TechReport 2021: Practice Management

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The Practice Management report is sponsored by MyCase.
The ABA TechReport combines data from the annual ABA Legal Technology Survey Report with expert analysis, observations, and predictions from leaders in the legal technology field. Every Wednesday, we’ll be posting a new report from one of our experts, so stay tuned!

Technology continues to change and morph the legal industry, and these adaptations have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Law firms were forced to really evaluate the necessity of the technology they use in their firm and what potential technology is missing that could be useful. Technology is always being developed and adopted, but the last year saw firms really face the reality that adopting this technology might be more of a necessity for their firm, rather than a luxury. How exactly have technology adoption and usage changed in the past year? Have they? What does the changing landscape of technology in the legal industry look like?

Research USA compiled data from 410 completed law office technology questionnaires to answer these questions. The purpose of this report is to analyze the current trends in technology utilization and satisfaction, and how that has differed from years past. The ABA 2021 Legal Technology Survey Report analyzes hardware firms are currently using, the utilization of e-books by firms, and provides a multitude of analyses around software. It includes analysis regarding software used for documents, communication, and office work, web-based software and cloud computing, and legal-specific software. This report condenses the findings from the 2021 Survey to show changes happening in the legal industry as it relates to technology and some occurrences in the industry that are remaining static. Amongst these changes, it is unknown what has been caused by or exacerbated by the pandemic—however, we will analyze all these changes and try to predict whether they may continue into the future or whether they represent temporary changes brought on by the pandemic.

Hardware Trends and Changes

For the first time, the majority of attorneys are reporting using a laptop computer as their primary device to conduct work. In 2021, 53% of respondents responded that their laptop was their primary work device, compared to 44% reporting that a desktop computer was their primary device. Last year, only 47% of respondents reported their laptop being their primary device, compared to 49% of respondents in 2020 responding that a desktop computer was their primary device. Other devices, such as tablets, represent the remaining percentages for both years and have stayed relatively stable.

These percentage changes are large, and one factor may be attributed to the pandemic. There was a surge of working from home and virtual working as a result of the pandemic, and many firms may still be operating like that. This could result in increased usage of laptops as they are portable, can be brought to the office or home, offer integrated security features, and represent the flexibility that many firms were forced to adopt in light of the pandemic in terms of technology. If attorneys are in their offices less, it is logical that the desktop computers that are in those offices are not going to be used as often. However, it would not be accurate to attribute this trend only to the pandemic. This increase is not an outlier. From 2019 to 2020, there was a 6% increase in the use of laptops as an attorney’s primary device and an 8% decrease in the use of desktops as an attorney’s primary device. Before that, from 2018 to 2019 there was a 3% increase in favor of laptops being an attorney’s preferred primary device and a 2% decrease for desktops in this regard.

This trend is most pronounced in firms with 10-49 attorneys. For these firms, the use of desktop computers as a primary device fell from 57% to 46% amongst respondents. Relatedly, laptops being reported as the primary device for these firms rose from 41% to 52%. Big law firms (firms with 100+ attorneys) report the highest usage of primary devices being laptops at 82% of firms. Solo practice firms (firms with only one attorney) report the lowest percentage—only 35% of these firms reported laptops being their primary device. Interestingly, solo firms are the only demographic of firms that saw this percentage fall. In 2020, 41% of solo law firms reported laptops being their primary device as opposed to 35% in 2021. This could be the result of solo firms wanting to utilize the office space that they already agreed to pay rent for, therefore perhaps they returned to their desktop set-up in 2021. Regardless, it is unlikely that the broad trend of laptops becoming more and more popular will change when the pandemic ends—the infrastructure for virtual work is in place and firms have already been trending in this direction since before the pandemic.

Interestingly, the availability of hardware devices at firms has decreased from last year for almost all devices except for laptops, which stayed constant. 8% of firms reported having access to e-book readers, down from 9% in 2020 and 19% in 2018. 38% of firms reported having access to tablets, down from 42% last year and 58% in 2018. 57% of respondents reported having access to servers at their firm, down from 65% in 2020 and 78% in 2018. 80% of respondents reported having access to a desktop computer at their firm, down from 86% last year and 92% from 2018. 89% of respondents both this year and last year reported having access to laptops at their firms. This downward trend is interesting—is this the result of cost savings due to the pandemic? Are firms realizing some of these hardware investments are redundant and therefore they are phasing them out? Are laptops becoming more advanced and therefore able to accomplish the same tasks as all of these individual hardware devices but in one device? The answer depends on the firm, but broadly speaking, it is probably a combination of these three potential factors. It is a portent that should not be ignored, however, that firms simply did not find a lot of this hardware necessary, especially compared to 2018 when they may have initially invested in these devices to see if they helped the firm at all.

E-Book Adoption and Trends: A Potential Plateau

52% of respondents stated that they have accessed an e-book in the last year to research subject matter relating to the law. This is relatively constant with last year’s number of 53%. It could be that e-books have reached a plateau in adoption—attorneys that know they like e-books will continue to use them. Attorneys that prefer physical paper books know this is the case as well, and will not adopt e-books. This is supported by the fact that, when asked if they would ever use e-books for the purpose of legal research, only 21% of attorneys who did not respond that they currently use e-books responded that they were at least “likely” to try it, with only 2% “very likely.”

The most popular usage of e-books by those who do access them was to conduct research on statutes, followed by forms/agreements/contracts, court rules, regulations, and cases in that order. This could be interesting if your firm is considering whether to adopt e-book usage more frequently for your attorneys—if there is a feeling that researching statutes in your firms could be improved, that has been a large area of satisfaction for lawyers using e-books. When asked why they enjoy using e-books for legal research, respondents reported that it’s the portability of the devices, followed by the fact that multiple books can be stored on one device, the fact that it saves physical space compared to books, the ability to bookmark, and the fact that it is cheaper in that order. Price-point being the least relevant preference is interesting—attorneys who use e-books seem to enjoy them more for the actual functionality of the device than simple frugality. For attorneys who reported not using these devices, the largest cause of concern was difficulty browsing on the device. Other concerns include a challenge to search multiple sources at one time, cost, difficulty taking notes, difficulty reviewing the content of information and staying up to date, difficulty reading in a comfortable way, and the fact that e-books lack certain titles. Firms who are interested in potentially adding more e-book options for attorneys will need to weigh these advantages and disadvantages, and their attorney’s preferences, in their decision-making process. Given the pandemic and the uptick in remote work, one might have expected a surge of e-book reading. The fact that this was not the case, and that the percentage of adoption stayed relatively constant, once again supports the theory that the adoption of e-books has plateaued as attorneys have made decisions on whether to adopt these or not already.

Realistically, e-book publishers need to recognize that e-books are not as convenient as website libraries, where there is smoother cross-linking and which can be more easily used on PCs and laptops, allowing copy-pasting into emails and briefs, among other things. In reality, most attorneys are not looking to add an e-reader device to carry around, and using e-Books on phones and laptops can be a pain. In short, e-Books are great for reading and digesting information, but not that effective for reference manuals, statutes, and case reporting, as they are much more cumbersome to pull the data from and make multi-windowed multitasking much tougher.

Software Adoption and Changes for Document Purposes

Document software can be broken down into five categories: document assembly, metadata removal, document and records management, redlining, and PDF creation. Overall, the trends around these five categories have stayed relatively constant since last year. More firms have adopted document assembly software in the last year—57% of respondents reported having this software at their firm, compared to 51% last year. Document and records management accessibility also increased at firms, with 65% of respondents reporting having access to this software this year, compared to 59% last year. Software assisting with redlining saw the greatest decrease, falling from 87% of respondents last year to 82% of firms this year. The other categories have stayed constant, only increasing or decreasing one or two percentage points compared to last year.

PDF creation software remains the most popular document software at law firms, with 94% of respondents having access to this software at their firm. Despite the increased accessibility stated above, document assembly is still the least adopted document software adopted by firms with 57% of respondents reporting having access to this software. Overall, the larger your law firm, the more access you have to all of these software programs, as for the last four years respondents at firms of 100+ attorneys have reported the most accessibility for all of these categories. The relative stability of these categories indicates that the pandemic has not really altered the use or application of these software programs. It makes sense that software will be less impacted by the pandemic compared to hardware generally; hardware is probably kept in office spaces that attorneys did not have access to anymore. Software, if executed and incorporated correctly, should be accessible no matter where and how the attorney is working.

Software for Communication and General Office Work

Communication software can be broken down into five categories as well: voice recognition, CRM (customer relations manager), instant messaging, electronic fax, contacts, and remote access. Similar to document software adoption, these five categories have stayed relatively stable compared to last year’s accessibility rates. The largest change was in remote access software, which fell from 88% of respondents having remote access software to 84% in 2021, a decrease of 4%. The other categories only fluctuated by two or three percentage points. The fact that remote access software access fell, however, is interesting. It could be related to a point raised before—at the beginning of the pandemic, many firms shifted to remote work. However, as it continued, smaller firms and solo firms realized that they were paying rent on their offices and could not afford to not make use of them, so they opted to limit remote access software to return to their office space. This is supported by the fact that firms with 2-9 attorneys saw the largest decrease in access to remote access software, with 80% of attorneys in these firms reporting having access to this software in 2020 and only 70% reporting this in 2021. However, this potential point is countered a bit as solo firms saw a 5% increase in accessibility to this software (46% in 2020 to 51% in 2021). However, firms with 2-9 attorneys are more likely to have office space that they would be concerned about compared to solo attorneys who may be operating out of a home office to begin with, so this decrease could still support the theory that small firm attorneys wanted to get back to making use of their physical office space. Still, the fact that software adoption for remote access has not increased, but rather decreased, at the peak of the pandemic is shocking.

Remote access software and contacts software are the most adopted forms of communication software, with 84% of respondents having access to remote access software and 84% of respondents affirming access to contact software. Voice recognition software is the least adopted communication software, with only 31% of respondents having access to this software and only 16% of respondents reporting using it. A large number of attorneys who have access to voice recognition software do not use it, continuing to make it a product that sounds better in principle than in actual execution or utility for firms.

General office use software can be broken down into nine broader categories: project management, databases, presentation, accounting, electronic billing, time and billing, spreadsheets, calendaring, and word processing. Overall, general office use is the most popular reason to have software, with project management coming at least used. Project management still shows growth potential as 31% of respondents indicated access to that software this year, up from only 27% in the previous year. The only other category of this software to fluctuate by more than 3% compared to last year is accounting, falling from 78% of respondents having access in 2020 to 72% in 2021. This is interesting, as while the vast majority of firms still have their own accounting software, this could indicate a growing preference for alternatives such as having an outside firm handle accounting for a firm.

Despite having access to these categories, the usage of this software is not as high as the access is according to the respondents. 90% of respondents report having access to spreadsheet software, however, only 63% of respondents report actually using it for a legal purpose. Similarly, going back to accounting software, 72% of respondents had access to accounting software but only 31% of respondents actually personally used this software. These trends could help firm partners recognize potential cost savings in terms of software, and in terms of accounting, it points once again to the reality that having accounting software may not be the most popular way to do accounting for your firm.

Web-Based Software and Cloud Computing

For the 2021 Survey, respondents were asked whether they have used cloud computing for work-related tasks, with the options being “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” 60% of respondents reported “yes,” 25% responded “no,” and the rest indicated that they did not know. This is consistent from the year prior when 59% indicated that they did use cloud computing, 28% indicated that they did not, and the rest did not know. The use of cloud computing in firms has been growing slowly but steadily, rising 5% from 55% in 2018. This may be a similar scenario to e-book adoption in that attorneys and firms who want to use cloud computing have made the decision to do so and, therefore, the new adoption of it is now plateauing as attorneys are holding firm on the decision to adopt or not adopt it.

Clio was the most popular cloud computing service last year with 13% of respondents indicating that was the service their firm used, followed by Box, Evernote, NetDocuments, and GSuite. The most important benefits people see from adopting a cloud computing service, according to our respondents who have used one, include easy browser access from anywhere, 24/7 availability, robust data back-up and recovery, low cost of entry, predictable monthly expense, and that it is quick to get up and running. The biggest concerns people have with using a cloud service are confidentiality and security, with 61% of respondents indicating this is a concern. Further concerns include a lack of control over the data, lack of control regarding upgrades and changes, uncertainty over the longevity of the vendor, cost, lack of familiarity with the service, and a lack of reliable internet amongst other concerns. None of these other concerns, however, reached the level of concern brought about by confidentiality. A huge takeaway for both firms potentially interested in implementing one of these services and for these service providers themselves: confidentiality is one of the most important promises a lawyer can make to a client. If attorneys are trusting a service with ensuring confidentiality, it has to be a top priority of that software.

Legal-Specific Software

Legal-specific software can be broken down into four broad categories: specialized practice, docket/calendaring, case/practice management, and conflict checking. Like other software areas, the access rates of these categories have stayed relatively constant. Access to specialized practice software was reported at 33% among respondents, down from 37% last year; this 33% represents a four-year low. Conflict checking software remains the most popular of these types of software, and its 67% access rate reported from respondents this year represents a four-year high and is a 4% increase from last year. The other categories remained relatively constant, seeing their access rates fluctuate only one or two percentage points. Similar to other software types, the rate at which attorneys actually used these software programs is often much lower than the access rates reported for these programs. Overall, this commonality between multiple different types of software might indicate that some of these software programs are not needed for a number of firms.

Conclusion

The legal industry is often slow to succumb to technological change, however, every year we see some trends that indicate large changes and some trends that indicate steadfastness in the face of change. One might have expected the pandemic to lead to more technological changes, and in some cases that was true, but in many respects, the legal industry saw another constant year.

Laptops have firmly emerged as the preferred primary device for attorneys, surpassing desktop computer usage for the first time. This could have been the result of the pandemic, as remote work may have increased in popularity, but this trend has been occurring the past four years and does not represent something incredibly surprising. Still, whether this high rate continues to climb or plateaus will be interesting as firms face the question of returning to their office or allowing people to work from home.

A plateau has been reached with e-books and their use amongst lawyers, it seems. The last two years saw virtually no change in the usage of e-books for legal research amongst respondents. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages with e-books, but this steady rate of use indicates that most attorneys have made their decision and we would not expect that to change dramatically in the next few years.

Overall, the software usage by firms has not changed tremendously over the last year. One might expect the pandemic to have impacted this more dramatically, however, a good software program would work equally well in a remote work environment as an office one so this could point to a positive implementation rate of software. A higher satisfaction rate for software would also support this idea, as more attorneys were very satisfied with the software they were using than any year in the past four years. That being said, every type of software is seeing usage rates far below their accessibility rates. This means that many lawyers who have access to these programs are not using them—potentially making some of these programs unnecessary costs for the firms.

The legal industry may be resistant to change, but technology is slowly and surely shaping the field. The pandemic exacerbated this in some regards, but attorneys are always making decisions on what technology works for them, which ones don’t, and which ones to bring into their firm. These decisions could be just as important as whether or not to take a case or what motion to make—a case is often won or lost in the preparation of it. Do these technologies aid in that preparation, or do they represent unnecessary hurdles to jump through to get the relevant information you need? Every attorney will answer that question for themselves, but in doing so they must weigh their own comfort level with technology versus the risk of getting left behind as the technology grows more popular or becomes obsolete.

About the Author

Alexander Paykin acts as Managing Director and sole owner of his own firm, The Law Office of Alexander Paykin, where he focuses on a wide array of legal matters such as commercial and residential real estate, business, litigation, and financial cases. He serves as a committee member of the Legal Technology Resource Center Board, Productivity & Knowledge Strategy Committee, and Legal Project Management Committee of the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Practice Division, as well as the Pro Bono & Public Service Committee of the ABA, and the Law Practice Management Committee of the New York State Bar Association. When not serving clients in his professional life, Mr. Paykin acts as the Attorney Coach of the Ezra Academy High School Mock Trial Team, which is run as part of the New York State Bar Association’s Youth & Citizenship Initiatives.

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