Every year, I write a year-end wrap-up of the most significant developments in legal technology.
At the end of the past decade, I decided to look back on the most significant developments of the 2010s as a whole. It may well have been the most tumultuous decade ever in changing how legal services are delivered.
Here, I revisit those changes — and add a few post-2020 updates.
1. The Surge of the Startup
Undeniably, the 2010s were the decade of the startup, a decade that brought multiple stories of ambitious law students and innovative lawyers launching companies that quickly became major players.
Sure, there were plenty of failures too. Not everyone can or will succeed. But somewhere out there right now is the next Clio, the next Fastcase, maybe even the next Westlaw.
So my No. 1 pick for the top-10 stories of the decade in legal tech is the startup — and the influence startups have had, and will continue to have, in shaping and reshaping the legal industry.
2. The New Era of Artificial Intelligence
In 2010, AI wasn’t really much of a “thing” in legal. By the end of the decade, it was much more pervasive, but still not a dominant technology. Now, in 2023, thanks in large part to GPT, it seems to be everything everywhere all at once.
We have yet to see the full potential of generative AI in legal, but with GPT-4 having passed the bar exam and big firm partners extolling the virtues of GPT-powered “legal assistants,” it is clear that we are on the cusp of a new generation of technology that will disrupt the practice of law for many decades to come.
3. Skies Clear for the Cloud
For anyone new to law practice, it may be difficult to fathom the degree to which lawyers feared the cloud before 2010.
We still see evidence and remnants of that, as many firms continue to resist moving core functions to the cloud. But where a decade ago the cloud seemed ominous, it now is widely accepted as inevitable.
Some among you might argue that we’d reached that point much earlier, others might contend we’re not yet there. But what nobody can deny is that we have come 180 degrees in our use of the cloud.
Something else that nobody can deny is our trajectory forward. As we cross over into a new decade, there is no question where the future lies. It is in the cloud.
4. The Untethering of Law Practice
The first iPhone came to market in June 2007, the first Android tablet in 2009, and the first iPad in 2010.
These smart devices, combined with the growth of the cloud, ushered in a new era in mobility.
Over the course of the decade, lawyers went from being effectively tethered to their desks to being able to work from anywhere.
The untethering of law practice has been a sea change so dramatic and so far reaching that we hardly even notice it anymore. But it has changed law practice forever.
5. The Proliferation of Practice Management
Practice management is not the sexiest of topics, given an industry abuzz with talk of artificial intelligence, analytics and blockchain.
But it is an area of legal technology that has had a profound impact on the legal industry over the last decade.
It has been instrumental in moving us from a profession that barely used technology to one that now sees it as essential and routine.
6. Upheaval in Legal Ethics
We were just shy of the start of this decade when, in 2009, then ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm appointed a special Commission on Ethics 20/20 to consider whether advances in legal technology and the globalization of legal practice called for changes in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
No one could have known then what a tumultuous decade it would be for legal ethics, or that the decade would close with major challenges underway to long-accepted standards of legal practice and professional regulation.
Indeed, the Commission on Ethics 20/20 did call for changes.
To my mind, the most significant — one I described at the time as a sea change in the legal profession — came in 2012, when the ABA formally approved a change to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that lawyers have a duty to be competent not only in the law and its practice, but also in technology.
7. The Ascension of the Client
Since 2010, the tables have turned, with clients wielding more power than ever before in the delivery of legal services. It has brought about a change that futurist Jordan Furlong captures succinctly in the title of his 2017 book, “Law is a Buyer’s Market.”
“Newly empowered clients have adopted aggressive buying behaviours and begun dictating the terms of their relationships to law firms,” he says. “Law has become a buyer’s market, and it’s never going back.”
Indeed, the rise of the client has been a defining trend of this decade. It is a trend driven by the demand for better access to legal services, better service from legal providers, greater accountability from legal providers, and fairer and more-transparent pricing.
8. The Global Networking of the Legal Industry
Think about how the legal profession’s use of social media evolved over the decade.
In 2010, both Facebook and Twitter were still relatively nascent companies, and LinkedIn, although eight years old, was just beginning to gain significant momentum. In that year, just 17 percent of firms maintained a presence on any social network, with most of those on LinkedIn. By 2019, that number had risen to 80% of firms.
Social media knows no borders. Through blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, legal professionals are connected to and engaged with their peers in every corner of the globe.
The problems we face as legal and justice professionals are universal, and so are the solutions we build to address them.
9. The Accelerating Influx of Investments
The legal industry has turned a corner on its use and adoption of technology. Law firms are becoming innovators, legal departments are demanding efficiencies and process improvements, a cavernous justice gap cries out for better delivery systems, and regulatory reform efforts foretell a new era of private-sector involvement in the delivery of legal services.
Investors get this. The surge in investment that marked the end of this decade is not just a trend – it is a condition of the market from which there is no turning back.
10. The Emergence of Data-Driven Legal Practice
For generations, the watchwords of the legal profession were intuition and experience. Whether as a lawyer advising clients or a judge deciding peoples’ fates, our wisdom was our most-valued asset, and the primary driver of our decision-making was gut instinct. Not only did we not use data, but it was not available to us even if we wanted to.
The problem with that is that we have no real understanding of what works and what does not. As James Greiner, director of the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, told me in 2017, “In no field is resistance to evidence-based thinking more ferocious than in United States legal practice.”
However, in the last few years, lawyers have started to appreciate the value of data and the insights it can provide.
The most dramatic example of this has been litigation analytics – tools that take data derived from court dockets and documents and apply analytics to make predictions about likely outcomes or patterns.
At last, it seems, the legal profession has discovered the value of data as a tool to drive more-informed and more-strategic decisions across all aspects of practice.
Here are five other developments over the decade that will shape the legal profession for years to come:
Cybersecurity insecurity. Ah, for the naïve days of 1999, when the ABA issued an ethics opinion saying in so many words, “Don’t worry about encryption, your data is secure.” Fast forward to 2017, when the ABA felt compelled to update that opinion. This time, said the ABA, the cybersecurity question lawyers need to ask is not if, but when.
The buzz around blockchain. One of the most talked-about technologies of the last half of the decade was one that did not exist in the first half. But for all the buzz around blockchain, we are still waiting for the killer app.
The growth of the ALSP. The 2010s brought the rise and proliferation of alternative legal service providers such as Elevate and UnitedLex. They have become so dominant and mainstream a force that it is no longer accurate to call them “alternative.”
The rise of legal ops. The legal operations professional has become one of the most influential positions in legal departments and law firms. Reflecting this has been the founding of the Corporate Legal Officers Consortium (CLOC) and the creation of a legal operations section within the Association of Corporate Counsel.
Women move to the forefront. Women have played leading roles in the development of legal technology for as long as there has been legal technology. But as I wrote in a 2017 column, the latter part of the 2010s seemed to be a turning point for women in legal tech, with women at the forefront of the industry to an unprecedented degree, leading companies and holding other positions of influence.
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Bob Ambrogi is a lawyer and journalist who has been writing and speaking about legal technology and innovation for more than two decades. He writes the award-winning blog LawSites, is a columnist for Above the Law, hosts the podcast about legal innovation, LawNext, and hosts the weekly legal tech journalists’ roundtable, Legaltech Week. He is also cofounder of the LawNext Legal Technology Directory.