The use of legal tech, not just in the legal profession but across all industries, is becoming more widespread. At the same time, legal tech is still very much an emerging technology and concept. This means that legal tech development is fast-paced, with this space looking wildly different even from a couple of years ago, let alone 10 – 15 years!
What is legal tech development?
It depends on the context in which you are talking about legal tech.
When we talk about legal tech development here, we talk about how legal tech platforms have evolved and where future trends in the industry lie.
Others might talk about legal tech development in a "web development" sense, as in doing work to implement legal tech in your business. However, we are not going to overcomplicate things by going down that route!
Legal tech development timeline: 1950s to now!
While we are going to look at modern legal tech developments, tech has been used to help power the legal profession for decades. Of course, the beauty of tech is that we always look back and think how far we have come, and usually dismiss the old tech completely! Still, it pays to remember that at the time tech was introduced and being used, it was seen as cutting edge and innovative.
Here is a brief timeline of how legal tech has evolved through the years.
1950s: Dictation machines
If you worry your legal practice has been slow to embrace modern tech trends, it was not until the 1950s that law firms started using dictation machines, despite them having been around since the late 19th century!
They first came into use with lawyers who needed to record information - such as to go into a document - but did not have their legal assistant with them. The machine meant they could record what they wanted, and have it be written up later.
1970s: Word processing and research programs
The first research programs like Lexis were a significant step forward for the legal industry, and the first time research could happen from an online database rather than from books.
While this saved a significant amount of time alone, the appearance of computers in legal offices by the end of the decade, facilitating word processing and removing the need to handwrite everything, supercharged the productivity of legal professionals around the world.
1980s: The fax machine and early case management tools
The fax machine is the perfect example of “boomer tech” that was a game changer but that we laugh at today.
While getting the most out of this tech depended on the people you wanted to send documents to also having a fax machine, it elevated service delivery for those that did. You could end a phone call and have a document in your client’s hands in a matter of minutes. Before the fax machine, you would be relying on the mail!
The 1980s also saw the first basic case management tools come into the market. Unfortunately, these were not easily scalable, so they were not immediately useful for larger law firms or those dealing with complex cases.
1990s: Local networks and email
The 1990s saw the introduction of local networks within legal offices. This introduced the first real collaboration platform to the industry, although you would have still had to speak to your colleagues in person to understand who was making what edits to documents and why.
By the late 1990s, email had largely replaced the fax machine, and also became a revolutionary tool - along with the first messaging apps - for communication. You did not need to write a letter, make a phone call, or arrange a face to face meeting. You could simply send an email and await a reply.
Late 2000s: Advanced case management software
While case management software continued to develop through the late 1980s, 1990s, and the turn of the millennium, most of it was not very good, especially when it came to scalability.
The trigger for this changing was the 2008 global financial crisis, which saw clients demanding law firms deliver more for less. The only way to deliver this was to harness tech that could allow you to serve clients at scale while manage complex casework in as little time as possible, and so legal tech started to move in this direction, and forward-thinking legal practices began to understand the possibilities tech could bring.
Mid-2010s: All in one legal tech
Building on the advancements of the late 2000s, the mid-2010s, and particularly from 2015 onwards, saw an explosion in the number of legal tech firms and the funding such firms received.
This has driven increasingly accelerated development across legal tech, moving lawyers towards having all-in-one platforms from where they can do everything they need to and integrate with their existing tools where required.
It is this that is driving the major developments in legal tech that we are seeing today, which we will now explore.
6 legal tech developments that lawyers should know
Legal tech is not just for lawyers. Still, it is correct to say those working in the legal profession – either within law firms or in-house legal departments – are still the most likely users of legal tech. One of the significant industry developments of the next decade will likely be a shift in that balance!
In terms of legal tech itself, here are six developments lawyers should know.
1. Document automation
Legal teams spend a significant amount of time working with documents. Whether you are working with contracts or other legal documents, drafting, writing, revising, executing, and renewing these is a massive drain on resources. It is easy for many lawyers to essentially be highly paid admin workers. Lawyers do not want to work this way, and law clients do not want to be paying for expensive admin, either!
Legal teams who embrace and learn how to work with automation will save time and dramatically reduce the potential for human error.
Automation can be particularly effective for:
- Harnessing the use of forms. You can align a form to a contract template and get clients to fill in the same form every time. This then auto-populates your template and gives you an automated contract. All you need to do is set up the initial template and create a relevant form!
- Documents you use a lot or that include similar passages lead to an enormous volume of repetitive work. If you are copy and pasting, it can easily lead to human error, too. Automate repetitive documents, and you remove the monotony and the potential for mistakes!
2. Harnessing artificial intelligence (AI)
Fears among lawyers that legal tech, and specifically AI, will replace them are unfounded. Yet, this does not stop such a fear proving a barrier to the adoption of legal tech. However, any lawyer or legal firm looking to be more efficient must be using AI and tools that enable them to harness such tech.
Al continues to develop and become ever-more refined, helping take care of things like:
- Legal documentation reviews, including checking multiple documents at scale to identify those relevant to a specific case or query.
- Contract reviews, including the capability of identifying risk and tension points within a contract, suggesting edits, and even helping to negotiate better terms!
- Due diligence tasks, like fact-checking, searching for background information, and aiding decision-making processes.
While AI is a vital tool and does most of the heavy lifting, human involvement as the final sign-off remains essential. As such, we must harness this development to make ourselves better, rather than worrying it will replace us.
3. Reimagining what legal research looks like
As well as using AI, legal tech is increasingly using machine learning and natural language understanding and processing to help reimagine and reinvent the legal research process.
Machines can now take care of increasingly complex cases. Many legal tech tools now enable lawyers to upload a briefing document or case file analysis. Then, the platform can then scour vast databases and provide detailed research highlighting precedents and relevant documentation for human examination.
Legal tech means you can wave goodbye to waiting days – or even weeks – for a legal researcher to work through archives and find what you need. The whole process can be taken care of in a matter of hours and help you get to work quicker!
4. The power of virtual collaborations
For many years, legal tech was more or less “stuff put on a computer.”
Things are a little more refined these days, with the best legal tech platforms facilitating secure and efficient collaboration.
With everything stored in the cloud, lawyers can use legal software to:
- Maintain all data in one central location, including data from their other apps brought together via integrations.
- Ensure everyone with a stake in a particular case, contract, or document has access to the most up-to-date and correct version. Wave goodbye to conflicted copies or merging comments from email chains!
- Manage access and editing permissions depending on seniority and job role.
- Manage workload and deadlines.
- Automate specific workflows and trigger actions.
5. The use of blockchain technology
Blockchain technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in legal tech, although it is by no means essential.
However, it is worth lawyers knowing about this development and the tasks it can help them automate and execute, which include:
- Self-executing contracts, ensuring things like changes to terms and conditions and enforcement of these can happen automatically and be tracked in real-time in the cloud.
- The use of digital tags to track all changes and movements of documents. This removes any worries around documents being deleted for any reason or being tampered with.
6. What about coding?
Coding is an interesting one. Even here at Contractbook, in the past year, we have looked at the benefits of lawyers learning to code but also highlighted the potential and benefits of using no-code platforms for managing integrations and other IT processes.
At present, developments in legal tech are moving more towards simplification, meaning you do not need to use code. However, that is not to say coding is not a valuable skill to have in your toolkit should you wish to learn some basic coding language and practices!
What are the major developments in legal tech in 2021?
The biggest development in legal tech is undoubtedly the boom in funding the industry is seeing. In turn, this has a snowball effect on how legal tech is revolutionizing the wider legal industry, as more can be done in a shorter timeframe, accelerating growth and creating opportunities for the next evolutions in tech to develop and come to market quicker.
Outside of the continuing flow of cash into the industry, the most significant developments in legal tech this year are not new but rather a continued evolution of the developments we have just looked at. AI, in particular, is becoming increasingly prevalent, while investment in legal tech platforms is growing, both by businesses who provide legal tech and those using it.
Underpinning all of this is a move towards making legal tech more accessible, both for lawyers, other businesses, and end-users such as clients. One of the major issues holding back legal tech development for many years was the ethos that legal tech was just for lawyers. Today, it is more widely accepted that legal tech delivers better outcomes for legal clients or a wider business and does not exclusively make their jobs easier!
Using legal tech in your practice
Are you using legal tech in your practice? If not, what opportunities do you have to improve outcomes for your clients, be that through producing better, more attractive contracts, or automating processes to reclaim your time to become more productive?
Learn more about how Contractbook can help you achieve these aims or check out our legal tech institute for all our insights and thought leadership around the evolution and development of legal tech.