The EXPO Hall at ABA TECHSHOW is full of established companies showing off new features, new companies trying to get attention, and everything in between. And everyone I talked to wanted to know what I thought was new and mind-blowing.
This year, there really wasn’t anything that blew my mind. The revolution that brought us cloud-based practice management software is over. In fact, in a signal of how very over that revolution is, Clio took over LexisNexis’s central exhibitor space. On-premise, desktop software is out. Cloud is in, in a big way.
In the cloud or not, the energy in legal technology has moved from innovation to updates, from disruption to competition.
Law Practice Software Has Become Fundamental
MyCase and Rocket Matter gave me sneak peeks at their new mobile apps, which will be welcome for users and keep them competitive with Clio, CosmoLex, PracticePanther, and Zola Suite. And Clio continues to lead the way on UX refinement. But a refreshed user interface won’t disrupt anything.
I saw the same thing throughout the EXPO Hall, with time tracking software, secure communication software, e-discovery software, docketing software, lead-generation services, scanners, and more. Lots of wheels, no jet packs.
Which isn’t to say any of those things are over and done with. Rather, they have become fundamental. Should you use law practice management software? Yes, duh. Pick one. Your law practice management software is the foundation on which you will build your firm. Because the next big thing isn’t here yet to blow my mind on the EXPO Hall floor, but it’s starting to bubble up, and to be effective it’s going to need the data captured by your timekeeping software, your practice management software, your communication software, etc. If, as Fastcase CEO Ed Walters argues, data is the new oil, law firms are going to need lots of it in order to make the transformation from coal-fired steam engines to sleek sports cars.
The Coming of Artificial Intelligence to Law Practice
What will you do with all that data? You’ll use it to power your AI systems, of course.
Look, we’re all sick of hearing about AI. That’s because at this moment, AI is more hype than substance. The media is more interested in talking about whether we can replace human lawyers with robots than in talking about what AI really means for law practice.
But if we can stop talking about robot lawyers and instead talk about “small AI”—data-mining, machine learning algorithms you’ll soon be plugging into your various software and systems—there’s some pretty exciting stuff in the works. It’s not mind-blowing, yet, but the potential is, and the trend is clear.
Imagine an AI system that is plugged into your practice management software and automatically pulls up the cases and statutes you need as you write an email or brief without you having to enter a single search term. Imagine an AI that scans your client files, assembles a list of common documents, identifies the variables and alternative provisions in each document, and drafts the questions you need to ask to fill in those blanks and sets up your document assembly and automation system and keeps your templates current without requiring you to do a thing. Or imagine an AI that monitors your workflow and suggests changes to help you work more efficiently, or maybe it learns from you and offers to handle tasks so you don’t have to.
Those are just a few things I would like to see or that I’ve heard people talk about, but there are almost certainly more exciting projects in the works.
None of this is possible now, but we’re really close to all of it. This isn’t sci-fi AI. This is very real, in-progress AI. Sure, it’s going to be terrible at first. Once upon a time you had to give computers instructions by feeding them paper punch cards one at a time. Now you can talk to them. But these are systems that learn. They will get better, and slowly, inexorably, you will find yourself handing over more and more tasks to your AI assistants.
Will your AI assistants make you obsolete? Probably not. As Stephen Wolfram recently explained, technology tends to make things more complex, not more simple. Once you would have had to write a short program to add 2+2 on a computer. Now everything has a calculator capable of advanced calculations.
Similarly, as your AI helpers do more, you will also be able to do more. It’s hard to say exactly what that will mean, but at a minimum you will probably be able to help more people, more effectively, at lower cost, and still have a successful law practice.
That will be truly mind-blowing, and I am excited about the implications for the access-to-justice gap. And then, a few years after a critical mass of legal problem-solvers start using AI-powered legal tech and it blows everyone’s minds for a while, ROSS or Casetext or some other AI-powered startup will take over Clio’s booth on the TECHSHOW floor. Then we will all be bored with AI and can finally stop talking about it.
I’m looking forward to that!