No matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a year to remember. It began with the Australian bushfires (remember those?). Then over the span of just a few months, Kobe Bryant died in a fiery helicopter crash, President Donald Trump was acquitted of impeachment charges, and Harvey Weinstein was convicted. Then in March, the impact of COVID-19 set the scene for the rest of this crazy, unprecedented year.
Naturally, the legal technology space wasn’t immune from the unpredictable nature of 2020. The effects of the pandemic were wide-ranging and felt in all corners of the legal technology world. The shift to remote work had a dramatic impact on both the practice of law and the business of law, resulting in the rapid—and singularly remarkable—adoption of technology at rates never before seen. In some cases, the transition was a smooth one, and in others, it was a spectacular disaster.
Good or bad, the results of the pandemic’s impact were undoubtedly notable—and newsworthy. So newsworthy, in fact, I had a tough time coming up with my top legal technology stories of 2020 for this article. So, I crowdsourced it to my social media network, and from those responses, a few topics were suggested repeatedly, thus helping me narrow it down to five stories. Without further ado, here they are.
The unprecedented transition to remote work
In March, many governors and mayors began requiring the closure of nonessential businesses due to the pandemic. For lawyers across the country who’d long resisted the concept of practicing virtually, remote work became an unsettling reality nearly overnight. And to the great surprise of legal technology evangelists like myself, they began to rapidly adopt remote working technologies into their daily lives at rates never before seen.
Seemingly overnight, the legal profession was practicing law like it was 2030, and lawyers were embracing new technologies—such as videoconferencing, e-signature, virtual notaries and cloud computing remote working tools—with open arms.
And it wasn’t just lawyers. The court system also quickly adapted by transitioning to e-filing and virtual court appearances. Virtual jury trials and depositions became commonplace in many jurisdictions, and bar association-sponsored CLEs about videoconferencing and remote working sprang up across the country.
Videoconferencing became the norm
That unparalleled rise in videoconferencing was the next big story. At the start of the pandemic, the legal profession grappled with how to conduct in-person meetings remotely. Videoconferencing solved this problem. Lawyers quickly realized that by taking advantage of these readily available and affordable tools, secure and encrypted face-to-face video meetings with clients, work colleagues and co-counsel were possible.
As a result, lawyers are now using videoconferencing technologies with a frequency that would have been unthinkable in 2019. Videoconferencing became the new normal out of necessity for both meetings and court appearances, as shown by the results from this survey conducted by MyCase in the spring (note that I am the legal technology evangelist with MyCase).
The use of videoconferencing by the courts was particularly notable given the prior resistance of many court administrators to the mere suggestion that cameras should be permitted in the courtroom, or that court appearances could be conducted virtually. The shutdowns and social distancing requirements resulted in a remarkable change of attitude; however, and as a result, courts across the country now use videoconferencing tools to facilitate and streamline the swift administration of justice. In fact, because of the pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court, even heard oral arguments by telephone for the first time in history.
Another unfortunate effect of the pandemic was shouldered by recent law school graduates who sat for a bar exam in 2020. Because bar examiners were wholly unprepared for socially distanced and/or remote testing, test-taking went anything but smoothly. The hashtag #barpocalypse was frequently trending in the legal Twitterverse, and bar exam shenanigans and failures were a topic of conversation on blogs and across social media.
The issues encountered with the virtual administration of bar exams ran the gamut from technology failures and the lack of bathroom breaks to allegations of biased facial recognition tools and data breaches. In-person exams fared no better, with test-takers alleging that bar examiners failed to provide safe, socially-distanced facilities for the administration of tests. An arguable consequence of the less-than-ideal testing conditions were declining exam passage rates in some states. The bottom-line: No matter how the tests were administered in 2020, it was a less than banner year for the unfortunate test-takers.
Legal tech wealth
Another notable trend in 2020 was the large number of mergers, acquisitions and funding rounds in the legal technology space. Every month, it seemed at least one large merger or acquisition occurred, and funding rounds proliferated. Some suggested that the pandemic was the driving force behind many of the events; others believed it was a continuation of the overall trend of increased technology spending and growth that had been occurring more globally in recent years.
Whatever the cause, investment in the legal technology space occurred at a steady clip and started early on in the year. Here are some of the more memorable examples, although there were many others not listed below:
- • Litera acquired Allegory Law in August, Bestpractix in June, and Levit and James Table of Authority Tool in March
- • Casetext raised $8.2 million in March
- • Everlaw raises $62 million in March
- • Filevine acquired Lead Docket in April
- • LawGeex raised $20 million in May
- • DoNotPay raised $12 million in June
- • InfoTrack acquired majority stake in LawToolBox in August
- • Rocket Matter was acquired by Lightyear Capital for an undisclosed amount in September
- • ASG Legal acquired Headnote in September
- • Fastcase acquires Judicata in September
- • Disco raised $60 million in October and another $40 million in December
- • MyCase was acquired by Apax Partners for $193 million in October
- • Priori Legal raised $6.3 million in October
- • Onit acquired McCarthyFinch in November and AXDRAFT in December
- • Exterro acquired Access Data for a “nine-figure” amount in December
Utah and Arizona allow nonlawyer ownership of law firms
Last, but not least, was the continued relaxation of ethics rules in some jurisdictions relating to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, fee sharing with nonlawyers and nonlawyers appearing in court. Both occurred in August, when Arizona and Utah relaxed the ethical ban on nonlawyer ownership. England and Australia already permit nonlawyers to have an ownership interest in law firms, but jurisdictions in the United States have been decidedly reluctant to follow suit—that is, until now.
The Utah Supreme Court unanimously voted to approve a two-year trial period wherein nonlawyer ownership or investment in law firms would be permitted. The court also agreed to allow legal services providers to experiment with new ways of serving clients during that same timeframe. Finally, the court amended the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct to include a new Rule 5.4A, which permits fee sharing with nonlawyers upon written notice to the client.
A couple of weeks later, the Arizona Supreme Court announced that it would change its ethics rules pursuant to a unanimous vote, and that the change would be effective on Jan. 1, 2021. The court joined the ranks of a few other forward-thinking states when it approved an “alternative business structure” that allowed nonlawyers, defined as “legal paraprofessionals,” to represent clients in court.
All of the stories above represent a marked departure from the status quo in the United States and indicate that change is afoot in the years to come. Of course, in a year that was fraught with uncertainty and unrivaled challenges, adaptation out of necessity was simply par for the course. 2020 was a year to be remembered for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, against all odds, the legal profession rose to the occasion and began to rapidly adopt technology at rates never before seen. What that means for the future remains to be seen. But one thing I know for certain is that we’ll all be more than happy to put a challenging and incredibly eventful 2020 behind us.
See also: ABAJournal.com: “2020 in review: Legal software for working remotely”
Editor’s Note – This article is published with permission of the author with first publication in the ABA Journal.