Back to the Future – Sidebars

A History of Legal Technology

By Ron Friedmann

This article first appeared in AmLaw Tech, December 2004 (free registration required for access to article at American Lawyer Media web site).

THIS PAGE CONTAINS ONLY THE SIDEBARS OF THIS ARTICLE. For the main article, click here. Note that the American Lawyer Media online version does not include these sidebars.

ABSTRACT: Legal technology always comes back to documents and how to manage them. A look at 25 years of technology in large law firms.

Stairway to Discovery

An early, important development in the application of technology to law practice occurred in connection with the IBM Corporation antitrust case that lasted through much of the 1970s and ended in the early 1980s. Faced with huge volumes of documents to review, IBM looked at its own technology to address the problem. “STAIRS” was one of the earlier full-text retrieval systems. Today, we call those systems “search engines.”

The company loaded huge volumes of document indexes into the system and then used search features to identify applicable documents to prepare various aspects of the case. The paper documents were stored in a warehouse and manually pulled from the shelves based on the search results. (Separately, several firms used STAIRS search capabilities in their first automated conflict checking systems.)

Once PC databases became available in the mid–1980s, some firms began replicating this indexing approach. By the early 1990s, prices for PCs, hard disks, and scanners dropped so that there was a widespread move to scan documents, convert images to text, and search on the full-text. Today, with electronic discovery, searching has become even more critical—and sophisticated, with new software coming to market regularly.

Asked and Answered

Experts who have watched legal technology unfold over the past 25 years respond to the question: What’s been the biggest impact of technology on law practice?

“Faster responses to client inquiries, based in part on more frequent interactions, both between lawyers and clients and among experts working together across offices and organizations. On balance, this is a very positive development.”
David R. Johnson, technology visionary, former chairman of Counsel Connect, and retired partner of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr

“In 1980 I thought that the computational power of computers, document assembly, and artificial intelligence would transform law practice, eliminating routine and repetitive tasks and make the profession more intellectually sophisticated and smaller. Instead, in the past 25 years, the communication power of computers has accelerated the pace of practice, connecting nearly a million of us to work and our clients at all times and overwhelming us all with virtual mountains of digital information.”
Ron Staudt, associate vice president of law, business, and technology, and professor at Chicago Kent College of Law—Illinois Institute of Technology

“I would say that the biggest nonimpact of technology in the last 25 years has been on the core functions of lawyering. The sluggish uptake of “knowledge tools” like intelligent document assembly, visualization, and expert systems by most law offices has been striking. The profession has largely failed to leverage that kind of innovation. By the late 1980s I was convinced that dramatic tech-catalyzed transformations were just over the horizon. I still think so. And really hope not to have to give the same response when asked about the last 50 years.”
Marc Lauritsen, president, Capstone Practice Systems

Skadden Central

Before the PC, computers were central resources mainframes or minicomputers. Technicians operated the computers in glass boxes while users accessed them via dumb terminals. These systems offered certain technical, operational, and cost advantages. Today, it is increasingly possible to get the best of both worlds: the flexibility and ease of use PCs with the benefits of centralized resources and control. Consider recent technology changes at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

In 2003, Skadden consolidated all of its servers in one location (with a backup, of course) and provided uniform access to all lawyers and staff via remote access software. Skadden uses a product called Citrix, familiar to many lawyers because it is a common way to access systems outside the office.

Asked about the benefits of this migration, Harris Tilevitz, Skadden’s chief technology officer, explains: “Now, Skadden lawyers have the same interface wherever they are, in any office, at home, or at a client. Skadden tech staff can easily manage all applications and the entire network from a central location. And the firm can quickly recover from service interruption in the primary location.”