Disruptive technologies: A Canadian lawyer’s perspective on the evolution of law-practice technology

Disruptive technology continues to change the way we practice law. We have truly come a long way from the early days of practice in the ’70s when calculating Statements of Adjustment in real estate transactions required a four-function calculator if, in fact, the law firm was prepared to approve the then typical per unit purchase price of $1200-$4000. Otherwise, this arduous task was accomplished by borrowing a two function adding machine (sometimes manual, other times electrical) from the bookkeeping department. And always available, was the bound set of lookup tables that was used from seemingly historical times.

Some might say that lawyers adopting technology is by itself disruptive. They would in all likelihood be correct – at least for those that graduated more than 20 years ago. After all, aren’t we discussing a profession schooled in Latin, and used to delegate downwards. Heck, we didn’t adopt Dictaphones until our legal assistants were no longer schooled in taking shorthand.

1970s & 1980s

It was in the late ’70s that computers, mainly dedicated word processors, started appearing in law firms. These AES, Wang, Xerox, Micom,

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Dedicated Word Processors, like this one from IBM, were the first computers to inhabit law offices. (Shutterstock.com)
IBM, or Phillips systems typically operated off of some form of proprietary technology and in the case of medium to larger sized firms, often resided somewhere in the depths or bowels of the firm. They were typically manned in two, and sometimes three shifts to try and keep up with the amount of transcription. Computers, as we have come to know them – desktops, laptops, portables, tablets, etc. – just weren’t around then. If there was some form of resident technology, it consisted mainly of a photocopy machine and an answering machine or two, sometimes accompanied by a combination of Selectric and an assortment of memory typewriters. In the early ’80s IBM (running Toronto-based Manic Systems software) and Barrister Systems (including its own proprietary word processing) were the two dominant players that law offices looked to for centralized computer solutions.

It was in 1986 that the Canadian Bar Association realized that it needed to establish a Task Force for Computerizing the Legal Profession. This led to the 1986 foundation of the Canadian Bar Association’s CBANet, a national effort to render the cost of online legal research affordable. Until implementation of CBANet, online legal research was typically beyond the budget of small to medium-sized firms; this was partially due to the aggregation or packaging of certain of the services, accompanied by the fact that a proprietary computer terminal was often required as part of the solution. This was an exciting time for me personally, as I co-chaired the Computerizing the Legal Profession Task Force and Chaired CBANet. These created the foundation for a variety of other initiatives including the creation of the Canadian Society for the Advancement of Legal Technology (CSALT). CSALT, graciously hosted by the Ontario Bar Association (OBA), was established by a group of public-private lawyers ranging from in-house counsel, sole practitioners, lawyers from medium and large firms, Benchers, as well the Ontario Auditor General’s Department. It established liaisons between the IT providers and the bar by launching a variety of working groups and a tech show or two. Meanwhile the Law Society of Upper Canada established its Computer Classroom in the late ’80s, thereby affording lawyers and bar admission students the opportunity of learning how to use computers in day-to-day practice.

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