Getting Dangerous with Tech: Core Legal Tech
By Joe Regalia
The practice of law is undergoing a tectonic shift. Being a lawyer these days is as much about being a businessperson, project manager, salesperson—and yes tech expert—as it is about writing motions and negotiating contracts. This shift isn't leaving anyone untouched. We all see it, and we are all figuring out what it means for us.
But change is hard, especially for lawyers. And especially when it comes to technology.
In working with folks trying to adapt, we've found that one pain point is simply the mystery of tech. This cloud of confusion and abstractness that makes picking up new tools overwhelming. For many of us, technology feels both scary and annoying. It's a million programs and a million opportunities for things to go wrong. Functions to learn; malfunctions to deal with.
And that's sad. Because technology holds the potential to empower every lawyer. It can take the monotonous and aggravating parts of legal practice right off your plate. It can open up new opportunities for your clients and colleagues. It can change (for the better) how you feel about your day-to-day job.
We at Write.law have been working for years to show lawyers and law students how technology can be a friend instead of an enemy. Much frustration stems from approaching technology the wrong way, pushing buttons and getting angry when things don't work like you think they should. But once you learn a basic framework for how technology works and how you should be incorporating tools into your workflow, it all gets easier.
To build that framework, consider a couple of steps. First, understand the universe of tech tools for lawyers. No need to master everything, just get a basic sense of what's out there—a taxonomy. That will take the mystery out of tech. It will also ensure that when clients or colleagues are talking about tech or using new tools, you can at least follow along and ask the right questions. You'll also have a better sense of how tech might help you when you run into challenges.
Second, learn the right approach to using tech. Most tools work in similar ways. It's about learning the key functions, investing the time to set them up for your workflow, and using your resources smartly when things go wrong.
In this post, let's focus on that first step: Exploring the tech universe for lawyers.
First, we have technology specifically created for those in the legal field—legal tech. This includes tools like legal-practice management software, e-discovery platforms, legal analytics, contract analysis tools, legal communications, and other tools created specifically for lawyers and other legal professionals.
But just as important are non-legal technologies. These include tools that nearly all legal folks use—like Microsoft Word, Excel, or conference call software—to more advanced tools, like sophisticated AI-enabled calendars, editing programs, and much more.
For now, let's break down some of the core legal technology tools you should at least be able to recognize. Many will probably be familiar if you've been practicing a while. In future posts we will break down non-legal tech you should also get dangerous with, including everything from basic mobile scanners to sophisticated AI-calendaring tools. And later on we will cover some core strategies to help you master any new tech tool—the right way.
So let's dive in. Here are some core legal tech categories that you should be familiar with:
Legal research. Yes, know how to use basics like Westlaw. But be familiar with new legal research platforms like Casetext and Ross that approach research in new ways. They don't handle legal research like other platforms, and you will find new tools that you might like better. Each of these platforms has also been shown to turn up different results using the same terms.
Cybersecurity. Legions of tech tools help lawyers keep data secure these days—whether it be file encryption programs, file security programs, or password vaults. Get familiar with the options you have for securing your files, communications, and even your video conferences.
E-discovery. Even if you aren't a litigator, e-discovery tools can extract and sift vast amounts of data. Some e-discovery platforms give you visual insights and analytical data that can help you spot trends, find critical information, and view data in different ways. And if you are a litigator, e-discovery platforms can sort your documents, produce privilege logs, organize exhibit lists, and so much more.
Document management. Many legal orgs use document management platforms: Programs created to help manage document versioning, storage, and security. These platforms are hugely beneficial for every lawyer, and even if you don't use one, you can build your own with simple tools like Airtable or even an Excel spreadsheet hooked up to a database.
PDF and e-signature. PDFs are a core lawyering tool. Nearly everything gets PDFed in our line of work, whether it be a financial document, a filing, or any other document shared externally. The market is flooded with PDF editors, with powerhouses like Adobe (the company that created PDFs) and Nuance leading the pack. Make sure you pick a tool that has the features you need and invest time to master at least the basics.
Legal analytics. Legal tech companies specializing in analytics have sprung up across the sector in recent years. These tools help you extract useful information from data. For example, predictive judicial analytics can give you insight into how particular judges tend to rule on certain types of motions or matters. Attorney analytics can do the same thing, but for attorneys. And many legal orgs are now investing in their own legal analytics: Extracting all sorts of useful insights about data they have on their systems.
Practice management platforms. Practice management platforms are becoming standard in many firms and legal orgs. They manage all the data and information related to a case, matter, client, or even your practice as a whole. They give you quick access to high-level information, like how much time you've billed on particular cases or budgets for similar matters.
E-filing and dockets. No matter your practice area, you should understand the basics of how e-filing and court dockets work. You never know when you may need to file something or, at least, look up a case for a client.
Knowledge management. Knowledge management is one of the most powerful but underused tech tools. It helps organize prior work product, research, contacts, and other information, making it all easy to find when you need it later. Invest in this tool now, and you will thank yourself again and again.
Compliance tech. A slew of tech companies create tools for helping companies and lawyers manage risk and spot compliance problems. These tools can help spot risks in contracts, regulations, and much more.
Contract analysis and drafting. This is one of the hottest areas of legal tech. New contract tools can analyze contracts for weaknesses, draft template contracts, and even pull from databases of vetted contract terms. The potential time savings for in-house and transactional attorneys is enormous.
Docketing and calendaring. Tools like Docket Alarm can manage all your case deadlines and even calculate due dates based on a court's rules.
Legal time-tracking. Tracking time is critical, even for folks who don't charge by the hour. That's because every lawyer's commodity is time. The more productive and efficient you are, the more things you can do. But tracking time is also a hassle. Tools can help you automatically track your time by watching what you do on your devices. They can even help automate the time-description process.
Trial presentation software. For litigators, trial presentation software can make an impression on judges, juries, and even clients. These platforms organize and present evidence like documents, images, and videos, with fancy finishes like zoom capabilities.
Legal document automation. Document automation can save you hours on any work product you create. And exciting new platforms are pushing the limits when it comes to automation. Compose, for example, can draft simple motions for you in a handful of clicks.
Artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence gets constant hype and has for years, but folks disagree about what it means. The most helpful definition is probably something like tech that is so sophisticated it manages to mimic some higher-order things humans would usually be needed to understand or process. But understand that companies use this term all the time and it's often not very helpful when deciding whether the product can help you.
Machine learning. Machine learning enables computers to make data-driven decisions rather than being explicitly programmed to perform specific tasks. It's often considered a subset of AI, but again, it's probably best to focus more on what machine learning tools can do for your workflow, and less on the buzzwords themselves.
Blockchain. Blockchain is another area that has gotten endless hype in the legal world, some warranted, some not. Blockchain is simply a process for verifying transactions that can be carried out without an authoritative intermediary. Because the nature of blockchain makes it hard to forge or modify a transaction in the chain, it’s useful for things like smart contracts.
These are just some of the exciting new legal technologies that are changing the way we practice. Start investing in the ones you need now! They'll pay dividends over your entire legal career.