Emerging Opportunities in Enterprise Technology for Law Firms

Note: This article orginally appeared in the July 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal under the headline “Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives and Emerging Opportunities in Legal Technology”

Mention the rapidly growing influence of technology in the legal profession and a flood of topics spring to mind — from social media to virtual practices, cloud computing to open source, iPads to Android devices. However, the most transformational agent in legal technology likely is not the technology itself, but the demographics of technology. Analysis of how different age groups adopt and use technology to create, seek, access and share information could yield significant operational and competitive advantages for law firms that factor it into their strategic plans.

In 2001, the influential education writer and reformer Marc Prensky postulated that American society has undergone a fundamental generational bifurcation. “A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a ‘singularity’ – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back,” Prensky wrote in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” “This so-called ‘singularity’ is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.”

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In this brave new world, generations are segmented between digital immigrants and digital natives. Digital immigrants are described as individuals born and socialized before the advent of digital technology (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers). They grew up and came of age in an analog world, but have, to varying degrees, incorporated digital technology into their personal and professional lives. In contrast, digital natives (Gen Y/Millenials) were immersed in and molded by digital technology since birth. They are figuratively – and, some brain researchers believe, literally – “wired” to communicate, learn and problem solve through digitally mediated processes.

Perhaps the most famous illustration to date of this shift is the 2009 RFP tender by FMC Technologies called the “1° Law Litigation Value Challenge.” Designed specifically to attract tech-savvy firms, company general counsel Jeffrey Carr announced the search on legal social networking site Legal OnRamp. Responses had to address technical requirements like online billing, and the screening criteria required applicants to post a Twitter message (140-character maximum) stating the case for why they should be selected.

The dynamics shaping this type of innovation are evident in several areas:

  • Content creation and consumption: Multi-year social research like the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project confirms a growing preference among young Americans (under 30 years old) for video and short-form communication platforms (texting, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr) and declining interest and participation in long-form media (blogs). Meanwhile, blog creation among middle-age and older adults continues to grow modestly, though readership is flat or declining.
  • Mobile devices, collaboration tools and mobile computing – Handheld mobile devices (smartphones, tablets) are well on their way to becoming the nation’s primary interface to digital networks, particularly among young people. As these devices become faster and more powerful, the demand for cloud-based services, collaborative tools and mobile versions of websites will likewise increase. Although data security and privacy issues currently exert a braking effect on widespread adoption in law firms, growing usage of file sharing services like Dropbox in the consumer and small business sectors will increase the demand for enterprise-level solutions.
  • Professional networking –Americans under 30 years old developed and honed their personal networks and networking skills online in laboratories like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook . Now, they are replicating and leveraging those networks into professional relationships on LinkedIn. Middle age and older adults are still in the evaluation stage of online networking, migrating their real world, “analog” professional networks onto digital platforms.
  • Subject matter expertise and search – Unlike the traditional “thought leader” model of subject matter authority, the growth of online social networks has nurtured and accelerated a trend toward collaborative “crowdsourced” problem solving (LawPivot, Quora, LinkedIn groups) where authority is derived from the usefulness of content more than the reputation of the source.
  • Virtual firms, small firms and solo practices – For small and solo firms, virtualization technologies and cloud-based SaaS (software as a service) practice management solutions have lowered costly barriers to entry and eased competitive disadvantages like geographical reach, capital expenses, overhead costs, and support services requirements. That dovetails with favorable attitudes among young entrepreneurs toward virtual arrangements in retaining professional services.

How to Translate Trends into Action Plans

Client Service

  • Move beyond client surveys and build closer, more direct linkages with clients by involving them in the development of your technology roadmap.

IT Departments and Technology Committees

  • Develop a mobile version of the firm’s website
  • Diversify membership of technology committees to incorporate young “power user” associates and staff.
  • Track what competitors and clients are doing with cloud-based information technologies and collaborative platforms. Even if the firm will not be moving immediately into those environments, technology planners should at least be prepared to respond quickly once competition or client expectations reach a tipping point.

Recruitment and Retention

  • Recruit with digital fluency in mind.
  • Leverage social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and experiment in other areas as well. Cleveland firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan &      Aronoff recently launched an app for iPads and iPhones that automatically sends out a notification when an attorney position is available.
  • Reconceive traditional “master-apprentice” mentoring programs so that senior staff can improve their capabilities in digital technology and online social networking from younger associates.

 Marketing and Business Development

  • Think beyond the blog. Distributing and merchandising long-form content on multiple platforms, like JD Supra, SlideShare and LinkedIn, will unlock its potential to be found.
  • Actively participate in at least one short-form content platform (Facebook, Twitter) to stay engaged with its evolution.
  • If your firm has a Facebook presence, create and curate unique content. Do not use it as a platform to rebroadcast blog content.
  • Optimize marketing collateral for electronic downloads and mobile applications (e.g. .pdf files and electronic books). This approach also facilitates money-saving print-on-demand options.
  • In marketing materials, business development presentations and RFP responses, frame the firm’s technology and information systems – particularly client interfaces – as unique strengths and differentiators

Although the first wave of digital innovation is still taking root in the legal profession, the next wave already is making its presence and significance
known. Understanding those dynamics and making some simple adjustments can enable law firms to navigate a more seamless and successful transition.

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