Important Legal Technology Developments in 2014

Among his many other activities – including practising law – Robert Ambrogi has been writing a blog on legal technology issues, LawSites, since 2002. His posts are always interesting and often very informative. His posting at the end of last year, entitled The 10 Most Important Legal Technology Developments of 2014, particularly caught my attention.

Several developments, such as those relating to legal research, legal hacking, encryption, and searching court dockets, are outside my particular area of interest, knowledge management. Three, however, were of particular interest to me:

  • Businesses and technology are changing the nature of law practice
  • Human + Machine > Human
  • Innovation and disruption become the norm

The changing practice of law

Here, Ambrogi talks about the (failing) attempts in some US jurisdictions to shut down innovative legal companies, such as LegalZoom, on the grounds that they are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. These providers of online legal information ultimately pose a threat to the commodity services provided by many law firms.

As far as I’m aware, there have not been any comparable challenges here, largely because we have not yet developed Canadian counterparts to those online legal information services. This lack of challenge is likely due to some degree to the control that lawyers have over the delivery of legal services. In August of last year, however, the CBA Legal Futures Initiative released its report Futures: Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada on alternative business structures (ABSs) and multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs). The report recommends allowing

  • ABSs, where lawyers practice in business structures that allow ownership, management, and investment by persons other than lawyers or other regulated professionals
  • MDPs
  • fee-sharing with non-lawyers

Then, in November the CBA endorsed that report, and advised that the Council will consider adopting these resolutions. Both Malcolm Mercer and Mitch Kowalski have weighed in, here on Slaw, on these issues. If you missed either of those articles the first time around, I encourage you to go back and read them.

Assuming that Ontario, at least, were to follow the lead of England and the UK, while the US continues to dither, we will I am sure see much larger developments under this heading.

Using machines to practise law

In his point entitled Human + Machine > Human, Ambrogi focuses on eDiscovery analysis and notes that 2014 was the year where these technologies became accepted as essential and commonplace. His point is that the debate has ended about whether to use these technologies and is now rather about how to do so.

The focus on eDiscovery reflects, of course, the importance of litigation in the American legal environment. In Canada, most medium- to large-sized law firms depend on commercial legal work, rather than litigation, and hence there is much less emphasis here on eDiscovery.

The most important tool for Canadian firms is enterprise search, although adoption has been mostly been among the large law firms, mainly because of the high cost. Part of the reason for the high cost is that, for the moment, there is little competition in the field. We would all welcome some innovators who are willing to take on the incumbents, as all legal practitioners would benefit. So far the sort of linguistic analysis that makes the eDiscovery tools so effective has not been effectively implemented in enterprise search. When that happens, lawyers will be much better able to mine their existing cache of stored knowledge.

Innovation and disruption

In my summary last October of trends that I saw at the ILTA conference in the summer, I addressed this point from a somewhat different perspective as “New thinking from young lawyers.” We see reports of players such as Legal Zoom and Avvo, which are the focus of Ambrogi’s point, but there are also growing numbers of legally trained entrepreneurs who are looking at how things are currently done and thinking up ways to do them better.

As I noted in my earlier post, the Georgetown Iron Tech Lawyer competition gives an indication of how “regular” law students can innovate even within the context of a one-semester course at law school. Those same young lawyers are seeing firsthand how much the legal landscape has changed as a result of the Great Recession, and how what had seemed like (and, in fact, was) a stable legal environment has now become unmoored. It is, I think, clear to many of them that the standard, stable career paths that had previously existed are now eroding, and a number of them are looking to see what they might be able to create to take advantage of, rather than being victims of, these impending changes.

As Bruce MacEwen noted in a post last fall entitled Innovate? Who, me?, law firms tend to focus on the desire to innovate as an end in itself, whereas successful innovators focus simply on doing an excellent job of identifying and then satisfying certain customer (or client) needs. Clearly, more and more young lawyers are looking at how to satisfy client needs and are trying to figure out ways to do so.

It makes for interesting times!

There is one other point, though, that struck me about Ambrogi’s list. For years, we in KM have talked about the key role KM can and should play in firms, since most of what we do is connected so directly to so many different aspects of law firm activities. And yet only three of Ambrogi’s 10 points relate to KM, the rest dealing with aspects that we are generally not involved in. So, what might that say about the future relevance of KM?


  1. There is some exciting disruptive innovation happening the realm of Human + Machine at the University of Toronto where students designed an application to use a high-powered IBM computer for legal research. The team came in second place. With all the talk around ABS, note this team did not include lawyers or law students, either.

    “Ross [the application] can, for example, predict the outcome of court cases, suggest readings or answer a wide variety of legal precedent questions, at any point in a legal process. It even provides a percentage number rating how confident it is on the accuracy of search results. Ross also alerts the user to new cases or results on their smart phone.

    According to the inventors, Ross takes seconds to spit out legal research that might take others hours to gather.

    “Lawyers could use Ross’ artificial intelligence to transform the practice of law, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve,” said Venkat.

    “The student inventors warn, though, that Ross doesn’t make lawyers unnecessary; it’s just that clients may need to hire fewer of them.”