Skip to main content

What Legal Technology Is

When we talk about legal technology, what do we mean? We must mean something more than just "technology", unless "legal technology" is just a buzzword to sell products.

There are several definitions, but generally, we mean something that falls into one of the four categories below:

  • Technology that lawyers use
  • Technology built by or specifically with lawyers in mind, with several subcategories
  • Technology built to meet the needs of legal clients
  • Technology that performs a traditional lawyer role

We could also add technology to help run the business of courts to this list.

Is it helpful to add the "legal" modifier to the word "technology"? Isn't this all just information technology?

Distinguishing legal technology lets us talk about these 4 categories all in one place. One drawback is the thought that lawyers are special leads to expensive, tailored solutions that ignore the experience of other similarly situated businesses and consumers. A benefit is that sometimes lawyers truly are unique.

For example, many businesses:

  • Need to generate and track business leads
  • Keep track of time and invoice customers
  • Produce documents using templates
  • Manage and store business knowledge and business rules
  • Build interactive websites and collaborate on projects

Each of these categories has a legal-specific tool, and a market leader that is widely used in another industry. It's important as lawyers that we recognize when a tool written for the general public is better than one built by or for lawyers. The answer is not always obvious.

Technology is whatever is novel

Once a technology has become pervasive enough, we stop calling it "technology" at all.

Once upon a time, briefs written in longhand were typewritten by transcriptionists. The typewriter, then, was a technology for lawyers. WordPerfect was one of the first best replacements for that system. It had many features focused on the needs of lawyers, but today nobody would call either WordPerfect or a typewriter legal tech.

Those of us who are trying to move the legal technology revolution forward can only hope that whatever technology we create eventually becomes more like the air we breathe than an exciting, shiny object.

In this overview I will focus on legal workers and clients. Of course some legal workers are lawyers. Some are paralegals, limited legal technicians, court clerks, probation officers, and police officers. Others are people trying to meet their own legal needs, without the help of a professional.

The least common definition of legal technology is the everyday technology that legal workers just happen to use, but let's take a minute to think about what goes here:

  • Word processing software
  • Timekeeping software
  • Communication tools, like Zoom, Skype, and the like
  • Collaboration tools, like Google Docs, Office Online, and more
  • Electronic signature tools
  • Websites and interactive education, videos, and the like

Lawyers use these tools. Yet it's unlikely that lawyers need their own dedicated version of any of them. Vertical-specific tools still can proliferate because they integrate with some other tool that has a clearer legal-specific purpose, such as a case management system or document management system.

Lots of technology is built specifically for the use of lawyers. Lawyer-specific tools may involve as little as branding or content (such as LexisNexis. LexisNexis also has popular tools for academics and journalists), they may highlight and organize features so that the ones that lawyers find most useful are easier to access, or they may solve a problem that is only or primarily relevant to lawyers.

  • Legal-specific research tools, such as LexisNexis, Westlaw, and many new competitors.
  • Document assembly and automation tools.
  • Clause libraries (similar to templates, but focused more on mix and matching without a rigid structure and order of terms).
  • Data analysis, reporting, mapping and graphing tools with a legal focus
  • Legal writing helper tools (plain language, table of authority generation, citation checkers, etc.
  • Tools that help collect and organize information to use in litigation.
  • E-discovery and due diligence tools.
  • Dedicated contract writing and analysis tools.

Practice management, business development, and client relationship tools

Most tools in this area can also be used in other industries. The selling point is pre-built data fields and reports with features aimed at the legal market: hourly billing, retainers, accounting rules, and information organized around tracking the lifetime of a legal case. More than other tools, these tools often assume a traditional law firm model.

  • Case Management Systems, such as Clio, PracticePanther, Legal Server, FileVine, and many others.
  • Intake tools (collect information from the user and provide to case management system).
  • Billing, invoice generation, and time-tracking tools.

Tools in this area treat clients with respect. They facilitate either independent client work or co-production of case material.

  • Story telling tools that encourage clients to upload information, documents, and more to build a case interactively.
  • Hybrid document assembly tools (with legal workers and litigants jointly filling in portions of a document).
  • Automated reminder tools (ticklers) to help pro se litigants track court dates.
  • Digital signature tools.
  • Simple document collection tools (i.e., upload your tax return to help us file your bankruptcy claim).

Technology that performs a traditional lawyer role

Substantive legal tools help lawyers

  • Interactive, tailored questions and logic (expert systems) that may produce documents, submit information to a database, or deliver advice. These may be built with document automation tools like HotDocs or Docassemble.
  • Automated systems that leverage machine learning, optical character recognition, etc. to deliver advice or generate documents without requiring much user input.
  • Automated systems that leverage machine learning to provide risk analysis, flag terms, etc.
  • Self-proving contracts.

Marketplace tools

Outside of an individual law firm, many businesses have been built around helping clients locate legal help, and helping lawyers sell their services to clients.

  • Referral and triage tools (provide structured navigation to resource databases, often run by bar associations or legal aid agencies)
  • Lawyer rating and matching services, like Avvo or pro bono focused ones like Paladin
  • Marketplace tools that allow lawyers to sell legal services.
  • Legal App marketplaces, like those created by Afterpattern and HotDocs

Technology used by courts

While for the most part this taxonomy discusses tools for the use of people working with litigants, legal technology has an important role on the court side as well.

  • Electronic case filing
  • Online docket tools
  • Online dispute resolution

Read more

Author: Quinten Steenhuis, August 2020