“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Bill Gates

Last November, I was asked by Justice Charlie Wiggins of the Washington State Supreme Court to give a talk at the Centennial Celebration of the Washington State Temple of Justice.  The topic Justice Wiggins asked me to address was “100 Years of Legal Technology — Looking Back and Looking Forward.”  

In thinking about what I could say, it struck me (along with a fair number of trepidations) that I had been a lawyer for about one-third of that period.  Not that longevity alone gives you insights, but Justice Wiggins’ request did cause me to reflect on the technologies that impacted the practice of law over the last 100 years as well as to think about whether we as lawyers have been as innovative as other industries in using technology to improve our services.

In 1913 (the year the Washington Temple of Justice was completed and opened for business), practicing lawyers had 6 technologies at their disposal as shown in the above image.  Lawyers used these technologies to accomplish four basic tasks: (i) finding and researching legal information (statutes, cases, regulations, etc.); (ii) producing written work product; (iii) communicating with clients and other parties; and (iv) making people aware of their practices.

Amazingly, not a lot change occurred over the next 60 years with only four significant, new technologies coming into law firms and legal practices:


These four technologies, while significant, still focused on one of the four basic tasks set forth above.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that things began to change in more dramatic ways:


For the first time, computing power was brought to legal research and document production, and electronic communications went beyond the telephone. As we entered the 1980’s, computing power, hardware advances and wireless communications continued to be the driving force of change in law offices:


If the 1980’s were the decade of the computer and the start of the telecom revolution, the 1990’s became the decade of global connectivity and the Internet:


The first decade of the new century brought with it web-enabled applications, task specific legal software, social media and a host of new device forms:


As mentioned above, putting this history down on PowerPoint got me to thinking about three questions.  Were lawyers quick adopters of new tools, or were they laggards when compared to other service industries and the public at large?  How has technology impacted the delivery of legal services, especially when compared to the progress made by other service industries?  If we haven’t been as innovative as other service industries, are there lessons to be learned and what might we do about it?

Speed of Adoption: In my post on Lawyers, Change and the Status Quo, I told the story about lawyers being extremely slow in adopting the telephone due to its “lack of a written record”.  When I dug in deeper, I was not surprised to find that lawyers’ reluctance to be early adopters of technology stuck with the profession for the next 95 years.  Email was commercially introduced in 1983 and although I and my colleagues at the Shidler, McBroom, Gates and Lucas firm were using it as our primary communications tool with Microsoft’s then 200 employees (we all shared access to a single dumb terminal with a dot matrix printer in a small, windowless office), it wasn’t until 1999 that the ABA issued its opinion approving its use in client communication.  Although a lot of law firms were clearly using email for that purpose prior to 1999, it wasn’t until 16 years after email’s introduction that  bar approval occured.

Venebal launched the first law firm website in 1994, surprisingly early in the history of the web, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the ABA issued a formal opinion on the use of websites in law firm promotion.  Similarly, cloud services became widely available around 2007, but the ABA and other bar associations didn’t address their use by lawyers until around 2012 and the landscape of various state positions on this topic is still confusing to say the least.  Given this track record, I think it is safe to say that lawyers have tended to be late adopters, if not the latest of businesses to utilize new technologies.

Effect on Legal Services:  Despite our being late adopters, when we do adopt new technologies have we have been able to dramatically improve the delivery of legal services?  On the positive side, technology has resulted in better, faster and more varied forms of client communication, faster and easier access to legal information as well as faster and easier creation of legal work product.  On the negative side, I think we need to ask ourselves whether technology has led to better and more affordable work product, or whether technology has just resulted in more drafts, longer documents and correspondingly, higher client bills?

Perhaps the easiest way to judge our track record is to look at what other service industries have been able to accomplish with technology.  In my remarks at the Temple of Justice, I displayed the following graphic as a simple means of getting people to think about the issue:

Other Service Industries

When I think about these other service industries and the transformations they have gone through, my primary observation is that each of these industries used technology to: (i) vastly improve access to their services; (ii) significantly reduce consumer costs; (iii) standardized and simplify their transactions; and (iv) in the process, create better informed and happier consumers.

If you think back on what it used to be like to make travel arrangements, shop for goods or services (especially in rural areas), do banking, buy or sell real estate or stocks, or to “consume” content, the transformations unleashed by these industries have been truly amazing.  As a profession, I think it would be hard to argue that we have kept pace with these other  industries in improving and lowering the costs of our services.

Does This  Matter, and If So, What Can We Do About It?  To me, this matters greatly due to the simple fact that 85% of our population can’t afford legal services.  We all have stories of friends or family members in need of legal help who can’t afford our services, and many of us even joke that we couldn’t afford ourselves if needed. If we truly want a legal system in which all people who need a legal advice can easily obtain it, what can we do about it?

One place to start is to look at what these other service industries did in adopting technology that the legal profession may have missed.  In this regard, two key things jump out at me.  First, these industries rethought their entire service transactions end-to-end and did not just automate their existing processes.  Second, they viewed technology as a path to untapped markets.

To date, I would argue that we as a profession have not taken the time to rethink our service transactions and have instead just worked to automate or speed up our existing processes and tasks.  And with the exception of LegalZoom and its competitors, we have not as an industry seen technology as a path to new markets for legal services.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting back to Bill Gates’ quote at the start of this post.  Maybe the time has come for us to start looking at our underlying inefficiencies and to rethink our service transactions from the ground up.


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