, it’s important for us to focus on the ways in which the practice of law has not changed.


Most law firms don’t market the way they used to. That isn’t news. Like any other savvy business, law firms use websites, social media, email campaigns and SEO to bring new clients in. Some of these tools have a greater effect on business than others, but I think it’s safe to say that they can be very effective when used properly.

Our acclamation to web marketing has conditioned us to turn up our noses at firms—or any other business, for that matter—that have crappy websites. Right or wrong, it’s what a lot of people do. And it’s that conditioned websnobbery that leads to a kind of myopic perspective on how advertising should be done. But much to our geek-collective’s astonishment, thousands of lawyers everywhere still use phone books and print ads to pretty good effect. I’m not a marketing guy, so I don’t know what the cost/benefit breakdown is for running quarter-page spreads in a local phone book. But I do know that law firms still get pretty good results from other forms of advertising that are decidedly low-tech.

To be clear, I’m not encouraging solos to take out an ad in the phone book, strictly speaking. That kind of thing is stupid-expensive. But I would encourage practitioners to break out of the line of thinking that alienates large groups of people that still don’t use the web to find legal services.

Good legal advice; there’s not an app for that

It also goes without saying that technology has made communicating with clients much easier. We can email scanned documents, talk to them over the internet through Skype or Google Voice or even (gasp!) send text messages. New devices like the iPad and other tablets can also change the way that we go through client intake and conduct meetings with clients. I won’t get in to whether these gadgets get in the way of communication on occasion or whether they are off-putting; I think these things have their place.

The problem I encounter when I’m thinking about what web tool gadget will help me better interact with clients is that I occasionally lose the forest for the trees. I sometimes forget that while an iPad would be nice for client intake, for example, the devices we use are simply conduits. And this is the facet of practice in which I don’t think technology has changed our business very much. The majority of lawyers are in business to solve people’s problems for money. That means that most of the time, our real value lies in giving sound advice in a clear manner. The gadgets that we use to get that message across are sometimes just window dressing.

At the end of the day …

We are in the professional service industry. All the rockstar gadgets and software in the world won’t change that. These changes in technology might make certain aspects of our job significantly easier than they used to be, and they might help grow our respective businesses, but in my opinion, technology isn’t the game-changer that we occasionally think it is. We still draft documents on pieces of paper that require our client’s handwritten signature and we still stand up in a courtroom and do our fancy-talk arguments in front of a judge. So while technology certainly makes the practice of law easier, it doesn’t necessarily make the end-product any different.



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  • It’s always interesting to think about how technology has made our practice so much more efficient, which means fewer billable hours. I doubt that most clients understand how much time and money is saved with tools like Westlaw or Lexis versus researching the “old-fashioned” way.

    • Or by lawyers who can type their own briefs instead of dictating to a secretary must then transcribe it, doubling or tripling the time involved.

      • Chris Anaya

        It is not necessarily that a lawyer can’t type his or her own brief, it is more a matter of cost efficiency. A lawyer cannot (ethically) bill a client at his hourly rate for professional services, for typing a letter / brief. If he wants to bill at a paralegal / secretary rate and do the typing himself – that may be another matter entirely – but I would suggest that the lawyers activities should be predominately involved with either actually performing professional services or business development / management. Having said that, dictation software has come a long way and one way a solo/firm could improve efficiency is to dictate to a softare program and then have a paralegal / secretary edit the dictation for form, flow, and grammar, and then have the lawyer proof it.

        • Really? Typing is incidental to the legal work of crafting an argument and organizing it on paper. For any competent typist, typing saves time—especially because secretaries don’t work for free, and their salary gets factored into the attorney fee.

          Further, I can tell a dictated brief from a written brief any day. There is a big difference between writing and speaking, and it shows in the finished product.

          • I agree with Sam. I just filed a brief last week and I wrote it myself. I’m confident that dictating the brief, having my secretary type it, then making changes to the brief to make it sound like it was written and not spoken, would have cost the client much more than me just writing it.

            Now, when it comes to formatting (creating the coversheet, table of contents, etc.) and formalizing all of the cites, I think a lawyer should use staff to defray costs, if possible.

            • Phil

              The first firm I worked for (in 1983) still used Dictabelt recorders and “programmable” IBM Selectrics. They discouraged associates from getting hands-on with the equipment but even back then my personal preference was to type things out myself (I could touch type), because I found it more efficient and … satisfying. That became even more true as technology improved. Having said that my experience in large scale litigation was that the only way to keep up with the volume of work required was to dictate changes to pre-existing boilerplate docs. I also think the point made by Chris above about the ethics of charging clients for typing is a good one. There aren’t many of us who can type as fast as we can dictate, and then there’s all those mechanical details like formatting, addressing, etc. that can really rack up time and effort better spent thinking about the next problem coming through the door. Although I’ve been retired from the practice for over 14 years now, I’ve often wondered how well I would have adjusted to many of the changes described here — particularly in legal research and courtroom presentation.

  • Nice post, but I think there’s a very important distinction, depending on what type of legal practice you have. If you do volume legal work, then case management and workflow tools can make huge changes to the way you work and how profitable you are. If you do large scale litigation discovery, e-discovery tools can make a massive difference to your work. If you are in consumer law and are ignoring the rise of document automation, then be prepared for some real changes in your world. The legal world is changing, and the client-led push for efficiency is a major trend. As legal process becomes more clearly defined, the ability for technology to make a difference will increase, and those practitioners that ignore it, I believe do so at their peril. Technology is far from the be-all and end all, but as with service delivery in other industries, plays a key part.

  • Technology is a tool. It enables me to be more productive, more organized and frankly, happier, in the practice of law. And, speaking only for myself, I do think it has altered the ‘end product’ in my practice. By example, I work with businesses across the world who do business in my state (Tennessee). I’ve never met most of them in person. Via Skype and our client extranet, I communicate and collaborate with them. I create documents, which I never print and they never print. The digitization of my practice has expanded it in directions that I never thought possible.
    Of course, the method of communication doesn’t change some end products. Whether via Skype or extranet chat, I’m delivering the same legal counsel I would be delivering even if the client is sitting in my office. But I’m delivering to folks who otherwise would never have connected with *me*.
    And this is more of an observation than based on direct experience (my practice is primarily transactional) – but the impact of technology on litigation is not insignificant. I’ve witnesses fellow Mac lawyers do amazing things with technology in trial, which undoubtedly had a substantive impact on the outcome of the case.
    Technology’s impact on the practice of law is wide and deep. In my experience, it’s transformational.

  • It’s worth taking note of the websites of commenters on this post. The consultants are going to be out in force.

  • Here’s another sub-heading that we take for granted more and more:


    It used to be, you needed a law library made of rich mahogany and volumes of leather-bound books in order to practice law.

    Now, you can access cases, search statutes, and much more easily and efficiently perform legal research.

    I think perhaps this is the biggest way technology has influenced practice recently, and it seems we already take it for granted.

    To me, next up will be more technology in the courtroom. We’re starting to see the beginnings of this, but I think the next 25 years will see major changes in courtroom technology.

  • I just got a typed letter that was only delivered via e-mail from someone’s secretary. That was an awesome use of technological efficiency. I wonder how much that cost their client?

  • As a courtroom attorney who has practiced law for nearly 25 years, I can say that Technology has made significant changes in the trial of a case. Technology has made finding cross examination points on expert witnesses easier, but more importantly, it has raised the expectations of the jury. No longer will juries let an attorney get away with just talking to them. Juries today expect to be shown not told what the evidence is. Perhaps it was always better to show rather than tell them the case. Technology makes it easier and cheaper for the clients for us to do just that.

  • Jack

    Who knows what may happen in a decade from now when all the young ones who live on iPhones become the target market for legal practice. In general, how do you observe sites that search for clients ( or Any better than sites that simply list lawyers on?

  • P Franklin

    The technology is only as useful as those using it.

    I’ve been a litigation secretary for 26 years, at a small firm which deals with complex commerial disputes. I started out in the days of the Displaywriter, and have figured out each new piece of software and technology as it came along.

    Nothing is more frustrating to me than receiving work product from another office which is so poorly formatted, with absolutely no understanding of the underlying software structure, that I have to clean it up and reformat before it becomes useable. I can do a lot of whoopy-keen document automation — but only if some lawyer who only thinks he knows what he’s doing doesn’t screw up the underlying formatting and links.

    I’ve also seen the changes which have come into the underlying philosophy of the law from the days when drafts of agreements exchanged via messenger service, with handwritten changes from each attorney (where agreement was reached on the form and substance of the agreement in less than a week), to now when redlined drafts whip around via email, becoming a muddied tangled and it takes months to get to finalization.

    And, finally, because I work for litigators who deal with commercial cases, I’ve seen the advent of “e-discovery” software which is touted as “streamlining” the exchange of documents. The major thing software has done is exponentially multiplied the number of pieces documentation produced — in one memorable case about a quarter of the 100,000 pages of images received were duplicative. Nothing replaces trained human eyeballs for the effective practice of law; farming it out to low-paid data entry clerks may be “cost efficient”, but may also cause that critical piece of paper to be missed.

    To all you baby lawyers out there, my advice to you is find yourself a smart, capable secretary with a knack for understanding software, and pay him or her well; give them the time to play with whatever technology you choose to use — they’ll come up with creative ways to use it for your advantage. They’ll also find places where your writing is unclear, and where your phrasing is off.

    Technology is good — but the practice of law should be a human, and humane, endeavor.