Disruptive technology continues to change the way we practice law. We have truly come a long way from the early days of practice in the ’70s when calculating Statements of Adjustment in real estate transactions required a four-function calculator if, in fact, the law firm was prepared to approve the then typical per unit purchase price of $1200-$4000. Otherwise, this arduous task was accomplished by borrowing a two function adding machine (sometimes manual, other times electrical) from the bookkeeping department. And always available, was the bound set of lookup tables that was used from seemingly historical times.

Some might say that lawyers adopting technology is by itself disruptive. They would in all likelihood be correct – at least for those that graduated more than 20 years ago. After all, aren’t we discussing a profession schooled in Latin, and used to delegate downwards. Heck, we didn’t adopt Dictaphones until our legal assistants were no longer schooled in taking shorthand.

1970s & 1980s

It was in the late ’70s that computers, mainly dedicated word processors, started appearing in law firms. These AES, Wang, Xerox, Micom,

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Dedicated Word Processors, like this one from IBM, were the first computers to inhabit law offices. (Shutterstock.com)

IBM, or Phillips systems typically operated off of some form of proprietary technology and in the case of medium to larger sized firms, often resided somewhere in the depths or bowels of the firm. They were typically manned in two, and sometimes three shifts to try and keep up with the amount of transcription. Computers, as we have come to know them – desktops, laptops, portables, tablets, etc.  – just weren’t around then. If there was some form of resident technology, it consisted mainly of a photocopy machine and an answering machine or two, sometimes accompanied by a combination of Selectric and an assortment of memory typewriters. In the early ’80s IBM (running Toronto-based Manic Systems software) and Barrister Systems (including its own proprietary word processing) were the two dominant players that law offices looked to for centralized computer solutions.

It was in 1986 that the Canadian Bar Association realized that it needed to establish a Task Force for Computerizing the Legal Profession. This led to the 1986 foundation of the Canadian Bar Association’s CBANet, a national effort to render the cost of online legal research affordable. Until implementation of CBANet, online legal research was typically beyond the budget of small to medium-sized firms; this was partially due to the aggregation or packaging of certain of the services, accompanied by the fact that a proprietary computer terminal was often required as part of the solution. This was an exciting time for me personally, as I co-chaired the Computerizing the Legal Profession Task Force and Chaired CBANet. These created the foundation for a variety of other initiatives including the creation of the Canadian Society for the Advancement of Legal Technology (CSALT). CSALT, graciously hosted by the Ontario Bar Association (OBA), was established by a group of public-private lawyers ranging from in-house counsel, sole practitioners, lawyers from medium and large firms, Benchers, as well the Ontario Auditor General’s Department. It established liaisons between the IT providers and the bar by launching a variety of working groups and a tech show or two. Meanwhile the Law Society of Upper Canada established its Computer Classroom in the late ’80s, thereby affording lawyers and bar admission students the opportunity of learning how to use computers in day-to-day practice.

As the dust settled in the downtown firm that I was with at the time, one of the older established senior partners came over me and queried me about desktop computers and their utility in a law practice – this was about the time that the Law Society launched their computer classroom. While with a certain amount of apprehension, he decided to sign up as he liked to the idea of simply “pushing a button” to produce the real estate closing documents that he required. I was the only lawyer in that midsize firm that had a desktop computer in his office, a DeskPro 4, which was the first desktop manufactured by Compaq. It truly wowed my law colleagues and became profoundly useful in their eyes when, on the closing of a commercial transaction, I was able to anonymously locate the relevant closing stock price in real time, without much effort. This was back when the usual course of action would have been to wait until late that night, or early in the morning, to check out what the stock closed at as reported in the newspaper.

It was the pre-Windows DOS version of WordPerfect that got many lawyers using computers. While WordPerfect may not have been the only word processing software available at the time, it contained certain features that were attractive to lawyers, particularly the ability to format a document – the formatting/reformatting capability was relatively straightforward by utilizing a simple keyboard command. Eventually, the large majority of law firms and clients moved towards a Microsoft Word, particularly as support for WordPerfect was somewhat shaky in a Windows environment. Notwithstanding, some lawyers remain quite loyal to the WordPerfect product, simply converting it to a Word format before forwarding on to colleagues and clients.

1990s to early 2013

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BlackBerry was the first smartphone to become standard issue in many law firms. (Shutterstock.com)

Remote access from home-based computers via virtual private networks (VPN) rapidly took hold, and with the launch of the BlackBerry (standard issue in many law practices), we now enjoyed the ability to access client data and input time dockets remotely. Gradually, more and more lawyers embraced personal and evolving technologies, as they did their clients. Hence it was not unusual to have two devices: a Blackberry connected to the firm’s servers, and an iPhone, iPad, Android or other device for personal use. By embracing personal devices, many of us became intrigued with social media as a way of developing business, while also keeping track of friends, children, and colleagues. Mobile devices (personally owned or corporately furnished) also introduced texting as a rapid and personalized information exchange – have you ever noticed how much sooner text messages tend to get answered than emails?

Often driven by the firm’s marketing gurus, many lawyers moved on to create blogs and promote visibility through engaging in postings on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. It was also, and continues to be, a time during which a variety of legal specialty postings and digitally distributed e-publications took hold. It was also a period during which fewer and fewer trips were being made to the library, including those to the Great Library at Osgoode Hall, as the legal research could be accomplished much quicker on demand and online, thanks to the likes of Carswell’s, LEXIS-NEXIS, and CanLII – and let’s not forget Google which seems to get smarter by the hour!

Finally, firm web portals and the cloud serve as critical enablers for lawyers to share documents with clients and view them together online, while at the same time proposing and effecting edits and revisions.

What a long way we’ve come – we’re rapidly moving from a paper-based information management profession to a digitized and rapidly accessible data governance model thereby enabling us to access critical information on demand while at the same time also facilitating the way we carry on our day-to-day practice.

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