Back to the Future: A History of Legal Technology

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).

For Sidebars (short companion pieces), click here.

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

The start of the computer revolution in law begins in 1973, when Lexis invented the red “UBIQ” terminal to let lawyers search case law online rather than laboriously pore through books. The revolution quickly moved from document searching to document creation when Wang introduced a computer dedicated to word processing. By 1979, when The American Lawyer first published, many law firms had purchased Wang or similar machines, placing them in central word processing departments where they could be used virtually nonstop. Around the same time, firms also started buying fax machines.

Though lawyers seldom used these machines personally, the impact was considerable-the pace of practice accelerated noticeably. The days of carbon paper and of manual cutting and pasting vanished. Turnaround for new drafts was much faster. Fax and FedEx, then relatively new too, sped the delivery of documents to clients.

Throughout the past 25 years, legal technology trends have come and gone and sometimes circled back to repeat themselves. We are now, for example, witnessing a return to centralized computing [see “Skadden Central,” page 32]. Through the quarter century, the constant pulse is the desire of lawyers and firms to find, manage, and manipulate documents. Some things in the practice of law just never change.

Advent of the PC and Early Issues

In 1981 IBM released its “Personal Computer,” the first widely selling desktop computer for ordinary business users. Adventurous lawyers began to learn word processing so they could type their own documents. Some used spreadsheets to calculate damages, negotiate settlements, or analyze securities trading patterns. These early adopters had to learn at least a little DOS, the original disk-operating system famous for its mysterious “C:>” prompt.

The PC created limitless possibilities for “applications.” Some were created specifically for lawyers: deposition searching or document assembly (for automatically creating documents). Others were created for broader markets and adopted by lawyers: outliners to prepare for depositions, “personal information managers” to manage contacts and calendars, and databases to index discovery documents. With databases, legal assistants easily sorted documents by date and searched by name, simplifying significantly the process of pulling and copying relevant documents.

Firms that bought PCs early confronted some tough issues. PCs and printers were expensive, so allocating the hardware could be contentious. One solution was Tom Sawyer-esque: Make lawyers explain how they would use a PC, and only those with the best answers got one. Another issue was support: Even though most early lawyer-users were “techie” by today’s standards, they needed support and training. Firms created help desks, staffing them with those who showed interest in and a facility for PCs.

Alternatives to the PC

PCs were not the only game in town-“minicomputers” were viable alternatives. For example, Davis Polk & Wardwell began its computing history in 1978 with Digital Equipment Corporation minicomputers running the UNIX operating system. The firm continued to rely solely on UNIX minicomputers from Pyramid and Sun until 1993, when it introduced desktop PCs networked to a Sun UNIX and Windows servers. Apple Computer, Inc.’s Macintosh computer was another option, and a couple of large firms-Chadbourne & Parke for example-were initially “Mac shops.” The Mac pioneered a “graphical user interface,” which avoided the need to learn commands. For better or worse, large firms eventually shifted to PCs.

Connecting PCs

PCs did not originally connect to one another, which presented two big problems. First, it was hard to share files among PCs. Thus was born “sneaker net,” the shuttling of floppy disks from office to office by people. Second, printers-quite expensive then-connected to only one PC and were underutilized. Local area networks (LAN), which started spreading rapidly around 1985, solved these problems. They connected multiple PCs to a file server (a powerful PC), which allowed saving files to a network drive, thus making sharing easy. LANs also made it easy for many PCs to share a single printer.

Another benefit of LANs was e-mail. Many lawyers associate e-mail with the Internet, but numerous companies and some law firms used e-mail internally by 1990. In fact, it was possible (though arduous) to send e-mail outside of the office, across organizations.

The Windows Revolution

In 1992 Microsoft Corporation released version 3.1 of Windows that sold widely and eventually supplanted DOS. The legal market lagged in migrating to Windows, partly because of the expense of upgrading. Windows applications stormed many markets, while legal vendors focused on DOS upgrades.

Windows made it easier for most people to use the PC: The graphical interface (similar to the Mac) eliminated the DOS command line; WYSIWIG, short for “what you see is what you get” showed documents on-screen as they would look printed; and “task switching” allowed running multiple applications simultaneously (in contrast to one at a time in DOS).

Users had it easier, but tech staff had it harder. Setting up networks, configuring individual PCs, upgrading software, adding specialized servers, and providing remote dial-up access combined to create sophisticated systems that were hard to maintain. Law firms started hiring more staff to support growing PC use: network engineers, desktop specialists, and trainers, among others.

Computer Usage Expands

Word processing was the proverbial “killer app” for lawyers; it’s why many lawyers agreed to use PCs. With the growing use of word processing came a proliferation of computer files and multiple versions of the same document. Document management software solved the problem by creating a central database of all documents that kept track of versions. It also required entering a client and matter number and title, which lawyers initially resisted doing.

In the early days of Windows, multiple vendors supplied applications and each had its own “look and feel.” To make learning and using multiple applications easier, vendors offered “office suites” (a market that came to be dominated by Microsoft). Though many firms installed suites, lawyers were slow compared with other professionals to go beyond word processing.

The growing number of users and movement toward a more standard look and feel created a large market for applications developers. By 1995 a range of Windows legal applications were available, including case management, time and billing, docketing, and a range of specialized tools for various practices such as real estate and IP.

At the same time, decreasing prices along with increasing processing power led to new advances in litigation support. Vendors began scanning documents, converting them to images, translating images to computer readable text, and providing systems in which lawyers could search the text and view the “hits” as images on-screen.

Surfing into a Revolution

In 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95, and it seemed technology was entering a period of relative tranquillity. Few suspected that a revolution was coming from a completely different quarter.

A 1994 front-page article in The New York Times described software called Mosaic, a “browser” that allowed searching of the “World Wide Web.” That development eclipsed Windows 95 because it led to the Netscape browser, which in turn pressured Microsoft to develop Internet Explorer, and eventually led to an emphasis on Web interfaces.

Few new technologies have been adopted so rapidly or had such a great impact as the Internet and browser. “Web surfing” rapidly moved from exotic to commonplace; companies rushed to connect to the Internet and install browsers. Once connected, the leap to Internet e-mail was easy and fast.

Law firms, however, initially resisted the Internet. But a combin
ation of client demands to deal with e-mail and rapidly growing awareness of the Web caused most law firms to connect.

Law firm marketing was in its infancy at the time. As corporations rushed to create Web sites promoting their company and wares, law firms pondered. And pondered: Would clients visit a law firm Web site? Would potential recruits? It’s hard to remember the hesitation now, but firms learned soon enough that a Web site was as necessary as a sign on the door.

“Web time” moved fast, and many companies-especially start-ups-went through generations of Web site design and functionality over a few years. E-commerce quickly became the goal, and “B2B” and “B2C” (business to business and business to consumer) Web transactions became the rage. Some forward-thinking firms, mainly overseas, explored offering interactive Web services. Many of these pioneering firms still offer them, but they did not live up to initial expectations.

Return to Sanity

With the dot-com bust of 2001, tech spending plummeted; the new mantra was doing more with less. Perhaps because most law firms were neither caught in the craze nor killed by the crash, they continued investing in technology. By early in the new century, it seemed that for the first time, many firms had infrastructure comparable to their corporate clients. Firms had learned that upgrades and tech support were a way of life, not onetime decisions.

To be sure, technology still raised challenges such as remote access, integration of disparate systems, and storing digital files. But unlike earlier struggles over fundamental questions about what direction to go, these were largely about practical considerations. In short, technology became woven into the fabric of law firms, just as had phones, faxes, copiers, and overnight delivery.

The bust did not spell an end to product development; new ones continue to come to market and law firms continue to adopt them. Perhaps foremost is the now ubiquitous BlackBerry and similar devices. E-mail, considered exotic just ten years ago, is now essential, and the BlackBerry allows lawyers and staff to send and receive messages from almost anywhere.

The spread of wireless handheld devices may reverse recent moves to equip many lawyers with notebook computers. As notebook prices dropped, many large firms began giving them to any lawyer requesting one. Now, however, lawyers on the road increasingly rely on much lighter-weight handhelds, so some firms now favor less expensive and easier-to-maintain desktop computers over notebooks.

On the software side, office suites have not changed much lately. But new product categories have emerged. For example, portals aggregate information from multiple sources into a single browser-based interface. And extranets allow sharing documents, calendars, contacts, and other information with clients and cocounsel. These products are still evolving; the current trend is to create “matter centric” views and provide access to most functions from Microsoft Outlook.

Specialized software keeps emerging. Unlike many litigation programs that organize documents, CaseMap organizes facts and arguments. West km applies the West indexing system to knowledge management efforts. Deal Proof helps lawyers review complex deal documents.

Not all the news is positive however: hackers, viruses, worms, spam, and spyware are front-page news and big problems. IT departments spend considerable resources combating these and remain ever vigilant to various threats.

Some threats are a direct result of the success of computers. With storage costs approaching zero and with most communication and documents originating from PCs, many businesses tend to save everything (even if only inadvertently). This has led to a host of e-discovery issues; litigators frequently must collect and review huge volumes of data. The litigation support industry has responded and vendors offer a wide array of services to deal with the digital miasma.

The Web revolution was likely a once-in-a-lifetime event, but change is nonetheless continuous. Extrapolating from current trends, it is clear that firms will continue to work on improving the ability to work anytime and anyplace and collaborate within the firm and with third parties. With the lawyer’s computer desktop under control and the growing size of large firms, there is new interest in applying technology to automate back office functions such as opening new matters, clearing conflicts, and paying expenses.

Twenty-five years ago, it’s hard to imagine anyone accurately predicting what the office of today would look like. If there is one key lesson learned from the last quarter century, it is that adaptation is more important than prediction.