“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive…”The History of Legaltech
What is Legaltech?
When Steve Ballmer made the above statement about the nature of technology, he most likely didn’t accurately fathom how phenomenal legaltech or any tech at all, would later become. Today, it’s crystal clear to the blind, and beat-by-dre audible to the deaf that technology is really being creatively and productively deployed to ease the performance of tasks and by extension, an improvement in the quality of life. Through the pages of history, tech advancements are being tailored to lead the charge in disrupting formerly-traditional and cult-like fields and professions, like the legal profession – through legaltech.
You may erroneously think or believe that the advent of legaltech began only yesterday. If you really do, you are fundamentally mistaken, for legaltech has been around since the early evolution of tech itself. So, join the voyage as we look at the age-long history of LegalTech within the confines of this space.
But first, let’s get the basics out of the way: What really is meant by the term “LegalTech”?
An inclusive definition of this term is two-fold:
One which refers to the technologies – soft or hard –that help attorneys attend to clients’ legal needs in a fast, efficient manner; and
the other which consist wholly of tech solutions and innovations that aid or help consumers to effectively address legal needs by themselves without requiring the direct services of a lawyer.
The nature of the term LegalTech is such that makes it cover innovations exclusive and distinct only to the legal profession but still yet encompassing some other tech solutions tailored for all professions alike. So, the popular word-processing package, MS-Word comes to mind here as it forms a part of the first category due to its continual usage in the legal profession, alongside other attorney-friendly packages like Diligen, Zoom.ai, MyCase, AbacusLaw and many more technologies that help lawyers with efficient practice management, electronic discovery, client billing, due diligence and many more. You’d find LegalZoom, Wevorce, UpCounsel, Rocket Lawyers and many more others on the flipside, focused on expanding the frontier of justice and legal services to disadvantaged societal classes who can’t perhaps afford pricey attorney fees, but still nonetheless have pressing legal needs.
Need To Examine LegalTech History
As Marcus Garvey succinctly put it, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin… is like a tree without roots”. What’s a tree without it? A lifeless creature!
For Legal AI – as it’s fondly referred to by some – not to slowly wither or for mistakes to be repeated, it’s important to take a look at the general history of LegalTech.
Fundamentally, the life of the law – whether at the bar or the bench – has always and continues to be, the dependence on and usage of Law Reports in the stringing together of arguments as well as adjudication of disputes. The year 1974 can thus perhaps be marked as the beginning of specialized tech intrusion into the legal profession with the introduction of the ground-breaking LexisNexis little red UBIQ terminal, which allowed attorneys to source for case laws online rather than pore over musty paperbacks.
But there had existed some other form of general tech usage in the profession like the Xerox commercialized fax machine available since 1964, and Arpanet which offered store-and-forward messaging services on networked computers –metamorphosing into modern-day email.
With the seed of electronic law reports safely planted in the legal stratosphere, general workplace tech revolution spun towards document creation with the introduction of a low-cost dedicated word processing mini-computer by Wang Laboratories –around 1973.
Since then till 1979, plenty of law firms acquired for itself either a Wang Computer or similar alternatives on the market like fax machines as the legal practitioners’ focus leapt from pure document searching to document creation.
The import of these First Gen tech solutions on the history of legaltech was that they accelerated the pace of legal practice considerably. Turnaround for legal documents became faster as hand-written cutting and pasting vanished or reduced considerably, and electronic discovery became fast-tracked with the swift delivery of documents through faxing and new, efficient courier services.
The Advent Of Early PCs
Before the release of Personal Mini-Computers, what law firms hitherto had were central word processing departments or pools consisting of employees who processed documents for all attorneys of the firm. The purchase cost and skill of use were perhaps responsible for the limited number of such processors in law firms. But the release of the World’s first Personal Computer by IBM in 1981 expanded the reach of tech adoption in the profession. Adventurous lawyers were pushed to begin learning how to use PCs, particularly word processing so they could type their documents themselves. And yes, it was an adventure because such attorneys had to at least learn a little of the original disk operating system –DOS, famous for its cryptic “C:>” prompts.
Around 1984 to be precise, Apple’s Macintosh became another credible alternative to IBM with its head start in “graphical user interface,” which totally eliminated the need to learn computer codes and commands. Still, large firms chose to stick with PCs for corporate operations.
By the late 80’s, the rat race had already begun! Several PC applications targeted for use in the legal profession had sprang up to offer varying services. The likes of Summation and Concordance and some others started to gain prominence as litigation support software and many others.
As with all new things –tech especially, everyone wanted to have a piece of the pie: Yes, having a brand-new PC in your office had a nice ring to it as you gist with fellow attorneys. Firms therefore had a hard time allocating PCs due to their scarce supply. The way out was as Tom Sawyer Esq put it: Make lawyers explain how they would use a PC, and only those with the best answers got one.
As with everything techy, the essence of interconnectivity cannot downplayed. The main issue early PC users faced was the inability to connect computers together for sharing of files and information. Instead, floppy disks were a common trend among users for the transfer of files from firm to firm. Moreso, full utilization of printers presented yet another uphill task because of their incapability to network with more than one PC, despite their pricey market value, leaving them utterly under-utilized. Succour came by 1985 when Local Area Networks (LANs) started spreading like wildfire, enabling the saving of files to a central network drive.
By that, printer-sharing by several computers became a reality too.
LANs also facilitated the shuffling of e-mails between and among attorneys of the same firm – and at times, those of other firms – allowing for easy share of documents and information. It didn’t therefore come as much of a surprise when the First World Wide Web (www) servers were turned on in 1989.
The Microsoft Story
The role of Microsoft as a general tech company cannot be overemphasized in the history of legaltech. So, by the year 1992, Microsoft had premiered version 3.1 of its Windows Operating System which sold widely and globally due to its use of friendly graphical interface, eliminating the cumbersome DOS command line. However, the legal market didn’t so easily give-in to Windows migrations, because of the expense. While Windows applications stormed many markets, legal vendors continued to focus on DOS upgrades since that was all the market desired. But in the long-run, the market caved. Asides from its graphical interface feature which made it easier for most people to use the PC, it provided for “task switching” allowing users to run multiple applications simultaneously (in contrast to one at a time in DOS).
Due to the increasing number of Windows users in the Legal Profession, a wide range of Windows legal applications were readily available by 1995, with the likes of docketing, timing and billing, case management as well as other specialized legaltech tools for various law practices – IP, Real Estate, Criminal Law.
A considerable increase in the percentage of legaltech consumers led to decreasing prices, with an upward movement in the processing capabilities. Newer advances in litigation support through vendors continued to come up including; ways on how to scan documents, convert docs to images, as well as ‘search-and-find’ systems for lawyers.
The World Wide Web
The year 1994 would go down as one of the most memorable for the legal profession and all other professions alike. A PC software called ‘Mosaic’ (later known as Netscape Browser) with capability to increase the ease of surf of the World Wide Web and accessing resources, was announced to the surprise of the whole world which had just recovered from the release of Windows version 95. With this announcement came corporations’ rush to establish online presence. As usual, most law firms resisted the urge, but an accentuation of demands by clients pushed most law firms to move their visibility online, and partly aid internet-enabled communications. Up till today, law firms still remain hesitant about questions like: Do clients visit a law firm website? Would potential recruits? But they’ve nonetheless since gotten on board, with some law firms’ spending more on their websites than some other bigger corporations.
Coincidentally by 1996, the use of e-mail through the WWW had become more widespread as attachments to email began to support non-text files, leading to an explosion of data.
The year 2000 opened a new chapter with the introduction of the first virtual law office and some other cloud-based software including Clio, CosmoLex, MyCase, Rocket Matter and many more.
Following the dot-com bubble of 2000, tech spenders have gotten wiser. The watchword has since been: Getting more value at lesser prices – as against the hitherto, Getting more value at whatever prices. Partly because law firms were not caught in the unfortunate web of the dot-com bubble, investment in tech by law firms has continued to grow considerably, while those of other markets has normalized. Matter of fact, the coming on board of plenty of younger generation-attorneys who are more familiar in and comfortable with new technology into the profession, has helped fast track the development, use and investment in legaltech nowadays.
If there’s anything at all that modern law firms must’ve learnt, it is that timely conformity with tech evolution is as important as living modern life itself: You either adjust or get stubbed out.
PCs running on Windows OS continue to become more and more relevant in today’s law firms, gaining more traction than alternatives like Mac PCs. This can of course be attributed to the wide gap in the cost of acquiring either of them. Nowadays, there’s hardly any attorney’s office you’d visit that you wouldn’t be greeted with sleek, fast PCs running MS-Windows. Matter of fact, the advent of affordable notebooks and other handheld devices with word processing capabilities, have further simplified the adoption of legaltech by law firms and legal practitioners. You probably wouldn’t need to go about with your mini-laptops to draft an urgent letter for a client since same could be done by just whipping out your mobile smartphones from your pockets.
On the software angle, legaltech solutions can be said to have improved considerably too. More and more powerful, efficient PC apps and softwares are being ‘written’ to address varying needs like e-discovery, online law reports, document organization and indexing, due diligence and many more others.
The modern lawyer’s PC’s functionality now goes beyond document creation and viewing alone, but a mobile workstation where legal research can be carried out, arguments can be marshalled, connection and communication can be established with the outside world, automation of back office functions including client billing, conflict clearance, schedule management and many more other exotic tasks.
Conclusively, one pivotal thing remains constant throughout the history of legaltech: the inalienable desire of attorneys and their firms to discover, manage and manipulate documents in their favour in fast, efficient and cheap manners. As that desire is assuredly handed down to younger generations, legaltech development will continually go from strength-to-strength.
Additionally, modern law firm competition for more clients and billables will also continue to induce legaltech adoption as firms strive to outpace themselves, cutting down on wages but yet stepping up efficiency at the workplace.
For Nigeria and the most of Africa that are just beginning to see sense in the use of legaltech –as with all other tech adoptions, the future is indeed bright.