New technologies and processes abound in the legal market: e-discovery, portals, customer relationship management (CRM), knowledge management, practice group profitability analysis, matter-centricity, online training, to name a few. What can we learn from the past, both to predict the future and to guide how we manage the new? 

I wish I could answer this question. For the moment, I have just begun to consider it by looking at other technologies. I have not done any research on how long it took lawyers to adopt online research, but my sense is that it took well over two decades, from about 1975 to about 1995. I think that the adoption of PC-based word processing happened much faster – about one decade. And internet browsing and e-mail seemed to happen faster still, probably about 5 years. One could of course quibble with the data (after all, I don’t have any solid numbers), but I suspect most would agree that adoption rates accelerated, at least with respect to these technologies.

We cannot, however, conclude that adoption rates are increasing for all new technology. My “counter example” is litigation support. I believe that many litigators – including those at some of the largest firms – have still not adopted clearly superior document management practices that were identified as early as the late 1980s. It seems obvious to me that in most large matters, lawyers should cause a document database to be built early on to manage and analyze documents yet this is still a struggle in many matters. The explosion of e-discovery and the ramifications of doing it wrong may finally cause lawyers to pay attention in this arena.

How can we explain the history? “Necessity” does not seem to be a factor. There are malpractice considerations, if nothing else, that arguably should have driven adoption of online research and appropriate discovery document management faster and deeper. The only consistent theme I see is the impact of client demand. The fact that clients started using e-mail forced lawyers to do so. The fact that clients adopted Word caused most law firms also to adopt Word over the course of about 5 years (in spite of reasonable arguments that Word Perfect is the better word processor for lawyers). Clients may now be driving the adoption of e-billing, though the outcome there is still uncertain.

For those who strive for change in law firms, it may be that the only “sure thing” is that if you can connect client demand to a proposed change, you will have a better shot at succeeding than if you can’t. I would love to hear from anyone who can take our historical experience and draw different or better lessons.