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Small Firm Tech Trends: What’s Coming Down the Pike in 2020?

By Joan Feldman

Wondering what tech trends will catch on with small law firms next year — and what your practice should be automating next? To ring in the new decade, we asked practice management and legal technology experts: What technology has been particularly popular with small firms this past year? What do you predict will be big in 2020?

Here’s the scoop from Heidi Alexander, Sheila Blackford, Jim Calloway, Jared Correia, Natalie Kelly, Sharon Nelson and John Simek, Nerino Petro and Reid Trautz.

Heidi Alexander: A Better User Experience Wins in 2020

As more and more jurisdictions pass ethics rules related to technological competency, more practitioners are seeking to implement technology in their practices and to do it in an effective and safe manner. One trend I’ve started to see that I believe will continue into 2020 is the focus of legal technology companies on customer experience. Software is evolving toward simple user interfaces and increasingly user-friendly features and setup. Most practitioners don’t want to purchase a product as well as hire an IT company or consultant to set it up and make it work. They want out-of-the-box solutions that they can use immediately. I’ve seen too many instances where firms invest in a product only for it to fail in implementation due to unsophisticated users and the bandwidth needed to learn a new product as well as workflow.

Keeping with the theme of user experience, I think we are also going to see products marketed to “increase productivity” and “decrease distractions.” Slack and other communication tools have become popular not only in startup companies but also in law firms, as a way to decrease email and improve communication. Email poses a huge problem for all professionals. One study, conducted by Adobe, found that the average worker spends approximate 5.6 hours per day checking email (both business and personal). That’s where products such as Zero make their mark. This iPhone app uses AI to automatically capture, analyze and prepare reports on time spent on client-related work, and applies AI to sort and file emails. Zero helps recover lost billable time, saves hours spent processing emails, and reduces errors in email filing. These tools among others promise to help lawyers work smarter and faster.

Heidi S. Alexander (@heidialexander) is Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she also leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). She is Co-Chair of the 2020 ABA TECHSHOW Planning Board, and sits on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism. Heidi is the author of the ABA book “Evernote as a Law Practice Tool.”

Reid Trautz: Online Scheduling Gains Traction, With Chatbots Rising

I’ve seen a rapid growth in the number of firms adopting online scheduling for initial consultations and client meetings. The technology is not complicated, and the choices in the market that integrate well with Microsoft Outlook and other software solo and small firms already use makes it easy to get on board. In my office, we use Acuity Scheduling with Office 365 and we’ve had nothing but compliments. It has saved us hours that used to be spent negotiating dates and times for appointments. Those who may be skeptical of client buy-in to this new technology should not worry: As more doctors, dentists and other professionals also adopt online scheduling, not only are consumers getting used to it, they are realizing the benefits of scheduling whenever they want, not just when a receptionist is in the office. Count me as one of those skeptics who has now seen the light.

I think we’ll see a growing trend toward paralegal chatbots. Most people see chatbots as annoying pop-ups on websites offering to help them. Now we are beginning to see law firms use chatbot technology to do some of the work of paralegals. Using expert systems like Neota Logic and Community Lawyer, firms can build extensive interactive questionnaires that clients can access and answer 24/7. Larger firms have been creating these tools, such as Littler’s and Husch Blackwell’s Cleary Compliance Toolset, to answer client questions without human intervention. They were very expensive to create. Now we are seeing smaller firms, such as Memphis immigration firm Siskind Susser, get into the act. They recently launched to sell a variety of paralegal chatbots to other immigration lawyers.

LawDroid is also making chatbot adoption in smaller firms more viable. The company offers several solutions that will help firms move deeper into using chatbots for paralegal work, not just marketing. While the investment of time to build paralegal bots is high now, that will only get easier and cheaper. Balanced against the overall savings in labor, I think we’ll look back at 2020 as the year this technology trend really got traction.

Reid Trautz (@RTrautz) is founding Director of the Practice & Professionalism Center at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, where he provides practice advisory services to members. A past chair of ABA TECHSHOW, he is co-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division Futures Initiative and co-authors Future Proofing, a column about the future of law practice in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine.

Jim Calloway: Automate or Delegate Non-Billable Work

The primary tech areas small law firms should be focusing on in 2020 are related to the need for lawyers to focus on legal work and managing their practices. These are virtual staffing services and simple client management tools.

Virtual assistants can be based almost anywhere. They can serve as a valuable part of your team. Virtual receptionists provide flexibility and scalability. And, whether one needs to temporarily “downsize” or needs more support, it is a matter of modifying your spending on these services as opposed to the more difficult tasks of firing or hiring traditional office help. An all-important step: Empower your virtual receptionist with the information required to screen potential new clients and schedule new client interviews without consulting anyone.

While we are discussing scheduling appointments, why do so few small firms provide an online scheduling tool that potential clients can use to schedule an appointment when they visit your website outside normal business hours? Consider, too, that many potential clients use text messages as a primary communications tool. A small firm should be able to manage text messages from clients as easily as email and have a system that retains important texts for the client file. And what about text message reminders to clients before appointments and court hearings? (Well, you should have already been doing that for a while now.) Learn about simple automation services like Zapier and Flow. The more you can automate or delegate non-billable or administrative work, the more effective you will be as a lawyer.

Jim Calloway (@JimCalloway) is Director of the Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association and author of several ABA books. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.

Sharon Nelson and John Simek: The Small Firm Cybersecurity Sphere

We’ve seen two very popular areas of interest this year with solo and small firms. For some reason, phishing simulations seems to be on the solo and small firm radar now. Perhaps it is because there are so many reports of businesses being attacked with ransomware or suffering a financial loss because of BEC (Business Email Compromise) delivered via a phishing attack. The second area is cybersecurity training. On average, it seems like we are giving at least one cybersecurity training session per week.

We’ll go out on a limb and predict a massive conversion to the new wireless encryption standard next year. The WPA3 standard was first announced by the Wi-Fi Alliance in January 2018 as a replacement for WPA2. One key feature of WPA3 is a more secure initial key exchange by replacing the Pre-Shared Key exchange. The bad news is that a serious design flaw in WPA3 was revealed in April 2019. It was dubbed the Dragonblood attack. (We love that name!) Our prediction is that the Wi-Fi Alliance will fix the design flaw and we’ll start to see products conforming to the WPA3 standard in 2020. And yes, you’ll want to be on board that train to enhance your wireless security!

Sharon D. Nelson (@SharonNelsonEsq) and John W. Simek (@SenseiEnt) are President and Vice President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a digital forensics, legal technology and cybersecurity firm based in Fairfax, Va. They have written 16 books published by the ABA, including The Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guides and “Encryption Made Simple for Lawyers.” 

Sheila Blackford: Client Relationship Management Is Everything

The secret of the successful law firm is focusing on the client relationship. Yet the two top client complaints are a failure to communicate and neglect of a legal matter. How embarrassing to get a bar ethics complaint for falling short of your mission to provide competent legal services to your client.

This problem bedevils busy solo and small firm lawyers who are overtaxed by practicing law and managing their law firm. Technology can make managing the client relationship efficient and effective by using client relationship management, CRM, software. Think it just comes down to a contact list of current and prospective clients, a daily to-do list and an up-to-date calendar? Think again. This coming year, CRM software can help you improve your client and prospective client experience. Want to do a better job of interacting with potential clients from first inquiry to first client meeting to onboarding new clients and delivering personal engagement with your ongoing clients? Check out a standalone CRM like Lexicata or CRM feature add-on to your existing practice management software like Clio Grow.

Sheila M. Blackford (@SheilaBlackford) has been a Practice Management Attorney for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund since 2005. She is the author of the ABA book “Trust Accounting in One Hour For Lawyers,” co-author of “Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers,” and a contributing author to “Flying Solo: A Survival Guide” and the Oregon State Bar “Fee Agreement Compendium.” 

Jared Correia: Time to Ramp Up Automation Across Firm Processes

If you’re looking for a law firm technology trend to watch in the 2020s, it’s going to be less about specific technology types, and more about automation across technology tools. Whether that’s artificial intelligence-driven, a component of machine learning, or a function of integrating previously segregated software — the 2020s are going to be automatic for the people, and the people are going to be lawyers. With the most recent Clio Legal Trends Report showing that efficiency is the biggest differentiator between law firms that make money and law firms that don’t, the efforts law firms make to revise their technology platforms will focus on automation. Whether that’s reducing staff by replacing administrative functions with technology or offering assistive technology to lawyers performing high-level substantive tasks, the future for law firms is more technology applied to the implementation and management of processes, not less.

Jared D. Correia (@JaredCorreia) is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers business management consulting services for law firms, bar associations and corporations. He is also COO of Gideon Software, Inc. He is a regular presenter and regularly contributes to legal publications, including his Attorney at Work Managing column, and is host of the Legal Toolkit podcast. 

Nerino J. Petro: The Rise of Cloud-based Practice Management Tools

I’ve seen an uptick in the adoption and use of cloud-based practice management this past year. It often starts with the lawyer or firm looking for a cloud-based time and billing system. That leads them to look at cloud-based practice management, since combining time and billing with practice management is a better value in most instances. Not only do they get updated time and billing, but they also gain improvements in information management by combining all their case or matter information in a single pane of glass. This “mission control” aspect of information management is one of the huge benefits of a practice management system. Clio, Zola Suite, Rocket Matter, MyCase, Centerbase, ActionStep, PracticePanther and Smokeball (to name just a few) are being adopted at a faster rate than I’ve seen in the past.

Looking ahead to 2020, I see this trend continuing along with adoption of automation technology such as online appointment bookings, document creation and research.

Mobile technology will also continue to be an ongoing trend: Think smart devices that can do more tasks faster while lawyers are on the go, tablets and 2-in-1 notebook computers that are easily carried while providing near-desktop capabilities (in some instances as powerful or more powerful than a desktop). With wider availability of Wi-Fi and 4G cellular networks giving anywhere at anytime access, lawyers, their staff and clients will be even less tied to a physical office or a standard practice setting.

Nerino J. Petro Jr. (@NerinoPetro) is President of the Erickson Group in Rockford, Ill. Previously he was CIO for Holmstrom Kennedy PC and served as the first Practice Management Advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Practice411 Law Office Management Assistance Program. Nerino is a certified independent consultant for a number of legal products and a technology editor for ABA GPSolo magazine. 

Natalie Kelly: Watch Your Workflows and Well-Being

Solo and small firms will bring in 2020 hoping to do more with their workflows and personal well-being. Wellness and work production technique have been key topics this past year. As firms pay attention and get ready to act, they will look around to see if they are actually keeping up.

Over the next several months, solo and small firm practitioners will likely lay the framework for moving to more efficient workflows with better document management and data analysis and tracking schemes in their cloud-based practice management systems, which are still maturing. More integration and less headache is what these lawyers will expect from Office 365 Teams and Flow and more of the technology they implement. They will hopefully find more solutions as their counterparts figure out how to practice more efficiently from anywhere and online.

And, when it’s time to go home and take care of oneself, these same practitioners will be reminded of the importance of doing just that from past wellness initiatives they’ve encountered. They will be more mindful in 2020 and take better care of themselves — or at least that’s what they should do.

Natalie R. Kelly (@NatalieRKelly) is Director of the Georgia State Bar’s Law Practice Management Program and a past ABA TECHSHOW chair. Natalie is an Adjunct Professor co-teaching Law Practice Technology and a certified consultant for multiple legal software applications.  Natalie speaks and writes extensively on law office management and technology.

Happy New Year!

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Categories: Lawyer Tech Tips, Legal Technology, News and Trends, Tech Tools
Originally published December 19, 2019
Last updated May 11, 2020
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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