What Is Law Practice Technology?

Contemporary law practice incorporates the use of technologies, and “law practice technology” simply labels these uses. A working definition for law practice technology is

common office and information technologies used to perform or deliver legal services.

The essential part of the definition for lawyers is “used to perform or deliver law services.” That is, the use of otherwise common office technology in a legal services context triggers additional duties such as confidentiality, privacy, and security and thus distinguishes law practice technology from other uses of office technology.

Law Practice Technology Integral to Modern Law Practice

While law practice technology acts as a useful label, lawyers need to think of technology as an integral aspect of the practice—not as an add-on or afterthought. A recent article in CIOInsight succinctly summarizes:

You might think that technology supports your business, but you’re wrong: Technology has become your business. The 21st century reality is that you don’t have a business without technology; it has become as integral to the way your business operates as are people, finances, suppliers, business partners, and all the rest. That means it’s too risky to build your business and only then look to put supporting digital technology underneath. [FN1]

The curt statement arguably applies to the practice of law and helps provide context when defining “law practice technology.”

Before discussing the key use-of-technologies-in-a-law-practice issue, a brief overview of common office and information technologies may help emphasize the importance and ubiquity of technology in a contemporary law office—and may help justify analyzing law practice technology as a distinct aspect of law practice management and administration.

Common Office & Information Technologies

First, office and information technologies are far broader than one might first assume. Such technologies span far more than simply “computers.” Common office and information technologies include 1) physical infrastructure, 2) software, and 3) technology-related services. (In addition, maintenance, upgrades, system design, systems administration, database administration, and disaster recovery of office and information technologies are closely related.)

Physical infrastructure is the easiest to identify as technology. Physical infrastructure covers desktop computers, laptops, network servers, fax machines, photocopiers, printers, routers, “modems,” USB/thumb/flash drives, network attached storage, and firewalls. Mobile devices—smart phones, cell phones, netbooks—fall into the definition of law office technologies and pose their own unique challenges.

Law offices might not typically think of software and software licensing issues as law practice technology. Yet, typical software licensing represents a significant investment for a law practice. (The cost for a single user license for Microsoft Office Professional Office Suite is approximately $500 at the time of writing.) Office suites, scanning software, document management software, databases, PDF software, accounting software, email programs, and web browsers fall within the software category. Software also poses significant commitments to installation, updates, training, licensing, and creating backups.

Increasingly, software services (such as “cloud” computing services where the firm purchases a service and software functionality together as a “hybrid” solution) add new wrinkles and issues to law practice technology—challenges such as off-site security, encryption, confidentiality, backups, and access control.

Business technology services describe internet access, telephone service, cell/smart phone plans, website hosting, online backup services, website development, IT services, and disaster recovery services. Notably, these services also include support, management, and upgrades to common office technologies.

Thus, together, common office and information technologies cover a surprisingly complex and broad set of services, devices, and functions.

Used To Perform Legal Services

As mentioned, the law practice context, and not the technology alone, raises special issues for law firms. When a law firm uses otherwise common technologies to perform or deliver legal services, the firm needs to consider the ramifications of such technology use to the law practice context. Consider an illustration.

Scenario 1: A small corner flower shop might use an online data backup service to protect against data loss at the shop. For such a business, the online backup service provides adequate protection at a reasonable price. For the shop to implement a full, physical, disaster recovery and backup program as an alternative might be unfeasible and certainly not cost-effective. The flower shop pays for the backup service and backs-up data on a regular basis.

Scenario 2: In contrast, a two-attorney law firm just down the block from the flower shop considers using the same online data backup service as the flower shop selected. The law firm, likewise, plans to use the online backup service to protect against data loss—including client data. The attorneys should consider security, confidentiality, privacy, encryption, vendor integrity, vendor physical location, transmission protocols, etc. in the context of providing law services. Thus, unlike the flower shop, the attorneys must consider the technical backup needs and the law services implications of such a service.

As the scenarios illustrate, attorneys have a different responsibility when deploying or using (otherwise common) technology when delivering legal services. Confidentiality, competent supervision (or delegation of supervision) of staff, and protection of client property all arise. Thus, the attorney should address 1) the technology issues and 2) the law practice issues implicated by the technology use. Addressing these issues is the challenge of law practice technology—and is largely what distinguishes law practice technology from plain office technology.

Addendum

Law practice also uses industry-specific software technologies such as online legal research, legal authority checking, specialized databases, e-discovery management, trial management, time-billing, and estate management. These specialized software programs also serve to distinguish law practice technology from office technology.

Footnotes

FN1—Randy Heffner, 5 Questions to Help Recenter IT Design on the Business, CIOInsight (March 10, 2011), available at http://www.cio.com/article/675721/5_Questions_to_Help_Recenter_IT_Design_on_the_Business?source=CIONLE_nlt_insider_2011-03-11.

Original Publication: 02 March 2011
Updated: 11 March 2011
Updated: 06 July 2011