That Was The Legal Tech Year That Was – 1997

We continue our countdown of 20 years of Legal IT Insider and today look at some of the events taking place in 1997…
On the technology front, this was the year when developers of speech recognition technology first began launching “continuous speech” recording whereas earlier versions had used “discrete” dictation – which is a polite way of saying you had to talk like a Dalek. That said, there were complaints that to make continuous speech work, you had to run it on PCs with the fastest available processor chips and double the RAM most PCs shipped with in 1997 – and the systems were still substantially slower to recognise, process and transcribe speech than the discrete systems.
An industry survey found that WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS was still the most widely used word-processing application in legal but that 45% of firms in the survey had already moved to Windows-based WP (either WordPerfect or Microsoft Office). Another survey found that just 54% of lawyers had a PC on their desk and just 14% had email. And, the once thriving Amstrad Lawyers PCW Club closed down as demand for CP/M-based legal software finally fizzled out.
On the vendor front there was the start of a shakeup/consolidation with ProSoft, the makers of the Carpe Diem time recording system, being acquired by the Sage Group – and there it would languish for many years until it was acquired by Tikit. CompuServe, which for many years was synonymous with email, was sold to AOL. CapSoft Development, the company behind HotDocs, was purchased by legal publisher Matthew Bender.  Following “irreconcilable differences” in the boardroom, Mercury Computing folded – its InControl system was subsequently acquired by Resolution Software, who were in turn acquired by Tikit. LAWTEL was acquired by Centaur Publishing, and would subsequently be sold on to Sweet & Maxwell/Westlaw. ACE pulled out of the UK software market to concentrate o its core barristers customers – it would subsequently be acquired by its largest competitor. Admiral plc, closed down its legal systems division – the company had previously acquired to other legal suppliers: Hay Logic and Sumlock Legal. Dart Legal Systems closed its doors to trading, issuing a farewell note to customers and creditors that included the immortal words “we are very sorry but we have no funds in the company to meet the costs of voluntary liquidation.”
New Law Publishing was acquired by Croner, part of Wolters Kluwer – in 2001, New Law’s founder one-time-judge Kenneth Bagnall QC would appear in court accused of 14 counts of theft of £560,000 from the company accounts during the takeover period. Bagnall, then in his late 70’s denied the charges, saying the transactions were merely the repayment of loans he’d made to the company. Blackfriars Crown Court subsequently placed a “stay” on proceedings, after hearing allegations that Bagnall “had spent half the money on a woman half his age, in the hope of starting a relationship with her.”
A survey conducted by the Insider found that IT consultants were universally loathed by tech vendors, with comments including criticism that consultants “just go through the motions” inviting suppliers to respond to ITTs “merely to make up the numbers” and “pad out their reports” to justify their fees. Law firms were criticising legal publishers for what were perceived as the gouging prices being charged for the CD-Rom editions of legal textbooks. And, finally, there was amazement at the UK’s then premier legal tech tradeshow – SOLEX at The Barbican – when vendors finally abandoned suits, shirts and ties in favour of a more casual “dress down Friday” look of chinos and monogrammed polo shirts. Oh, yes, and 56kbps modem speeds were now available.