Whoa, what the f*&% just happened?
2020 was a year few of us will ever forget. It brought untold hardships for many and unfamiliar challenges for all of us.
In the world of legal technology and innovation, the phrase I heard often repeated this year was “silver lining.” It was a silver lining in the form of an accelerant. As never before, we were forced to rethink how legal services are delivered and how justice is administered.
The silver lining of 2020 is that we have been forced to consider changes that were long overdue and then given the opportunity to implement those changes.
We will all be beneficiaries of these changes – but those who will benefit the most are those the legal system is meant to serve.
Here are my candidates — in no particular order — for last year’s top 20 developments in legal technology and innovation.
1. Technology Became a Lifeline
Overnight, our businesses were upended. We were shut out of our offices, shut off from our colleagues and clients, and effectively locked down in our homes. Business as usual could continue no more.
Bob Ambrogi is a lawyer, legal journalist, media consultant, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications. At LexBlog, he oversees LexBlog.com, the global legal news and commentary network. This article was adapted from a recent post on his blog, LawSites.
Overnight, technology transformed from a tool to a lifeline, from a nicety to a necessity. Those among us who were already technologically astute took their use of technology to an even higher level. Those who were less advanced had no choice but to accelerate their adoption of technology.
The pandemic has forever changed the legal industry’s relationship with technology, for the better. I have written for years about the ethical duty of technology competence and about how slow – even resistant – many lawyers have been to becoming competent.
Technology competence became a survival skill. No longer can legal professionals stay afloat without the lifeline tech provides. The legal industry is not yet where it should be in use of technology, but 2020 pushed it forward by leaps and bounds.
2. Work-from-home Redefined the Workplace
At first, forced shutdowns of legal offices seemed unthinkable and unworkable. But then some legal professionals found that they kind of liked working from home. And many law firms and legal departments realized they could carry on quite nicely even with their workers dispersed and remote.
Rent is a law firm’s second-biggest expense, after salaries. Estimates say it generally eats up 6-15 percent of gross revenue, depending on firm size and location. Well before the pandemic, many firms were already looking to reduce their physical footprints as a way of cutting expenses, and technology increasingly made that possible.
But now, we are comfortable meeting clients and colleagues via video. We’ve cut out commuting to find more hours in our days. We are home for dinner with our families and to help our kids with homework.
Practicing law is a profession, not a place. With technology, where we practice hardly matters, neither to us nor to our clients. The physical office will not implode anytime soon. But its footprint will dramatically shrink, I believe, and its purpose will evolve from a place of full-time work to one of part-time convenience.
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3. Courts Answered the Wake-up Call
The forced shutdown of courts was a shock to the justice system but also a wake-up call. For courts, the wake-up call to modernize has been ringing off the hook for years. This year, they had no choice but to pick up the phone.
The “poster judge” of 2020 may have been Scott U. Schlegel, who, as chair of the Specialty Treatment Courts in Jefferson Parish, La., manages what may be one of the most advanced courts in the country for delivering justice online. Remarkably, he does it almost entirely with off-the-shelf software he cobbled together himself.
While Judge Schlegel had started putting his courts online even before the pandemic, other courts had to scramble to catch up. Notably, they did an admirable job of it, given how quickly they had to act and how unfamiliar was this new territory of dispensing justice online. In fact, through the That’s a Fine Idea: Legal Innovation Wisconsin initiative, the State Bar of Wisconsin honored the state’s court system, which implemented videoconferencing software and livestreamed court hearings to keep the state’s legal system moving despite limitations and restrictions once the pandemic began.
Seeing the effects of COVID-19 in China and Europe, in mid-March 2020, Judge Randy Koschnick, director of Wisconsin state courts, and his court operations and automation teams leapt into action. They bought 400 Zoom licenses and began integrating Zoom with the videoconferencing already in place and training each of the state’s 249 circuit judges, as well as clerks, to use it.
Of course, courts still have a long way to go.
Most importantly, the changes courts have been forced to initiate last year will endure beyond the pandemic and change how courts operate forever, and for the better. In Wisconsin, Judge Koschnick has pulled together a committee of several judges, clerks, and private- and public-sector attorneys to determine how the state can and should continue to use Zoom going forward.
The pandemic does not mean the end of courthouses. But it does mean there is no going back to the old ways, and it does mean the beginning of a new era of modernization for the courts that will better serve all who traditionally entered those courthouse doors – and some who never did.
4. Legal Conferences Learned the Stages of Grief
In her seminal 1969 book, On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Her outline well describes what happened in 2020 with producers of major legal conferences. At first, many of them seemed to be in denial, holding off from publicly cancelling their physical events. When cancellations become inevitable, no doubt there was anger and most certainly there was bargaining, as they sought dispensation from major hotel and conference venues.
The depression arrived as they came to realize they could never replicate online the experience of a physical conference – neither for the attendees nor for the exhibitors whose booths and sponsorships help pay the bills. But sooner or later, they accepted what they could not change and went on to produce virtual versions – many of them superb – of their physical events.
Here again, it is likely that 2020 will forever change conferences and how we present and attend them. Even after the pandemic subsides, many organizers expect to always include some virtual component in their conferences. We’ve learned that virtual connections and presentations can, in fact, enhance, if not replace, the traditional physical conference.
5. Regulatory Reform Got Real
In a perfect-storm-style confluence of events, 2020 brought major advances in regulatory reform – advances that came about independent of the pandemic but that could not have been better timed, as the pandemic exposed the fundamental weaknesses in the delivery of legal services and the administration of justice and the dire need for reform.
In a historic vote in August, the Utah Supreme Court approved sweeping changes in legal services regulation in that state. It created a two-year pilot of a regulatory sandbox — a regulatory body under the oversight of the supreme court, to be called the Office of Legal Services Innovation, whose charge is to license and oversee new forms of legal providers and services.
The changes, the Utah court said, would enable individuals and entities to explore creative ways to safely allow lawyers and nonlawyers to practice law and to reduce constraints on how lawyers market and promote their services.
Two weeks later, the Arizona Supreme Court went even farther, becoming the first state in the nation to completely eliminate the ban on nonlawyers having economic interests in law firms and the prohibition on lawyers sharing legal fees with nonlawyers. Those changes took effect Jan. 1, 2021.
“The Court’s goal is to improve access to justice and to encourage innovation in the delivery of legal services,” Chief Justice Robert Brutinel said. “ … These new rules will promote business innovation in providing legal services at affordable prices.”
Understanding, as we now do, how deeply the justice system demands modernization, regulatory reform will help enable us to achieve that.
6. On-premises Software Withered on Premises
In the great migration to working from home, a few things got left behind and forgotten in the office. Chief among them was on-premises software.
The legal profession’s move to the cloud has been plodding. In my 2018 year-end review, I opined that we had finally reached the point of the legal profession’s general acceptance of the cloud as something to embrace, not fear. That was the year that marked the 10th anniversaries of the launches of Clio and Rocket Matter, the first two practice management applications to launch in the cloud.
Last year, in my review of the decade in legal tech, I carried that point further, writing that we had come 180 degrees in our use of the cloud, and that what started the decade as still an outlier technology ended the decade as the core of most law practices.
Now, to the extent on-premises software retained any viability, 2020 has snuffed it out. One dramatic example of this came in October, when Intapp, a major provider of business applications for larger law firms and financial services firms, said that it would transition to cloud software exclusively and launch all new customers only on its cloud platform.
If we accept the premise that 2020 has permanently spawned a more-distributed and mobile workforce, then on-premises software no longer has relevance or usefulness. The software that enabled us to survive 2020 was in the cloud, and the software of the future will continue to be in the cloud.
7. Legal Professionals Learned to Pivot
This year showed us that law firms can quickly pivot when need be. And it wasn’t just law firms, it was the entire legal profession.
As an example, the global law firm DLA Piper was able to move more than 3,000 staff to working from home in just 36 hours. And, in March, Brigham Young University Law School decided to close down live classes, send students home, and teach the remainder of the semester online.
Bar associations also pivoted. In April, the American Bar Association, through its Disaster Legal Services Program and Paladin, a justice tech company specializing in pro bono software, responded to the coronavirus crisis by launching the first national Disaster Relief Pro Bono Portal.
The New York State Bar Association took just two weeks to respond to a request from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to help with the expected onslaught of unemployment claims, launching a website to help those who need unemployment assistance, again with help from Paladin and also practice management company Clio.
In fact, it should be noted that Paladin deserves singular kudos for its work in 2020, helping to launch not just the ABA and New York portals described above but also pro bono portals in Wisconsin and in Oklahoma.
These are only a few examples of how the legal industry this year demonstrated its ability to pivot and be agile in the face of crisis and need. Having now proven it can be agile, the legal industry now has no excuse not to continue apace.
8. The Bar Exam Flunked
It befuddles me that anyone truly believes that the bar exam is any measure of one’s competence to practice law. It seems to me that we continue with it only because we cannot agree on an alternative.
But if the bar exam was already a failing system, then this year it completely flunked out. No doubt, there are many reasons why the bar exam failed to make the grade in 2020, but a big one was technology.
As an example, more than one-third of those who sat for the California bar exam in October, which used the ExamSoft testing software, had their proctoring videos flagged for possible cheating – 3,190 out of 8,920 total test-takers, or nearly 36 percent.
“[R]emote proctoring software is surveillance snake oil – you simply can’t replicate a classroom environment online, and attempting to do so via algorithms and video monitoring only causes harm,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation of this news.
And then there was the woman who went into labor during the Illinois bar exam but was unable to leave her seat because of the exam software’s prohibition against breaking eye contact. She was able to finish her essays before going to the hospital, where she gave birth less than five hours later. (BTW, she passed.)
The problem here was not so much faulty technology as it was a faulty system that technology could not fix. Rote regurgitation of memorized rules under the stern eye of a proctor, whether done in person or on camera, should not be the measure of a lawyer.
Jennifer L. Mnookin, dean of UCLA Law School, along with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of U.C. Berkeley Law School, wrote an op-ed in The National Law Journal urging states to provisionally license law school graduates, without a bar exam.
I’m no expert, but that kind of approach – some sort of provisional licensing and mentoring – makes a lot more sense to me. I don’t know what the right answer should be, but I do know that what happened this year wasn’t it.
9. Investments and Acquisitions Continued Apace
One aspect of legal technology that seemed undaunted by the pandemic was investments. In my decade-end post last year, I wrote about the accelerating influx of investments in legal technology.
This year saw that trend continue with any number of major investments in and acquisitions of legal technology companies. As an example, Ironclad, the San Francisco-based digital contracting platform for legal departments, raised at least $100 million in a Series D funding round at a post-investment valuation of more than $950 million. And there are other examples.
But in 2020, the investment story distinctly tracked along two dominant themes. One was the ever-increasing flow of investment capital into legal tech companies that focus on contract management and automation. The other was the surge of interest in practice management technology and, as a subset of that, e-payments technology.
With regard to the spate of practice management investments and acquisitions, I speculate that the pandemic was a key factor behind them. Over the course of roughly a month, during September and October, private equity firms made major investments in practice management companies.
News arrived on Sept. 22 that ASG LegalTech, the company that owns cloud practice management platforms PracticePanther, Bill4Time, and MerusCase, had acquired Headnote, the online payments platform that provides e-payments and accounts-receivable management for law firms.
Then, on Sept. 24, we learned that the practice management company Rocket Matter had been acquired by the private equity firm Lightyear Capital LLC, making it part of a new company, ProfitSolv, that also includes two other recently acquired companies.
The final investment came Oct. 6, when Actionstep, a cloud-based practice management system founded in New Zealand and with a significant presence in the U.S., received an investment from Serent Capital, a San Francisco private equity firm focused on investing in high-growth technology and services businesses.
Also worth noting is that, while not acquisitions, two other practice management platforms debuted this year: Lexicon, which launched June 1, and Xira. These companies shared two important characteristics that became critical during the pandemic: They were all cloud based and they all related to e-payments.
10. Zoom Blasted Off
Since March, Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of Zoom, has reportedly made over $12 billion and now ranks among the 400 richest people in America. I can confidently say I contributed to those billions, in my own small way, as I am sure many of us did. I might even say he deserved it, as Zoom seemed to do everything right while competing companies faltered. (Yes, Skype, I’m talking to you.)
Zoom became conference room, meeting room, classroom, lunchroom, and even happy hour room. It brought us together virtually when we could not be together physically.
But Zoom was not the only video technology used by legal professionals in 2020. Early on in the year, Legaler, a company that specializes in secure online video meetings for lawyers and clients, offered its platform free to solo and small-firm lawyers to help them during the pandemic.
The year also brought several new platforms for conducting depositions remotely, including Prevail Legal, launched in August; Steno, a court reporting agency that also offers its own videoconferencing technology for remote depositions; and vTestify, a cloud-based platform specifically designed for conducting depositions remotely.
Now that we are all comfortable with virtual meetings, we are not likely to dispense with them.
11. We All Became Producers
One of the quirky side effects of our year of living at home, isolated from our colleagues, was that many more of us became producers – producers of podcasts, of video programs, and even of conferences.
One uniquely 2020 subgenre was the daily legal podcast. A few examples follow.
We were barely into our long year of seclusion when Greg Lambert, chief knowledge services officer at Jackson Walker, launched In Seclusion, a daily podcast miniseries about the new default for the legal industry of working from home. Jack Newton, cofounder and CEO of Clio, launched a daily podcast, Daily Matters, eventually producing 101 episodes. Laurence Colletti, producer at the Legal Talk Network, launched Legal Talk Today, a “dailyish” show covering legal issues.
Perhaps the legal tech world’s most ambitious production initiative of the year came in March. In response to what it saw as increased demand for quality content, the document-automation company Litera launched Litera.TV, providing three hours per day of live programming on a range of legal topics and with a variety of hosts.
Even as traditional conference producers all transitioned to virtual events, the relative ease of staging an event online prompted some newcomers to become conference producers.
12. The Legal Hierarchy Flattened
The legal profession in general, and law firms in particular, have traditionally been organized in a hierarchical, pyramidal structure, with lawyers at the top and partners at the pinnacle. But in recent years, there has been increasing pushback against the lawyer-nonlawyer dichotomy, recognizing the latter as demeaning and demoralizing. One law firm has even banished use of the phrase “nonlawyer,” replacing it with “allied professional.”
This year, we were all stripped of the artifices that helped bolster this hierarchy. No longer were lawyers behind fancy desks in ornate corner offices. No longer were support staff in windowless cubicles. We were all in our makeshift home workspaces, with kids crawling over our laps and dogs barking in the background.
This year has brought about a leveling among legal professionals. Working from home has made us all better appreciate the work done by and the contributions of the others in our organizations.
Legal organizations of every size and type are made up of a variety of roles and individuals, and each plays a critical role in the success of the overall operation.
13. Diversity Demanded Action
In 2020, their names, tragically, became iconic: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Floyd’s desperate final pleas, “I can’t breathe,” became a haunting symbol of our nation’s legacy of racial injustice and the slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It cannot be denied that the legal profession, through its lack of diversity, has been complicit in perpetuating racial injustice and inequality. This is true, as well, of the legal technology industry, where a 2018 study found that Blacks make up only 2.3 percent of legal tech founders and Latinx only 3.1 percent.
In 2020, a handful of legal tech companies made themselves part of the solution:
Launched late in 2019, Legal Innovators is an alternative legal services provider that provides top legal talent to law firms and legal departments but that does so in a way that makes diversity and inclusiveness a top priority.
In October, SixFifty, the technology subsidiary of the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, launched a tool designed to help organizations develop and implement diversity and inclusion plans.
In November came the launch of Anü, a company that uses AI to match startups with the lawyer best suited to represent them, and which puts a particular focus on diversity by helping diverse founders get the right legal help and encouraging the hiring of diverse law firms.
Commendable as were these initiatives, my sense is that the legal profession as a whole, and the legal tech industry specifically, made little progress in 2020 toward enhancing diversity and may even have taken a few steps backwards. As a profession and as individuals, I believe, we must make equality our top priority going forward.
The greater the diversity in legal tech, the more we all stand to benefit, whether we are developers of products or purchasers, whether we are those who deliver legal services or those who receive them. And we can all play a role in helping to make greater diversity a reality.
14. Marketplaces Multiplied
Well, ain’t that a coinkydink? Late in 2020, we saw the launch of three marketplace-style websites created to help legal professionals sift through the clutter and cacophony of competing legal tech products.
First came the Legaltech Hub, a website that aims to be the most complete global directory of commercial legal tech worldwide. That was followed by Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s launch of The Observatory, a directory of more than 600 legal technology products, followed soon after by Thomson Reuters’ beta launch of its Thomson Reuters Marketplace, an online store where users can research, demo, and buy products and services.
Also somewhat quietly launched this year, with plans to go bigger in 2021, is Theorem, which is a marketplace as well as a platform and workflow engine for law firms and legal departments.
This spate of marketplace launches comes in a year that already saw the formal launch, in January 2020, of Reynen Court, the so-called app store of law, whose mission is to make it easier for law firms and legal departments to adopt and manage modern cloud-based software applications without having to trust firm or client content to the rapidly growing universe of vertically integrated SaaS providers.
And, while not a marketplace, also related is the launch of LexFusion, which aims to change the paradigm for how law firms and legal departments purchase technology by acting as the go-to-market representative of a collective of pre-vetted legal tech companies.
There is no coincidence in these launches. Rather, they reflect the ever-growing breadth and diversity of the legal tech market and the ever-greater challenge that presents for consumers of legal technology to select the right product. The legal tech market has exploded in recent years, and these marketplaces all aim to help legal professionals make sense of it.
15. Cybersecurity Stumbled
Early in 2020, a new round of ransomware attacks began targeting law firms. In some cases, the attackers, seeking to extort payment from the firms, began posting confidential client data online, gradually increasing the release of data until the firm paid up.
Then in March, Epiq Global, the international e-discovery and managed services company, took its systems offline globally after becoming the target of a ransomware attack. It would be nearly a month before the company was able to fully restore all of its systems.
Throughout 2020, ransomware attacks continued against law firms and legal organizations, but possibly the most notorious was in May, when an attack hit a New York City law firm that represents superstar musicians such as Lady Gaga, Elton John, and Madonna, and the attackers began posting celebrities’ legal documents online.
An organization’s cybersecurity is only as strong as its weakest link, and with individuals throughout the legal industry working from home during 2020, those weakest links became even more vulnerable.
16. Briefs Got Brains
One of the most intriguing legal tech products introduced this year is Compose, from the legal research company Casetext. The first of its kind, it helps automate the creation of the first draft of a litigation brief, significantly cutting the time the draft would normally take.
Casetext cofounder and CEO Jake Heller said the product was “poised to disrupt the $437 billion legal services industry and fundamentally change our understanding of what types of professional work are uniquely human.”
Over the course of the year, Casetext added new subject areas to Compose, including briefs for employment law and products liability. In October, it introduced an add-in for Microsoft Word that allows automated brief drafting directly within documents on their desktops.
Another product introduced this year that helps make briefs smarter was Quick Check Judicial from Thomson Reuters. Designed for judges but available for any Westlaw Edge subscriber, this AI brief-checking tool helps judges understand and validate the briefs submitted in their courts.
Quick Check Judicial is a variation on Quick Check, introduced by TR in 2019, and is in the vein of a line of brief-checking products that trace their heritage back to Casetext’s CARA.
One other related development in 2020 was the acquisition by legal publishing company Fastcase of the innovative legal research platform Judicata. Among the core Judicata products that Fastcase acquired is Clerk, a tool that analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of legal briefs and predicts the legal outcomes they will produce.
17. Legal News Made Headlines
Just as the news industry broadly has struggled financially in recent years, so too has the legal news industry, with long-standing print publications disappearing and editorial staffs getting cut back. Yet, counter to this trend, 2020 saw the launch of three new services for legal news.
In January, the legal research and publishing company Fastcase launched Law Street Media, a free legal news service that leverages both case law from Fastcase and docket information and analytics from Docket Alarm, the docket search platform Fastcase owns.
Soon after came the launch by legal and business news company ALM – publisher of Law.com, The American Lawyer, Corporate Counsel, and other legal publications – of Legal Radar, also delivering news drawn from court dockets, but with a unique twist. Its summaries of PACER news are generated algorithmically, rather than by human editors.
In December, ALM brought Legal Radar out of beta, renaming it as Law.com Radar and adding news of corporate transactions to the litigation news it already included.
Possibly the most ambitious launch came in July, when Thomson Reuters quietly introduced its Westlaw Today, a premium legal news service driven by its Reuters news division and available only to subscribers of Westlaw and Westlaw Edge for an additional cost. TR hired several legal news editors, reporters, and columnists for the new service, which was rumored to be the first phase of a larger initiative on par with Law360 from LexisNexis.
All three of these services help legal professionals better track the developments that matter to their practices and their clients.
18. The Justice Gap Widened
One area in which there were no silver linings to be found in 2020 is in access to justice. If anything, the pandemic has widened the justice gap, as legal woes multiplied around issues of unemployment, housing, medical debt, immigration, and domestic violence.
In 2016, the ABA’s Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States issued a call for the legal profession to work toward ensuring 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs, regardless of ability to pay.
Asked whether he thought we had made progress toward that goal in the four years since, Andrew Perlman, Suffolk Law School dean and vice chair of the commission that issued that report, said, “I’m not sure that we have, at least not yet and not in a meaningful way.”
An ABA report in July highlighted one aspect of the justice gap that has received little attention, that of legal deserts – large swaths of the country that have few or no lawyers. Of 3,100 U.S. counties, the report documented, 54 have not a single lawyer, and another 182 have just one or two lawyers.
The true impact of the pandemic on low-income individuals is yet to be seen, but there is little question that the legal consequences will be enormous, further straining a system that was already unable to meet most legal needs.
19. ALSPs and the Big Four Made Inroads
Anecdotal reports indicate that the pandemic has driven more corporations and law firms to employ alternative legal services providers (ALSPs). Andrea Markstrom, Taft Stettinius & Hollister chief information officer, says, “I think with COVID we’re all evaluating how we work and how we can overall ensure we’re being efficient internally as well as for our clients.”
But while there has been some uptick in outsourcing to ALSPs, it has been far from universal. Across the board, it seemed, business dropped off in the first quarter for law firms and ALSPs alike. But as clients adapted to the “new normal” and some parts of the economy picked up, so too did legal work.
The result was that there was no across-the-board trend for ALSPs in 2020. Some did fairly well. Some struggled. And they also faced competition from a new front, as Big Four professional services firm Deloitte launched its Legal Business Services practice in the United States, offering legal management consulting and legal managed services for corporate legal departments.
Of course, this was also the year that saw the final demise of Atrium, the $75 million company that had vowed to “revolutionize legal services.”
Yet this might also be the year that best highlights the value proposition ALSPs offer. Offering distributed services that can be rapidly scaled up or down, and adaptable to specific projects or general staffing needs, they are well suited to times that demand flexibility in deployment and cost.
20. Innovation Accelerated
In this most difficult and challenging of years, and amid all these other developments, an odd thing happened within the world of legal technology: Innovation accelerated.
Never in my years of covering legal technology do I remember seeing so much activity in one year – new products launched and existing products refined or enhanced.
I started this piece talking about silver linings. From the standpoint of legal technology development and innovation, there is no denying that, in the annus horribilis that was 2020, the silver lining was the acceleration of innovation.
21. Honorable Mention: Generosity
Many law-related companies responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering free access to their products and services to legal professionals and others in need. Early in the year, I began to compile a list of these, and that list still exists, even though some of the offers may now be out of date.
While so many companies were generous this year, a special shout-out goes to practice management company Clio, which responded rapidly to the crisis by committing $1 million to a disaster relief fund to help the legal community navigate the challenges and hurdles presented by the pandemic.
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 30-37 (March 2021).