The history of law firm automation

Access LegalBy Legal Futures Associate Access Legal

Due to the complex nature of delivering legal services and the plight of ‘information overload’ the sector is renowned for enduring, it is no surprise that lawyers have been looking for ways to automate law firms for many decades.

Looking back really helps to put law firm automation into perspective, especially when we see how far the profession has come in less than 100 years. It is particularly insightful to see how automation has accelerated in the last 20 years, as it helps law firms recognise where they are on their digital journey and informs decisions in terms of where they should be heading next.

All of the tech developments listed below have contributed to, and enabled, the advancement of the case management and workflow automation tools that currently exist for law firms today.

1950 - Dictaphones

1950 – Dictaphones: In the 1950s lawyers were starting to invest in Dictaphones, revolutionary at the time, so that they could record their thoughts, instructions, and correspondence when convenient, on-the-go, for typing up later by their secretaries.

1973 - Case-law search

1973 – Case-law search: In 1973 the big red UBIQ terminal was the first thing that looked like a desktop computer, and lawyers at larger firms were able to use it to search for case law instead of spending hours poring over books in the law libraries. A legal profession automation that was ahead of its time.

1978 - Wordprocessing

1978 – Wordprocessing: Next we had the Wang wordprocessor in 1978, a special purpose computer which sat on many law firm desks providing proprietary word processing software. It automated document creation and production beyond recognition, enabling law firm case management to take a sizeable leap forward.

1980s - The fax machine

1980s – The fax machine: The device, that enabled users to feed in a printed sheet of paper at one end, to transmit via telephone lines in seconds so that it came out on paper at another offices that could be anywhere in the world, was game changer for the legal profession. History tells us the first ever fax machine was invented as early as 1843, however, this innovation did not appear in law firms or other offices en masse until the 1980s. The fax machine upped the ante for the legal profession, an industry that had been so reliant on shifting paper around for so long. Up until the fax machine lawyers only had the Royal Mail and the DX to rely upon. Always looking for speed, the profession had favoured the DX, a UK document exchange service established in 1975 during Royal Mail strikes and postage price hikes, which guaranteed a before 9am next-day delivery anywhere in the country (including London to Aberdeen). The fax machine was to trump the DX though, enabling lawyers, third-parties and clients at opposite ends of the country to exchange sheets of paper in seconds.

1981 – the IBM PC

Also in the 1981 – the IBM PC: This was the first personal computer have a significant impact on the law office environment, and throughout the 80s a wide range of applications began to evolve, including volume packages like Lotus 123 spreadsheet software (1982) and very early legal accounts, time recording and case management software for law firms, based on the single-tasking MS-DOS operating system began to emerge. In 1984 Apple released its first Mac PC with a graphical user interface (GUI) and in 1985 Microsoft followed suit with a Windows for MS-DOS.

1985 – LANs

1985 – LANsLocal Area Networks allowed law firms to start sharing documents and printers.

1990s – Email

1990s – Email: although the appearance of emails (or electronic mail) can be traced back to the 1960s, they did not become mainstream for law firms and many other sectors until well into the 90s. In 1996 we saw the arrival of email attachments. This development had a huge effect on the advancement of law firm case management software. Of course, some of us remember when the now widely acclaimed legal IT guru, Richard Susskind, was almost banned from speaking in 1996 as a legal sector commentator for predicting that lawyers would use email as their main communication method in the future. He was accused of “…bringing the profession into disrepute.”

1992 – SMS Text Messaging

1992 – SMS Text Messaging: The first ever text message was sent on 3 December 1992 from an employee of Sema Group to a business associate at Vodaphone wishing him a happy Christmas. Over 48 billion outgoing SMS text messages were sent in 2020 via UK networks. Many leading case management software systems include SMS functionality now, as a convenient and quick means of communications for solicitors and their clients. According to Techjury SMS messages achieve an open rate of 98%.

1993 – Mosaic web browser

1993 – Mosaic: The early web browser made it easier for lawyers and other business people to use the internet. Many describe mosaic as the catalyst that kicked off the current digital revolution we now find ourselves being part of. Again, when Susskind, quite rightly predicted that “… the web would be a lawyer’s first port-of-call” he was criticised for “…not understanding the significance of the law library.” Of course, for law firms, the use of the internet opened many doors. Law firm automation was able to progress much faster than before as more and more businesses and people became connected digitally.

1997 – Speech to Text Dictation

1997 – Speech to Text Dictation: Although Bell Labs invented Audrey in 1952 which could recognise digits spoken aloud, it wasn’t until Dragon launched a new version of Dragon Dictate in 1997 that speech to text had settled enough for widespread adoption by law firms. Earlier iterations had required users to unnaturally pause between words. As it advanced, the integration of this kind of technology with case management elevated automation for the legal profession further.

1999 – The Blackberry

1999 – The Blackberry:  Very popular with lawyers, the Blackberry 850 launched in 1999 provided a hand-held unit for making and receiving calls as well as emails. Fee earners were literally able to progress their case-loads as they went about their work at home, in police stations, at court and out in the community.

1999/2000 – The Millennium Bug

1999/2000 – The Millennium Bug – fear of the millennium bug reeked havoc globally for organisations relying on the use of computer systems, the legal profession included. The main gist of the issue was that many of the old, green-screen software systems we had all come to rely upon had a potential date field problem. With a 2-digit capacity date field for the year no one really knew what would happen as the clock ticked over from 31/12/99 to 01/01/00 – would our computer systems recognised the new day in the new year as the year 2000 or 1900? As it turned out most computer systems coped fine. It did throw many solicitors firms and other sectors into a serious panic for a while though.

2002 – The first virtual law firm

2002 – The first ‘virtual law firm’: American law firm, Fisher Broyles touted itself as the world’s first pure virtual law firm. A virtual law firm has no physical bricks-and-mortar premises. Built on the use of modern tech, its lawyers work remotely from home. Ironically, in 2020 all law firms were forced to become virtual as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

2005 – eDiscovery

2005 – eDiscovery:  Enabled by the maturity of internet access, improving download speeds and user awareness, the use of eDiscovery for legal cases really started to build momentum.

2006 – Cloud Computing

2006 – Cloud Computing: The phrase ‘cloud computing’ is born, as Google and Amazon start using it to describe the use of software-as-a-service (SAAS).

2007 – the first iPhone

2007 – the first iPhone:  The iPhone alongside a raft of other advanced smart phones and devices gave the lawyer access to powerful mobile tech in their hands 24/7. The iPad followed in 2010. With this technology came the mobile app. Good legal case management suppliers today offer specially developed mobile apps for lawyers on-the-go.

2009/2010 – Advancements in case management

2009/2010 – Advancements in case management: Case management software had been available to law firms that wanted to automate their practices since the 1980s, but only in late noughties did the proliferation of the internet enable it to take mammoth strides. In terms of connectivity with the ministry of justice, the legal aid agency, the courts, other law firms, expert witnesses and third parties – and all the integration possibilities really started to unfold. Case management and workflow automation for law firms has progressed immensely with the improvements in access to the internet and improved broadbands speeds in the 2010-2020 decade.

2013 – The smart contract enabled by blockchain

2013 – The smart contract enabled by blockchain:  Computer scientist, Nick Szabo, wrote a paper in 1996 describing his vision of a smart contract. It took the advent of cryptocurrency to enable this idea more than a decade later.

2016 – Chatbots emerged

2016 – Chatbots emerged and we saw a flurry for the legal sector – as the friendly face of artificial intelligence (AI) and as a means of making customer service scalable. One of the early chatbots related to justice was DoNotPay, famous for overturning parking fines and assisting refugees with immigration applications and asylum support, it was invented by Joshua Bowder and is often referred to as ‘robot lawyer’. LawBot and DivorceBot followed, created by Cambridge University students. LISA (Legal Intelligence Support Assistant) a non-disclosure agreement generator came next at the end of 2016, developed by Chrissie Lightfoot.

2020 – Mainstream use of Artificial Intelligence

2020 – Mainstream use of Artificial Intelligence: survey of registered solicitors by the University of Oxford and the Law Society highlighted that half of respondents admitted their firms were using some form of AI for a variety of aspects of their business.


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We are sure you will agree this is an interesting and nostalgic list, but what’s missing? Is there any other piece of technology you feel should be included in this hall of fame? We would love to hear your thoughts.


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