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The case for legal technology

The case for legal technology

Law firms must embrace digital technology and bring their eDiscovery in-house to get the job done faster, smarter and cheaper. Stephanie Quine reports.

For a profession accustomed to printing and reviewing documents on paper, there is a brave new world waiting. 

A tsunami of legal technology products has hit the US market, and law firms can use it use to leverage their knowledge and gain a competitive edge when compiling information
and evidence.

 The faster the discovery process, the earlier a case strategy can be developed and, ultimately,
the case closed. 

Paperless office 

Lawyers in mid to large companies and law firms are becoming increasingly familiar with electronic discovery (e-Discovery). The benefits of storing documents online and bringing e-Discovery activities (including processing, search and analysis, early case assessment [ECA] and production) in-house is plain to see.

Money paid to litigation support vendors is saved, and the time and effort spent reviewing documents manually and in a linear fashion can virtually be eliminated.

The benefits of dealing with information electronically have been reinforced by judges such as Justice Byrne of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and Justice Gzell and Associate Justice MacReady of the Supreme Court of NSW, who each say that cases which are dealt with electronically are cheaper, quicker and easier to manage.

Phil Hocking, acting executive director of Information Communication and Technology Services at the Family Law Courts of Australia, could not agree more.

Having worked in state and federal courts for 40 years, Hocking recalls the normality of using typewriters and pens. 

“In the last couple of months we’ve provided iPads to all of our judicial officers, so that’s a fairly significant change,” says Hocking, explaining that the iPads provide officers with mobile computing services they can take into court, use from home and look at legislation online.

The Commonwealth Courts Portal (CCP) is another major initiative Hocking has helped implement for the Family Court, Federal Magistrates Court and the Federal Court.

“It provides a single platform for users to access information in files in any of those three courts,” he says.

“We’ve had a fantastic take up, with 3,000 firms and over 6,000 practitioners currently registered, and 73, 000 users in total.”

After registering for the CCP online, parties and their practitioners can access their own files and view a list of all documents on file. If documents have been e-filed, users can then view their contents online; something that is proving very popular, says Hocking.

“We’re currently receiving about 2,000 documents per week e-filed,” he says. There are a number of external document management systems on the market, including Australian-based Nuix and US based companies Cabinet NG (CNG) and Symantec Corporation.

And their product uptake is only picking up. Last month, CNG debuted its new law targeted website Paperless at LegalTech in New York.

According to the Vice President of Business Development at CNG, James True, the site is intended to raise awareness of the benefits of going paperless. 

“It’s an offering that is specifically targeted to the legal community to help firms overcome the challenges they encounter [when going paperless],” says True.

CNG’s document management system costs on average $1,000 US per user when installed locally or $50 per month when hosted in the cloud, but as True insists, “time is money”.

In December last year, Corrs Chambers Westgarth launched its own mini document
management system, Corrs briefcase, an iPad app allowing lawyers to organise and review key documents any time, without 3G or Wi-Fi connections. 

Developed over seven months by Corrs’ legal technology manager, Graeme Grovum, and the firm’s director of legal technology solutions, Brian Borskjaer, the app can be used to transport thousands of documents and its contents can be wiped by Corrs’ IT team if security of information is breached.

Trial by digital
Not only are there iPads appearing in courtrooms across Australia, there are also giant video screens being bolted to the walls. Hocking explains how “high technology courtrooms” will be available in all Australian capital cities by March, when an upgrade to the Family Law Courts video conference
network is completed.

An upgraded network will see video conferencing available for free via an “internal data network”, including in rural and remote locations. Using an internal system, rather than an external telephone line, significantly reduces costs, says Hocking.

“The speed and the quality of the transmission have also been improved, which means the judicial officer will get a better reception and see witnesses more clearly,” he says. 

Trial via video link has been endorsed, including by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Igor Judge, as an important option for vulnerable witnesses (including children and victims of sexual and violent crime) involved in criminal trials.

Human versus machine
Whatever the benefits, there are risks attached to the technological reformation encroaching
on the legal profession. Late last year, Corrs adopted automated time billing software with the ability to track and report a lawyer’s daily work activities. 

Melbourne firm Russell Kennedy is also considering adopting the technology. Called Time Builder, the technology was developed by US legal software company IntApp and was heralded as a win for lawyer efficiency and a valuable tool to help lawyers “jog their memory” when filling out a

Others criticised it as “going one step too far”.

The Time Builder product has also been adopted by a number of US firms, and global firms are now looking to roll it out in their Australian offices, according to Jon Kenton, Corrs’ chief information officer. 

Another technology hailed as creating “ultimate” legal efficiency is predictive coding. This refers to machine learning technology that can be used to automatically predict how documents should be classified, with limited human input. 

Through a finely tuned computer algorithm, electronic documents are ranked and tagged on criteria such as “relevance” and “privilege” to reduce the amount of time and money spent on traditional page-by-page document review by lawyers. 

e-Discovery counsel for Symantec, Matthew Nelson, says “2012 is likely to be remembered as the year of predictive coding” and that the few who have embraced the technology are “unafraid of challenges and willing to take risks”.

The lack of uptake of predictive coding so far, Nelson explains, is due to a lack of transparency
in the coding process. 

“Methodology and results [of early predictive coding technologies] are not always clear, which increases the risk of human error and makes the integrity of the electronic discovery process difficult to defend,” he says.

 But distrust will be allayed this year, with improvements in transparency reducing longstanding concerns about accuracy and security, says Nelson, whose company Symantec announced last week that it will introduce “transparent” predictive coding into its Clearwell eDiscovery Platform.

“In 2012, next generation transparent predictive coding technology will usher in a new era of computer-assisted document review that is easy to use, more accurate, and easier to defend,” he says.

While it is unsurprising to learn that lawyers are hesitant to believe machines can predict document relevance better than them, there is no doubt that taking steps, and risks, to enhance legal information management and discovery processes will help them close the case first.

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