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LegalTech in 2020: Solving Industry Challenges in a Pandemic

After years of discussion and debate over the state of digital transformation in the legal field, 2020 delivered something of an ultimatum to an industry that has proven historically resistant to drastic change. The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly altered the way many law firms do business, forcing them to seek out a variety of LegalTech solutions to survive in a new environment. Many of these changes are likely to remain firmly entrenched in the coming years, so it’s worth taking a look back at the factors driving them.

COVID-19 and Change in the Legal Industry

From an outsider’s perspective, the legal industry might have appeared to be uniquely well-suited to adapt to the pandemic. Lawyers are high-skill workers with an extensive range of technology solutions at their fingertips to facilitate remote work. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which many aspects of the legal process, from client intake to discovery to filing documents with the court, are handled virtually, without anyone needing to step foot outside their home office. 

The reality, unfortunately, isn’t so simple. While it’s true that there are several innovative tools available that could support remote work, the legal industry has long struggled to adopt them at scale. Part of that has to do with the culture of law firms themselves, which tend to be driven by a traditional business model that hasn’t changed much since the 20th century. 

Although the legal industry has benefited from technology throughout its history, the use of that technology has typically fallen not to the lawyers themselves, but to their support staff. From printing out reams and reams of documents to manually tracking time in minute-based increments, many lawyers cling to outdated and inefficient practices out of habit and aversion to change.

Although the Great Recession caused some disruption to the legal industry, the impact was not significant or lasting enough to make firms fundamentally rethink their billing and technology usage. That has changed in 2020. As the industry struggles to adapt to the realities of the pandemic, firms have been forced to engage in what Jennifer Leonard, Chief Innovation Officer for University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, describes as “forced experimentation.” This includes implementing technologies already quite common in other industries, such as video conferencing tools and cloud-based collaboration software, as well as taking a more customer-centric approach to delivering legal services.

Key LegalTech Trends in 2020

The rapid transition to the remote workplace has forced legal firms to implement several years’ worth of technological change into the span of a few short months. Here are a few key LegalTech trends and needs that defined the industry in 2020.

Secure Online Communication

Successful transition to a remote work environment requires the right software tools to facilitate secure communication and collaboration. Lawyers not only need to be able to stay in direct contact with clients and colleagues, but also with the court system itself. With many judicial offices shuttered during the early months of the pandemic, courts have greatly expanded their use of e-filing, e-service, and online dispute resolution software. Various video conferencing platforms have also made it possible to conduct court hearings remotely. In a historic move, even the US Supreme Court chose to hear arguments over telephone.

With so many lawyers working remotely, however, security has become more important than ever. That’s because home networks and personal devices can present a variety of security risks. Sharing documents over unencrypted email rather than through more secure LegalTech applications could potentially compromise secure client information or legal strategies. That has driven firms to implement digital solutions that they might have been hesitant to adopt as recently as a year ago.

Online Legal Research

The research and discovery process has gradually been moving online for quite some time. According to research by the American Bar Association (ABA), nearly 70% of lawyers begin their legal research with a general search engine or paid online resource. All of that online research means that lawyers need to be able to securely access and convert multiple different file types. While many legal documents can be found in various online databases, they often exist in poorly scanned formats that are difficult to read or otherwise manipulate. In order to manage these documents effectively, firms need LegalTech applications with imaging and conversion tools that can perform image cleanup and then convert files into formats that are easier to work with.

Virtual Document Review

Whether they’re negotiating contracts or reviewing information as part of discovery, lawyers need to be able to annotate and redact documents without creating confusion over which edits are the most up-to-date. Version control has long been a challenge for the industry, whether it was multiple people working from different printed copies of a document or everyone having their own copy downloaded to a separate device. It’s no surprise, then, that LegalTech startups specializing in contract review software have had no difficulty finding investors during the pandemic. To meet the growing needs of remote legal firms, these platforms will need to deliver powerful editing and access control features that allow users to collaborate more efficiently.

Innovative Billing Strategies

Although law firms have historically weathered economic downturns better than the rest of the economy, the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard in the first half of 2020. According to data gathered by Clio, billing and case volumes plunged in March and April before starting a slow recovery in May. That recovery has been uneven, however, punctuated by a few sharp declines even as overall caseloads return to baseline levels. Firms frequently responded by laying off staff, with 20% of firms having done so or expecting to as recently as July.

The pandemic has forced many firms to implement timekeeping and billing software to help improve efficiency and deliver more value-based services to their clients. Traditional billable hour approaches tended to discourage efficiency, so shifting to a more flexible and transparent system driven by digital tools can help provide firms with the flexibility they need to meet client needs under adverse conditions. Automating billing also allows legal teams to focus more on acquiring new clients and retaining existing clients.

More Changes Coming in 2021

Several legal industry trends from 2020 are expected to continue, or even accelerate, in 2021. Here are just a few areas that will likely remain key priorities for LegalTech developers seeking to meet the industry’s needs.

  • Improving the Client Experience: With so much of the attorney-client relationship going remote, legal firms will need to continue investing in tools that allow them to communicate and interact with their customers more easily.
  • More Cloud Adoption: Legal firms have been slow to adopt cloud-based LegalTech applications, but the pandemic has demonstrated the value of being able to access essential data and tools from anywhere at any time.
  • Organizational Innovation: As LegalTech becomes more essential, law firms will likely continue to rethink their organizational structure by adding non-legal staff to drive digital transformation.

Unlock Your LegalTech Potential with Accusoft

Developing robust LegalTech platforms that help firms overcome the challenges of the remote workplace is a major challenge. Accusoft’s collection of content processing and conversion solutions allow development teams to easily integrate the collaboration and information-sharing tools lawyers require into your applications. Whether you’re incorporating our REST APIs or powerful SDKs, we provide the functionality your software needs so your team can focus on the innovative features that will set you apart in the crowded LegalTech market in 2021 and beyond.

To learn more about how our content solutions can enhance your legal applications, talk to one of our integration experts today.