Some Musings on Software in the Legal Field

During a recent presentation on developments in knowledge management, I found myself at a loss about what generalized recommendations for technological solutions to give, because I have observed ongoing and growing divides among organizations in their adoption of technology. These divides combine with differing organizational goals to create an environment where that there are fewer applications that are sufficiently generalizable to be recommended to a group, which aren’t already in widespread use. Word processors, web browsers, library systems, file management systems, and others are easy to recommend to most organizations of a certain type and size, and there was a time when they could be recommended with a some idea that the suggestion would be useful; however, this seems to no longer be the case.

Like the pharmaceutical industry, where fewer blockbuster drugs are being developed as low hanging fruit has been harvested and medicine becomes more personalized, software solutions are becoming more specific to local needs, which tends to shrink the demand for single systems or requires an increased degree of customization for systems that are widely adopted. This is not to say that there aren’t still many organizations that could use advice on implementing widely used systems, it’s just that it is less likely that a majority of attendees at professional development events will find such a recommendation useful.

That being said, keeping up to date with IT developments is a moving target and large, complex organizations need to be constantly upgrading in order to maintain the currency of their systems. I am reminded of a conversation I had once with a teacher, who said that for every grade completed one can count on having students with a range of skills for the number of years of schooling up and down: in grade one there are students ranging in level from kindergarten to grade two – in grade six there are students ranging in level from kindergarten to grade twelve, and so on. The longer IT systems remain in place the wider the range of technological adoption.

This situation of growing diversity of need is combining with a developing environment where the infrastructure needed to support legal software is becoming more dispersed. Until recently there was limited ability to develop tools integrating legal information for tasks like research and citation management without maintaining full databases of content. However, now the increasing availability of tools like the CanLII API, linked data publication of information standards – such as the Canada developed KF Modified Classification scheme (in development), and the Clio API means that it will not be necessary for software developers to include the full information infrastructure within their systems any longer (I wrote about this at more length here; this article is focussed on resources of relevance in Canada, for more information about similar projects internationally see Robert Richard’s Legal Informatics Blog). Instead they can reference the necessary content on remote servers in real time without maintaining it themselves. For a better idea of what this means consider that Amazon’s decision to make every IT asset available as an API has meant that their data is available to support diverse uses and allows them to integrate into other systems with minimal additional effort on its part.

As more data projects such as these are implemented, I hope there will be an increase in the number of small software applications that can provide excellent tools catering to the unique needs of different legal organizations. This would mimic a trend in the wider software market for the development of carefully designed artisanal software for niche applications: my current favourite being the writing tool Scrivener, which I have been using for the last year. It includes the elements of note cards, outlines, word processing, and several nifty features such as a distraction free mode that hides everything else on your computer, and freeform arrangement of content on a digital simulacrum of a cork board, and I happily recommend it to anyone writing a project of substantial size.

The most public aspect of this wave of software development is in apps. These small, often specialized, applications aim to do something well and often the most successful ones are worth paying for and people do. Large companies, such as Apple and Microsoft, give access to their platforms and the necessary tools to make this kind of development available, because they understand that being part of an ecosystem creates value for them, third party developers, and their customers. Many of the software tools currently in use in legal environments are applications developed to expand Microsoft Office, and you can see their developer tools here, and you can see Apple’s developer tools here.

The problem that will need to be adequately resolved is that many software products for the legal space are created and then implemented without adequate updating: this is a particular issue for firms, as it can limit their ability to upgrade major software such as Microsoft Office or internet browsers without disabling business critical functions. To be successful it will be necessary to not only solve this problem, but to show potential customers that this problem has been solved.

These developments create opportunities for people who understand the needs of legal organizations and want to develop tools that provide solutions to those problems, by facilitating the development of tools in a much more cost effective way than was the case previously, as the development and maintenance of tools can be separated from the development and maintenance of content. This reduces the advantage that existing large content providers have in the creation of productivity tools. I look forward to seeing the tools that are developed and how existing tools will integrate the new dispersed information resources as they are developed.

Comments are closed.