Comment: The forecast is for more cloud, blockchains and for AI to go mainstream

DocsCorp’s president and co-founder Dean Sappey reflects back on the most interesting themes to arise from LegalTech New York, including the inexorable growth of cloud as law firms cut costs and embrace flexible working, as blockchain technology gains traction and artificial intelligence solutions look likely to go mainstream.

Attending legal conferences allows me to step outside of DocsCorp’s particular area of expertise and interest to see how new technologies might impact lawyers more generally. Here are some of my personal observations at this year’s LegalTech in February, 2016.

The forecast is for more cloud

One of the constant themes we hear at technology conferences is how law firms are increasingly under pressure to reduce client costs. Another is how technology will enable law firms who embrace new technologies to realize cost savings.

We have been hearing for some time about the cloud and online access to data. The game changer over the past year has been Microsoft’s aggressive move into this space with the introduction of the Microsoft Cloud. This has been evident with smaller, more aggressive, responsive law firms, who are quickly adopting cloud technologies for all aspects of their work to reduce client costs and response times.

This has led to improved service levels and more nimble, client-focused lawyers who can grow their client base at the expense of larger firms.

Work patterns are also changing. Increasingly lawyers, both male and female, are working non-traditional hours to accommodate family and work commitments, often performing a higher percentage of their work at home, on the road, or just remote from their office. This shift in attitude and behavior is driving the move to the cloud, but while larger law firms are restricting the move to the cloud for security reasons, smaller law firms are embracing it to the expense of the larger firms.

LegalTech 2016 confirmed that the idea of the cloud and the mobile lawyer have become mainstream. Cloud-based document management systems (NetDocuments, and Worldox Cloud), as well as online collaboration systems (iManage Share, SharePoint Online, and HighQ) and even online practice management systems (Clio) are delivering low cost, highly efficient technologies to law firms, driving down costs, and dramatically reducing setup costs for startup law firms.

Historically law firms have given up some of the customization and productivity tools they previously used on the desktop in order to gain other advantages from the cloud. This is changing.

Vendor announcements on these productivity tools began to appear at this year’s conference, including one from DocsCorp, who will be working with Microsoft to bring cloud-based document comparison and metadata removal productivity tools to the cloud. It will no longer matter whether the lawyer is operating when remote from an iPad, Surface Pro, Mac, or home desktop PC, they will have access to all their data and tools to deliver a better and faster service to clients.

Artificial intelligence becomes mainstream

Legaltech NY has always been a mecca for eDiscovery platforms, so it was no surprise to see artificial intelligence applications become more mainstream in this area. IBM’s Watson technology is now appearing in many legal technologies that allow lawyers to quickly research information with real language queries, automate repetitive tasks, and even tasks such as the anonymizing of documents to create document templates. This technology is becoming available to the public to provide access to legal information without paying a lawyer – definitely a challenge to law firm earnings. This technology is in its infancy in terms of true commercialization, but it’s close.

From Bitcoin to Blockchains

This new technology is a result of the Bitcoin currency technologies, and has the potential to revolutionize legal transactions. It essentially allows for a centralized record of workflows, confirmation of completion of steps in those workflows, and linking in data. This became a real talking point at LegalTech2016. The technology is being actively trialed by some of the world’s largest banks for financial transaction processing, and is being extended into the processing of legal transactions, particularly in the area of conveyancing and contract management, and court filings.

This will significantly reduce legal transaction costs as well as client costs. This will be a challenge to the high-overhead, high-earning law firms, while advantaging smaller firms and clients. We are yet to see commercially available technologies utilize this for law firms, but it can’t be too far away.