Tracking “Trends & Annoyances”: ILTA’s Annual Technology Survey

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The International Legal Technology Association’s (ILTA’s) 2019 Technology Survey results are in; and although the full report is available for purchase, a well-done Executive Summary hits the high points.

To compile the annual report, ILTA surveys its membership, primarily IT leaders in law firms, with a wide spread of responses across all sizes of law firms. The survey is a timely and insightful inventory of the various technologies and applications at work today within law firms, and sheds light on how firms are changing their adoption and use of legaltech.

And it goes without saying that when a 384-page legal technology survey has a section called “Trends and Annoyances,” those are the pages I’m turning to first. So, let’s start with that.

Technology Issues or Annoyances

Not surprisingly, two of the top four technology issues or annoyances cited are not about technology but about behavior. More than one-third (37%) of respondents thought users’ acceptance of change was one of the top three issues. Another 28% thought managing expectations (of both users and management) also was a top issue. Security compliance and risk management (28%) and keeping up with new versions of software (28%) rounded out that top four.

It is telling that those two people-related challenges would rank so high among IT practitioners, especially as they juggle a wide range of software applications. Change management is a significantly bigger challenge than other factors, such as cost, staffing, spyware and malware, as well as keeping track of vendors and licensing. However, if you want support for that industry cliché that it’s about people, process, and technology (and not just technology alone), then look no further than the responses to this question.

Trust in the Cloud

The shift to, and comfort with, cloud solutions is an ongoing narrative, and this report always provides a good barometer of that change. Payroll, email, DMS, accounting, and time & billing are the applications used most in the cloud. Just as email was the first widely-adopted technology among law firms a generation ago, now it’s email that’s leading the shift to the cloud, with 33% of email environments already in the cloud, and 39% expecting to move there within the next 12 months.

Indeed, 72% of all respondents expect their firms to increase adoption of cloud solutions in the next year. That percentage has increased every year for the past four years.

Cost (50%), security (33%) and performance concerns (30%) were identified as the biggest barriers to cloud adoption. As the report notes, those concerns aren’t that different from the usual list of worries for any application change. What’s notable is that concerns such as resistance from management, client restrictions, and compliance issues have decreased as major areas of concern in this transition. That’s a big change which is accelerating adoption of the cloud.

Artificial Intelligence

A single question about artificial intelligence (AI) gives a very telling perspective on how law firms are looking at it: “What is your firm’s current strategy on Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning?”

There’s no evidence of a great rush to AI, if these responses are any measure. Just more than half (54%) say “we are not presently pursuing AI/ML options.” And 25% say they are “researching AI/ML options.” Just 10% “have one or more AI/ML tools in production.”

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Another 7% has at least an AI pilot case in place, and 4% have defined an internal group that is exploring and testing AI tools.

The way this question typically is posed is problematic (and not just in this survey). AI is not a type of solution — it is a set of capabilities that can be embedded into all kinds of solutions. It is not unlikely that many of the firms who said they are not pursuing AI/MI options are in fact using a legal research platforms such as Westlaw, which has a number of AI-based capabilities embedded within; or, are engaged in eDiscovery processes that leverage predictive methods based on machine learning; or, have some form of client-facing tool that uses a rules-based expert system to answer legal questions. All of these are AI applications, and in many instances, they are embedded into various products currently up and running in many firms that might not consider themselves to be “pursuing AI/MI options.”

The question is being asked as if there are two kinds of technologies, AI-based and non-AI-based, when in fact AI capabilities are being embedded in solutions all over this industry, including back-office, lawyer-facing, and client-facing applications. It won’t be long before asking a question like “Do you use AI?” will be as nonsensical as asking “Do you use software?” Of course, we do — we all do.

Annoyances Revisited

The responses to the question about the biggest issues and annoyances are very telling. If slow user adoption and expectations-setting are among the biggest hurdles faced by IT professionals, that’s a sign that the “us-vs-them” divide within legal organizations still persists. Certainly, the resistance of lawyers to change and new things is a well-worn axiom in the industry, even if it is not always justified.

But the ILTA survey is telling for its focus on the technology that serves as the infrastructure of law firms. There are pages and pages of data on operating systems, hardware, email, network management, business continuity, and security. All of this is the vital underpinning of any law firm, but these things are not always strategic for the firm. They are table stakes.

That infrastructure is not the core technology that will set law firms apart from each other, or even from new non-law-firm industry players.

There are really two legaltech spheres: i) the technologies that keeps the lights on and the receivables coming in; and ii) the technologies that are more central to the actual legal work accomplished in a firm: case management, knowledge management, document analysis, litigation strategy, legal research, etc.

To the extent there’s a perception gap between IT departments and lawyers in today’s law firms, then it’s likely those legal services delivery technologies can help bridge the gap. It’s here that both sides have an interest in helping each other out — lawyers want to practice better law and need help with the tools, and IT aspires to be more strategic and can deliver solutions that go directly to the heart of the value-add that lawyers provide to clients.

ILTA is a critical organization in the legaltech ecosystem, and it can play a huge role in helping its member firms develop new approaches to those practice-centric technologies.