The history of law firm automation

Lauren Colbeck, head of product at Access Legal, gives a timeline of how technology, and the use of it in the legal sector, has evolved from the 1950s to present day

Due to the complex and often time consuming nature of delivering legal services, it is no surprise that lawyers have been looking for opportunities for automation for many decades.
Law firm automation has come a long way over the last few decades, particularly in the last 20 years.

All of the tech developments listed below have contributed to, and enabled, the advancement of the case management and workflow automation tools that currently exist for law firms today.

1950s to 1970s

In the 1950s, lawyers were starting to invest in Dictaphones, which were seen as revolutionary at the time, so that they could record their thoughts, instructions, and correspondence on-the-go, ready for typing up by their secretaries.

By 1973, the big red UBIQ terminal enabled lawyers at larger firms to search for case law instead without having to spend hours poring over books in law libraries.

By 1978, we had the Wang wordprocessor, a special purpose computer which sat on the desks of many lawyers providing proprietary word processing software. It automated document creation and production beyond recognition, enabling law firm case management to take a sizeable leap forward.

The 1980s

In the 1980s came the fax machine – the device that enabled users to feed in a printed sheet of paper at one end to transmit via telephone lines in seconds, and a message that came out on paper at another office, anywhere in the world.

This was game changer for the legal profession. It’s believed that the first ever fax machine was invented as early as 1843, however, this innovation did not appear in offices en masse until the 1980s.

Up until then, the profession had favoured the DX, a UK document exchange service established in 1975 during Royal Mail strikes and postage price hikes, which guaranteed next-day delivery before 9am anywhere in the country (including London to Aberdeen).

The IBM PC was the first personal computer to have a significant impact on the office environment, and throughout the 80s a wide range of applications began to evolve.

This included volume packages like Lotus 123 spreadsheet software (1982) and very early accounts, time recording and case management software for law firms, based on the single-tasking MS-DOS operating system began to emerge.

In 1984, Apple released its first Mac PC with a graphical user interface (GUI) and in 1985 Microsoft followed suit with a Windows for MS-DOS. By 1985, Local Area Networks (LANs) allowed law firms to start sharing documents and printers.

The 1990s

Although the appearance of emails can be traced back to the 1960s, they did not become mainstream in many sectors until well into the 90s.

In 1996, we saw the arrival of email attachments. This development had a huge effect on the advancement of law firm case management software.

Of course, some of us remember when the now widely acclaimed legal IT guru, Richard Susskind, was almost banned from speaking in 1996 as a legal sector commentator for predicting that lawyers would use email as their main communication method in the future. He was accused of “…bringing the profession into disrepute.”

The early web browser made it easier for people to use the internet. Many describe Mosaic as the catalyst that kicked off the current digital revolution we presently find ourselves in. Again, when Susskind, quite rightly predicted that “…the web would be a lawyer’s first port-of-call” he was criticised for “…not understanding the significance of the law library.”

Of course, for law firms, the use of the internet opened many doors. Law firm automation was able to progress much faster than before as more and more businesses and people became connected digitally.

Although Bell Labs invented Audrey in 1952 which could recognise digits spoken aloud, it wasn’t until Dragon launched a new version of Dragon Dictate in 1997 that speech-to-text had settled enough for widespread adoption by law firms.

Earlier iterations had required users to unnaturally pause between words. As it advanced, the integration of this kind of technology with case management elevated automation for the legal profession further.

Very popular with lawyers, the Blackberry 850 launched in 1999 provided a hand-held unit for making and receiving calls as well as emails. Fee-earners were literally able to progress their caseloads as they went about their work at home, in police stations, at court and out in the community.

The 2000s

American firm Fisher Broyles touted itself as the world’s first virtual law firm. Built on the use of modern tech, its lawyers worked remotely from home. Ironically, in 2020 all law firms were forced to become virtual as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic took hold.

By the mid-2000s, enabled by the maturity of internet access, improved download speeds and user awareness, the use of eDiscovery for legal cases really started to build momentum and the phrase ‘cloud computing’ was born, used to describe software-as-a-service (SAAS).

2010s to present day

Case management software has been available to law firms that wanted to automate their practices since the 1980s, but only in late noughties did the proliferation of the internet enable it to take mammoth strides.

Case management and workflow automation has progressed immensely over the last decade, enabled by improvements in access to the internet and broadbands speeds. Good legal case management suppliers today even offer mobile apps for lawyers on-the-go.

By 2016, chatbots had emerged, the adoption of which was seen across the legal sector as the friendly face of artificial intelligence (AI) and a means of making customer service scalable.

One of the early chatbots related to justice was DoNotPay, famous for overturning parking fines and assisting refugees with immigration applications and asylum support, it was invented by Joshua Bowder and is often referred to as ‘robot lawyer’.

LawBot and DivorceBot followed, created by Cambridge University students, and LISA (Legal Intelligence Support Assistant) a non-disclosure agreement generator at the end of 2016, developed by Chrissie Lightfoot.

In 2020, a survey of registered solicitors by the University of Oxford and the Law Society highlighted that half of respondents admitted their firms were using some form of AI for a variety of aspects of their business.

There’s been much change in the legal sector over the years and the speed of this change, from a technology standpoint, is increasing rapidly. It can be difficult to keep up with technological changes while meeting client’s needs and carrying out your day-to-day tasks.

Here at Access Legal, our goal is to help law firms unlock their potential – freeing up their time to improve client service, grow their business and empower staff. We pride ourselves on being able to support every aspect of a legal business, becoming a trusted long-term technology partner.

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