The year ahead in legal tech: more interest in social marketing, SaaS, and virtual lawyering

  • January 14, 2009
  • Conrad McCallum

Legal industry bloggers marked the end of 2008 with predictions for the year ahead. Here are some of the top trends and tips that emerged.

Social marketing is taken more seriously

Ross Kodner, a Milwaukee-based legal technology consultant who blogs at Ross Ipsa Loquitur, predicts more law firms will be eager to adopt Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Plaxo and other social connection and networking tools as standard elements of their business development plans.

And the tools that lawyers perceive as helping them to build trust online will gain the most traction, adds Carolyn Elefant, a Washington, D.C. solo practitioner, author and blogger. She expects Facebook to surpass LinkedIn as the top networking tool for professionals, “precisely because it offers clients and other lawyers a peek behind the professional curtain,” providing a sense of “what a lawyer is like on a personal level.”

Look for online visual media to increase in popularity. Elefant says people hanker for “the simple comfort of the personal” in tough economic times, so the ability to see how a lawyer speaks and looks, either on a video or through a tool such as Skype (software that allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet) can become a valuable asset.

Blogging continues to win converts

Legal bloggers share their thoughts with a group of like-minded people; they also use tools such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, LegalOn Ramp, and JD Supra to network, says Neil Squillante, of TechnoLawyer. But it’s publishing that remains the most reliable way to increase search engine ranking and traffic, and this year, more law firms will recognize its advantages. Squillante adds: “Publishing on a daily basis is difficult, so expect some law firms to outsource the content creation.”

Virtual law practices

Lawyers will continue to adopt technologies and free online applications to reduce overhead in law office administrative tasks, turning to tools such as Basecamp, GoogleDocs, Webex, Adobe ConnectNow, and GoToMeeting.

Others will go exclusively online by entirely eliminating law office space. Kodner predicts that virtual practices, made possible by “vitual officing” services offered by companies such as the Regus Group, will rise in popularity – “especially among solos who maximize their profitability and flexibility by working primarily from a home office.”

More elements of the bar will prize tech know-how

CLE on legal technology will be better attended, according to Kodner. As the economy puts pressure on firms to look for new efficiencies, they will be keen to harness technology and integrate it into their workflow and case-handling processes, he predicts.

iPhone legal applications

Squillante says the iPhone’s desktop-class operating system and programming tools will make it one of the most important mobile devices for legal applications by the end of the year. Blackberry and Windows Mobile aren’t going anywhere, but the iPhone will be the big story, he predicts. Legal applications are also expected to appear on the iPhone, including portable research capability.

Marketing innovation rewarded

During a recession, why keep the marketing engine at full throttle? Because when money tightens, firms have to position themselves to sustain a viable practice, says small firm lawyer Victor Medina, of Pennington, N.J., who hosts a podcast for Mac-using lawyers.

“It may seem counterintuitive,” Medina adds, but an economic downturn is also a time to start planning “for when business will pick back up.”

“Be entrepreneurial and innovative. Aggressively seek out business while still maintaining your ethics,” advises coach/consultant Susan Cartier Liebel, of Build a Solo Practice, LLC, based in Fairfield, Connecticut. “When the dust settles, those who realized this was a time of great opportunity will be profitable.”

A breakout year for practice management systems?

Kodner says PracticeMaster, a software that allows law firms to manage the case, contact and client information, will continue to soar in popularity. He’s hopeful that STI’s product and other law practice management systems will surpass their traditional 10-20% market share when they begin to offer “automatable workflow” as a standard practice management feature. He predicts web-based software as a service (SaaS) practice management products will be the first to do so; Rocket Matter and Clio were among the new SaaS law practice management products launched in 2008. (With SaaS, an application is hosted as a service provided to customers across the Internet, eliminating the need to install and run the application on the customer's own computer).

Minding the metadata

Many computer programs embed information into files and other program outputs when they are created, opened and saved. This “metadata,” although hidden on normal viewing, can be revealed and accessed by others when the document is circulated electronically.

Kodner predicts that reported “metadata disasters” will raise the profile of metadata issues in 2009, dramatically increasing the popularity of metadata removal products.

“Metadata best practices” are addressed in a section of the CBA Guidelines for Practising Ethically with New Information Technologies. The section reads, in part: “Lawyers have an ethical obligations, when transmitting documents electronically, to exercise reasonable care to ensure that clients’ confidential information is not disclosed in the metadata.”

Conrad McCallum is the e-publications editor at the CBA National Office.