“Firms are making roof repairs rather than remodeling the kitchen.” So concludes the 9th AmLaw Tech survey of large law firm technology, published in the September 2004 issue of American Lawyer magazine. 

This survey is one of the best and most reliable for large law firm technology spending and trends. A few findings stand out:

  • Slightly more than one-half of firms report increases in both capital and operating budgets, up almost 10 percentage points from last year. And more than 60% of firms have more IT employees this year than last.
  • The focus on new spending is primarily on infrastructure upgrades, including remote access, telecommunications (specifically moving to VOIP, that is, internet telephony), and major software upgrades (e.g., to new versions of document management systems).
  • A significant percentage jump year-over-year in number of firms using electronic evidence discovery vendors confirms the EED is rapidly growing.

The survey also finds that knowledge management is in choppy waters. KM “was a postmillennial buzzword that developed a nasty reputation.” Interestingly, this year’s survey has only one KM questions (what software does the firm use other than document management) whereas last year’s survey had five questions. The KM focus now is primarily on search (for example, West KM, or Lexis Nexis Total Search).

This KM finding is consistent with my sense of the market. Quite a few firms remain committed to KM; many are testing the waters, albeit in limited ways; and, some are steering clear. Based on the frequency of KM topics at conferences and number of attendees at these sessions, however, I do not think KM is in any fundamental danger. But we may be in a period of consolidation and more realistic expectations.

I would have liked to see a bit more about portals in the survey. While a couple of questions do address portals, it’s hard to draw any conclusions. The advent of multiple options – the leading document management vendors have released new versions of their portal add-ons, specialized products and upgrades continue to come from companies such as Plumtree or LawPort, and Microsoft’s SharePoint (which seems to be gaining mindshare rapidly) – have led many firms to consider (or re-consider) the role of portals.

The portal question is hard: the technology options are numerous and the planning issues tough. It will be interesting to see what directions law firms go in 2005 with portals. I suspect that the next survey will have some interesting findings about portals.