ABA TechReport Shows the Legal Industry Slow to Use New Technology, Despite Pandemic

Desktop computer and laptop on desk
The ABA published its annual technology report. This year’s report captured the impacts of the pandemic on tech trends. / Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash.

Despite the impacts of COVID-19, attorneys have been slow to adopt new technologies, according to findings from the American Bar Association’s 2021 ABA TechReport. The report also noted that few law firms take adequate security precautions, despite client data protections ranking high on the list of concerns for many attorneys. 

The ABA has published its annual technology report for more than 20 years, but this year’s report was the first to gauge how the pandemic impacted technology trends in the law. 

The 2021 report is based on a survey of 410 law offices on how they use technology in their practice and asked questions on a wide range of topics including cloud computing, client communication technologies, marketing and practice management software. 

Last year’s TechReport predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to an increase in new technology adaptations after many offices shifted to work from home and public health ordinances closed the doors of many brick-and-mortar offices. However, the 2021 report showed only slight changes in how attorneys use technology for their practices. 

Cloud Computing 

Cloud computing, defined in the report as a “web-based software service or solution,” is a common form of technology in everyday life and businesses. 

Cloud technologies, which are accessed using an internet connection, include messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, meeting technologies like Zoom and Google Meet, document and data sharing applications like Dropbox and Google Drive. There are also a handful of law-specific cloud services including Clio, Rocket Matter, NetDocuments, PracticePanther and MyCase. 

Despite many offices shifting to work from home and virtual offices, cloud computing increased only 1%. Only 60% of offices reported using cloud computing compared to 59% in the 2020 report. 

While there are many benefits to cloud computing — including anywhere and anytime access, predictable monthly costs and low up-front capital investment — there are unique security concerns that could lead to loss of breach of client information. Concerns over security and confidentiality (61%) and a lack of control of data stored in clouds (43%) were the biggest concerns among attorneys. However, very few firms reported taking standard security measures to protect client information. 

The ABA surveyed firms to see how often standard security measures were used for cloud computing. Only 35% of respondents took the most common security measure, using secure socket layers, 25% of respondents made local data backups, 24% of respondents reviewed vendor privacy policy, 19% reviewed ethical rules and opinions on cloud computing and 23% reviewed terms of service for the technologies. The 2021 data on security measures are similar to previous years. 

Client Relationships

The survey also looked at how law firms advertise to new clients and use technology to communicate with current clients. 

Email is still the most common form of client communication with 60% of respondents reporting they use it to send confidential information one or more times a day. However, the majority of attorneys did not report taking extra precautions to protect client data in emails. Many lawyers reported taking email security measures like obtaining oral (5%) or written (14%) consent for email communications and adding a confidentiality notice in a subject line (30%) or body (70%) of an email. However, the ABA pointed out, these measures do little to actually protect client data or confidentiality. 

The ABA suggested using secure client portals, similar to patient portals common in health care, as an alternative means of client communication. Advantages of client portals are centralized client communications, 24/7 client access to files, a client calendar with important dates and a place to collaborate on documents. The report noted that only 30% of law firms surveyed offered an online payment option for clients. 

Practice Technology 

For the first time in 20 years, firms reported that laptops (53%) were their primary work device rather than desktops (44%). Laptop usage differed between small and large firms. In firms with more than 100 attorneys, 82% used laptops as their primary work devices. For firms with 10 to 49 attorneys, laptop use was the primary work device for 52% of lawyers. And among solo practitioners, 35% reported using laptops as their primary device. 

While researchers did not look into the reasons for changes in hardware use, one factor that the ABA pointed to was the pandemic’s impact on remote work. The report says the popularity of laptops is unlikely to go away since many firms have established remote work infrastructure and processes. The authors also theorized that the ongoing popularity of desktops among solo practitioners may be because smaller practices can’t afford not to use their office space. Use of other hardware devices like e-books and screen readers did not change significantly.

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