More on Smart Contracts

In a previous article on smart contracts, we explained in detail what smart contracts are, and gave some examples. In today’s article we will focus on some of the challenges, and on recent evolutions that addressed those challenges.

Let us first quickly recap what smart contracts are. Michael Matthews defines a smart contract as “a software program that automates the execution of contract terms. It applies to only the performance of executable terms of a contract. Smart contracts do not replace natural language contracts but instead function as a program that connects to a natural language contract through an addendum that establishes an inviolable link between the program and a natural language contract.” Additionally, while smart contracts are automated contracts, what sets them apart from other automated contracts is the usage of Blockchain technology, which registers the contract and its transactions in distributed ledger.

Traditional contracts have certain disadvantages, which often leads to them being contested in court. They are open to interpretation. They are not machine-readable, and e.g., do not have any meta-data that could provide unambiguous clear data. They are also not self-executable, which quite often would make things more efficient. So, the solution seems simple: create machine readable contracts that can self-execute. The whole process can be automated, and the transactions are trusted and registered. The results is higher efficiency and fewer disputes.

Smart contracts, however, come with their own set of challenges. A first challenge is that imprecise data don’t compute. Typically, smart contracts contain conditions that must be met before certain actions are automatically executed. Those conditions must be sufficiently specific and verifiable for the program to evaluate whether they are met.

A related challenge lies in contradictory language. Just as the data must be specific enough, so must the language that specifies the conditions and actions be unambiguously clear. “When stocks are low”, is not sufficiently clear. But it can’t be defined as “below 20%” on one occasion in the contract, and as “below 15%” on another one.

A third challenge has to do with creating logic parameters. When using a Blockchain ledger, transactions are usually registered in real-time. The problem is that the processing of the data by the parties involved doesn’t always happen in real time. The data could be processed, e.g., once a day, or once an hour… This has to be taken in account, which means parameters have to be determined on how and when to process the data to avoid incongruent data sets, which can’t generate a consensus for a contractual condition.

A fourth challenge consists of anticipating data glitches and gaps. Programs contains bugs, and they also cannot anticipate all conditions that might arise. (A lockdown because of the Coronavirus, e.g., may prevent certain tasks from being executed, even if all previously existing necessary conditions are met).

A fifth challenge had to do with scalability. Processing Blockchain transactions requires considerable computing power, as well as sufficient network speed. More complex transactions require more processing power, and much higher network speed to which only some large entities have access.

An inherent risk with all Blockchain-based technologies is the centralization risk. The strength of Blockchain technology lies in its decentralized ledgers. Tsui S. Ng, in an article for the American Bar Association, rightfully points out that there is a risk “if power is concentrated into a small number of hands. Such concentration means that a group of bad actors may conspire together to approve malicious transactions.”

A last challenge has to do with usability. Just as traditional contracts are written in natural language that machines have difficulties interpreting, smart contracts are primarily written in code and therefore not easily readable by the average lawyer. Tools are needed to bridge the usability gap.

Since we wrote our previous article, nearly two years ago, a lot of progress has been made in addressing these challenges. As a result, the use of smart contracts is constantly and rapidly rising. In his article, Eduard Kotysh points out that the technology is maturing, that new and improved tools are becoming available, and that because the problems are systematically being addressed, trust is building. He concludes that “the ecosystem has gathered enough momentum with the media and events worldwide to hit a critical mass to go viral.” Another important evolution is that the technology has become more accessible.

These evolutions are largely due to the creation of several consortia that collaborate on establishing international platforms, protocols and frameworks for smart contracts and Blockchain backed transactions. Once such platform, e.g., is OpenLaw (www.openlaw.io) which started as a joint US and Swiss open source project that allows lawyers to make legally binding and self-executing agreements on the Ethereum blockchain.

Ethereum is one of the leading platforms for smart contracts and was specifically designed for that purpose. Tsui S. Ng: “Although traditional cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, can store and transfer value, Ethereum is also capable of carrying data in the form of arguments, which means that the platform can be programmed to take a specific action once certain conditions are met. Thus, contracts can be programmed to be self-executing because the platform can send money once the specified conditions are satisfied. Theoretically, given enough time, the platform will eventually be able to solve any computable problem. However, in practice, how well the platform runs depends upon network speed and memory.”

Smart contracts have become so popular, that they even have their own programming languages, of which Solidity is most popular. Another sign of how much the technology has matured is that platforms are being created, such as Solidified, that focus on auditing smart contracts.

In summary, smart contracts are changing how legal matters and contracts are drafted. Michael Matthews points out that this inherently implies that we are finding new ways of working: instead of focusing on risk and liability, like traditional contracts do, with smart contracts we focus on the outcome parties desire. He predicts that in the future, smart contracts will force a new methodology, that of outcome-based thinking.

 

 

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Video conferencing

The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way we work. Working remotely has become the new normal. An important part of working remotely, is the ability to have virtual meetings and that is where video conferencing comes into the picture. The sudden explosion of video conferencing affects the legal profession, too. Lawyers meet in video chats with their clients as well as with their colleagues. In several countries, notaries are now offering their services online and no longer require parties to be physically present as long as they can join a video conference. And courts, too, have started handling cases where parties and their lawyers are not attending physically, but in video conferences.

There are several advantages to having virtual meetings. Important at present is that by not having to meet in person, one avoids the risk of getting contaminated by anyone attending the meeting who might be infected. But also important is that virtual meetings save a lot of time and reduce costs, since there is no need for transport, etc.

So, what do you need to start video conferencing? First, you need a device with a camera and a microphone. Most smart phones, tablets, and laptops have built-in microphones and cameras that will do the job perfectly. If you are using a desktop computer, however, chances are you will have to acquire a separate microphone and camera to hook up to your computer. Secondly, you need to use video conferencing software. Let us have a closer look at those.

Several packages are on offer. When deciding which one to choose, you will have to consider what your specific needs and desires are. Do you need the ability to share documents or collaborate on them during the meeting? Do you want to be able to share your desktop with other people in the meeting, so you can show them certain items, e.g., do a presentation? How secure is the software? Is the software easy to use and accessible? Will your clients have to install an app? What devices and platforms are supported? What support options are available? Etc.

When it comes to the cost, video conferencing packages come in three varieties: first, there are packages that are free. Then, there are packages that use a Freemium model, where the basic offering is free, and you pay for additional features. And lastly, there are packages that you always must pay for because they don’t offer a free option.

In recent weeks, both Tech Radar Magazine and PC Magazine dedicated articles to the best video conferencing packages available. (Links below). We will give an overview of the seven most popular options and go into a little more detail on Microsoft Teams.

GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). GoToMeeting is a mobile-friendly app that is available in 3 versions, one free and two paying. Meetings are held in a virtual conference rooms, that can also be accessed by a browser via a custom URL. It is easy to use and offers useful apps for enhanced productivity. It is recommended by PC Magazine for small businesses and consumers.

Skype (www.skype.com). Most people are familiar with Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2011. It comes in 3 versions, a free version, a Skype for Business Basic version, and a full Skype for Business version. A copy of the free version is typically preinstalled on Windows 10 computers. If you have a version of Office 365 or Microsoft 365, you should have access to one of the paid versions of Skype. Skype excels in its cross-platform support and offers features like live subtitles and screen sharing. Skype meetings, too, can be accessed in a browser. It has a limit of maximum 50 people attending a meeting.

Google Hangouts (hangouts.google.com). Google Hangouts come in 2 versions, a free version, and a Google Hangouts Meet version, which is part of the G Suite set of applications, and fully integrates with them. It is accessible and simple, and the paying version is designed specifically to meet business needs. It can handle large numbers of participants. Google Hangouts can be accessed in a browser, or via dedicated apps.

Cisco Webex (www.webex.com). Cisco Webex comes in 2 versions, a free version and a paid one, which you may have access to if you are an existing Cisco customer. It is limited in features, but can handle up to 100 participants, with the restriction that only 25 of them can be included in the video stream simultaneously. PC Magazine recommends it for large organizations and existing Cisco customers.

Zoom Meeting (www.zoom.com). Zoom probably is the most popular video conferencing platform at the moment. It comes in a free and a paid version. It is easy to use, offers many features and excellent performance. It is limited to 100 participants. Zoom has been in the news, however, for security and privacy issues. If you plan to use it, some tweaks in the settings are needed to make it more secure. PC magazine calls it the best solution for small businesses and consumers.

Bluejeans (www.bluejeans.com). Bluejeans comes in three different paying versions. It offers an excellent service that includes whiteboards and screen sharing. Unique is its Dolby-powered directional audio experience, where you hear each participant in a separate location. It can be used in a browser, or via dedicated apps for mobile or desktop. PC Magazine calls it the best option for collaboration and shared meetings.

Microsoft Teams (teams.microsoft.com). Microsoft Teams is part of the Microsoft 365 for Business subscriptions. (Until recently, those were called Office 365 for Business). It is highly customizable and offers plenty of features that integrate tightly with other Microsoft 365 applications. It not only comes as a full-fledged desktop app, but there also are mobile versions, and can even be used in a Chromium-based browser, like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. Certain features, however, like desktop sharing are only available in the desktop app. It is recommended by PC Magazine for large businesses that operate within the Microsoft environment.

Note that as a law firm, you are probably using Microsoft 365 for Business or Microsoft 365 Premium for Business, which means Microsoft Teams is included in the package. It is not a specific video conferencing tool, but rather a collaboration tool that offers chat and video conferencing functionality. Any of the Microsoft / Office 365 apps can be launched from within the Teams desktop app, making it even easier to share and collaborate with other Team members. You can have multiple teams for multiple projects. It is possible to split the work of a team up in sections and channels, which allows for better project management.

Finally, some additional tips that will improve your video conferencing experience:

  • Counterintuitive as it may seem, the audio experience is more important than the visual experience during a video conference. People don’t mind if the video is of slightly lower quality but do mind low audio quality. Make sure you have a decent microphone and loudspeakers.
  • Make sure your camera is at eye-height, and make sure you look into the camera when speaking.
  • Pay attention to lighting: make sure there is sufficient light, that the light source is facing you and pointed away from the camera. (Do not sit in front of a bright window, e.g., where people only see your silhouette against a brightly lit background).
  • When you are attending a meeting with several participants, do not forget that even when you are not speaking, you are on camera, and everybody can see you and your environment.
  • If it is not necessary for you to be visible at a given time, consider switching off your camera for that time.

Happy video conferencing!

 

Addendum 1: on 21 April 2020, Microsoft officially changed the name of Office 365 Personal and Office 365 Home to Microsoft 365 Personal, and Microsoft 365 Family respectively.

Addendum 2: as of May 2020, Google has made Google Hangouts Meet available for free,

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Working Remotely

With the Corona virus pandemic causing havoc, people are urged to work from home for the foreseeable future. For lawyers, that generally is not a problem: The ABA Tech Survey Report showed that in 2019, nearly three quarter of attorneys had worked remotely, and that most lawyers who have children tend to work from home more often.

In previous articles, we pointed out that most law firm management software providers these days offer a cloud solution that allows you to work from anywhere, at any time.  So, if your law firm is using a cloud-based law firm management software package, you shouldn’t have a problem, as you already have access to your cases & documents. And with the Office 365 licenses, you can install the software on several devices, so having it at home should not a be problem either.

What else do you need to work comfortably from home? Let’s go over the list.

  • A PC, laptop, or tablet. While it’s possible to work on a smart phone, once you have to start merging documents, or have clear overviews of reports etc., having a PC, a laptop, or to a lesser degree a tablet, is a better option.
  • A fast, and preferably unlimited bandwidth internet connection. You don’t want to wait for your information to appear on your screen, nor do you want the distraction of having to check whether you have sufficient data left.
  • Robust Wi-Fi that makes that fast internet connection available throughout your house.
  • A backup internet connection. Internet connections do oocasionally go down temporarily and sometimes it can take a while before they’re restored.
  • A UPS. Not only Internet connections can go down. Sometimes the electricity does, too, and you don’t want to lose what you’re working on when it does.
  • A conference speaker. Making conference calls with associates and/or clients are more comfortable with a conference speaker.
  • Webcam. As you’re less likely to have in person meetings, video conferencing usually offers a viable alternative.
  • If you’re going to work many hours a day from home, then a decent monitor, mouse, and keyboard are a must. This also applies if you are using a laptop. And do yourself a favour and get yourself an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Your body will be grateful.
  • Lawyer tend to work with documents and having a scanner at home usually is a necessity. You can scan the documents and upload them to the cloud. A printer, too, is a must.
  • Lawyers work with sensitive information that is attractive to hackers. To work securely from home, you need a firewall. For security reasons, it is also recommended to have a VPN, especially now cybercriminals are increasingly targeting people who work remotely.
  • Headphones or earbuds. There tend to be more interruptions and distractions when you’re working from home. Headphones and earbuds can help keeping those distractions under control.
  • If you’re going to spend several hours a day working, you also want a good, comfortable chair and desk. To prevent being too sedentary, you may consider a sit-stand desk converter.
  • You also need ample lighting, preferably natural light.
  • You may also consider one charger for all your gadgets to prevent a jungle of cables and chargers.

Specifically for lawyers, you probably should consider using a secure client portal, if you aren’t already doing so. It allows you to securely communicate and collaborate with your clients, and also makes it easy for them to follow-up on how their case or cases are going.

There are certain other measures to be taken as well. If you won’t be at the office, you need to communicate these changes with your clients, staff, and colleagues. You have to make sure you have ways to communicate securely. You also may want to consider going to the post office to set up (regular) mail forwarding so the mail that usually arrives at the office now is delivered at home.

Now, working from home comes with its own set of challenges that you have to be aware of:

  • There will be distractions and interruptions. Interruptions are external factors. As Steve Ranger puts it: “Distractions are slightly different. These are mostly the result of being in a different environment to the one which you are used to, and that means habits are disrupted and priorities get muddled. In the office your priorities are (mostly) well defined – you’re there to work. At home your priorities are different; having fun, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV – almost by definition everything not work related.” You need discipline and routine. To make working from home feel more like work, one author suggests dressing like you’re going to work. It is also a good practice to set clear work hours, and to work in the same area.
  • You must find new ways of collaborating with colleagues and clients and remain aware of the fact that all these relationships need in-person attention. You don’t want to rely on written communication only, as the chances of miscommunication are bigger. There are plenty of tools available to collaborate, like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, to name but a few. Just make sure that you set expectations with your clients and colleagues.
  • You have to take your mental health into account. More than a third of people who work from home experience difficulties adapting to the isolation and loneliness that come with it. So, make sure to call a friend or co-worker every once in a while.
  • Many people also feel less motivated when working from home.
  • Security is another challenge. Make sure you have all patches installed, for all devices you’re using, including routers! Invest in the necessary infrastructure (like a firewall). Change your passwords regularly. Use encryption to secure all devices.
  • Stay focused but cut yourself some slack. Make sure to unplug and switch off.

Keeping all of the above in mind, working from home should be a comfortable experience.

 

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Managing your Law Firm in the Cloud

These days, virtually all providers of law firm management software offer a full cloud solution, which is a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution. What does that mean? The Wikipedia teaches us that Software as a Service is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted. It is sometimes referred to as on-demand software, Web-based software, or as hosted software. SaaS apps are typically accessed by users using a thin client, e.g. via a web browser. SaaS has become a common delivery model for many business applications, including law firm management software.

Let us take CICERO LawPack as an example. Effectively, all you need to start running it is a device with a browser, an Office 365 Business Premium license, and the Office apps installed on the device. The software to manage your law firm, your data and your documents are all stored in the cloud, on different servers. As Office 365 Business Premium comes with SharePoint, it only makes sense to store all your documents on the SharePoint server, since it offers many benefits (more on that below).

This set-up is quite different from the olden days where each law firm had to have its own servers and workstations. The main difference with this cloud solution is that your documents are no longer stored on a computer in your law firm, but on the SharePoint servers. In this set-up, you pay per user, and each user has 1 TB of data included in the subscription.

For those who are switching to this SaaS model, it is good to know that all services such as updates and backups of SQL data are typically included in the subscription price for the law firm management software. Typically, there also are no separate start-up costs, and the number of users is can be adjusted monthly. Often, the service provider will offer existing customers a test period where they can already move your database to the cloud, so you can try things out and get an idea of the speed.

In the past, some law firms used Citrix or remote desktop software to be able to work remotely. This typically was done because of licensing issues, i.e. to avoid having to pay multiple Microsoft licenses per user. But that is no longer the case. The subscription-based Office 365 model has entirely different licensing conditions where you pay per user and the user is allowed to install the Office apps on multiple devices. So, this workaround is no longer needed. (The sources below contain a blog article where that is explained in more detail).

As mentioned above, this set-up has many benefits. Having the workload shared over several servers typically increases the speed of the delivery of information, and also lowers the operational risks. If for some reason the data server is temporarily not accessible, you still have full access to all your documents. This set-up also allows you to use multiple factor authentication (MFA) to log into the software.

In a previous article, listed below, we already explained the benefits of using a SharePoint server. It offers a file hosting service, collaborative software, enterprise content and document management, intranet solutions, as well as the possibility to develop custom web applications.

Most users particularly appreciate the ability to share and collaborate on documents, which allows you to work simultaneously with multiple users on a document without the need for any email traffic. Your clients and associates, e.g., can just leave their comments in the text.

Moreover, all documents are indexed, which makes it easier to search through documents from different case files.

There is also an integration with Microsoft Teams to manage chats with clients or employees.

In short, this SaaS solution offers lower costs, less to worry about, and the ability to work more securely, effectively and flexibly.

 

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An Introduction to Facebook for Lawyers

A while ago we wrote an introduction for lawyers to LinkedIn. In today’s article, we’ll focus on Facebook, and how it can be useful for lawyers. From a professional content marketing point of view, both LinkedIn and Facebook have similar offerings. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When something works well on one platform, the other is likely to implement it as well.

Let us first, in the unlikely event the reader isn’t familiar with Facebook, shortly explain what it is. The (Dutch language) Wikipedia defines it as follows: ” Facebook (formerly Thefacebook) is the name of an online social networking site and the eponymous company headquartered in Menlo Park, California, United States. After registration, users can create a personal profile, add friends (contacts, contacts), send messages, post statuses, post photos, share videos, and receive notifications from ‘friends’ who update their profile. Users can also join different groups and categorize their ‘friends’ into groups, such as ‘Friends at work’ or ‘Good friends’.”

When it comes to using social media for professional purposes, Facebook is the second most used website among lawyers. LinkedIn, with its focus on professional connections, is the most used. It’s worth noting, however, that smaller firms and firms that offer their services to individuals rather than companies, tend to prefer Facebook over LinkedIn. (People used to joke that mainly personal injury lawyers were advertising on Facebook).

Why would you, as a lawyer, choose to use Facebook for professional reasons? Carolyn Elefant gives 5 reasons:

  1. Everyone’s on Facebook. As Lexblog’s Kevin O’Keefe also points out, Facebook is by far the largest social media website. Whereas LinkedIn may have 260 million active users worldwide, Facebook has an estimated 2.38 billion active users worldwide. If you want to meet people online, Facebook is good place to start.
  2. Users on Facebook are engaged. Online legal consumers love engagement, and Facebook thrives on engagement: messages are liked, shared, commented upon. Many lawyers first meet their clients through social interactions, and Facebook is designed for that.
  3. Facebook is mobile. Online legal consumers love their mobile devices, and Facebook accommodates them.
  4. Facebook is the most versatile platform, that offers the most tools to interact with people in different ways. And that includes tools for advertising to very specific target audiences.
  5. Facebook isn’t all about the law. Legal consumers prefer to work with people they know and feel they can trust. By having a glimpse at lawyers’ personal lives, relationships and trust can be developed.

 

So, what does Facebook have to offer? As mentioned above, it’s similar to what LinkedIn does, i.e. personal profiles, company pages, groups, advertising & metrics. Apart from those, it also offers Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and chatbots. Let us have a closer look.

 

Personal profiles: the first thing you do when you sign up to Facebook, is to create a personal profile. Where on LinkedIn your profile is more of a résumé, your Facebook profile is more personal. You can post messages, add photos, videos, etc. You also want to connect with other people by asking them to be your ‘friend’. Once people are part of your friends you can start interacting with them in several ways. It is possible to post entire blog articles as messages on Facebook.

 

Company pages: Facebook also allows you to create pages. These aren’t just company pages but can also be dedicated to certain causes, or even certain products or services. As a law firm, you’ll want to make sure your law firm has its own company page where you can provide information about the firm and interact with anyone who decides to interact with you through the page. What makes company pages even more interesting, is the metrics Facebook provides for them (see below). Facebook also offers chatbot functionality, and it’s fairly easy to add a chatbot to your company page.

 

Groups: Facebook also uses groups, where people discuss the topics the group is dedicated to. If you want to build a positive online reputation for yourself, actively participating in groups in a helpful way is recommended. You may even consider starting your own group and inviting people to it.

 

One of the points where Facebook excels is advertising and metrics. When you post a message, photo or video on your company page, Facebook offers you metrics on how many people saw them, shared them, interacted with them, etc. When you sign up to advertise through Facebook, it opens up a whole new world of metrics, and it allows you to use different criteria to target specific users. Say you have published a book, and created a page for it, you could have Facebook show ads to people within your geographical area that have interacted with the page in some way (liked it, commented on a message, etc.) But you could even be far more specific and use anything Facebook knows about its users to target them with your ads. If you’re a divorce lawyer, you could, e.g., target anybody in your geographical area who changed their marital status from married to it’s complicated.

 

Facebook also offers secure communications through Messenger and WhatsApp, which are more secure than non-encrypted emails. Worth noting is that chatbots can be integrated into these, too.

 

How do you get started? Tammy Cannon of the Social Media Examiner suggests the following three steps.

  1. Support your business with a Facebook personal profile.
  2. Market and advertise your business with a Facebook Business Page.
  3. Engage a narrow audience with Facebook Groups.

In follow-up articles, we’ll explore more in detail how you as a lawyer can use Facebook, including how you can effectively market yourself on the platform.

 

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Legal Tech Predictions for 2020

In two previous articles, we paid attention to the legal technology trends of 2019. Most of those are expected to continue in 2020. Apart from those, several authors made their own predictions, too, for what legal technology will bring in 2020. We’ll summarize the most interesting and important ones below.

Now, when looking at all the predictions, three items stand out. The first one is the omnipresence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Whether we’re talking about legal service delivery (to lawyers as well as legal consumers), marketing, cybersecurity, eDiscovery, etc., there is no escaping AI. Secondly, the general mantra for 2020 seems to be ‘automate, automate, automate’. And thirdly, the cloud, too, becomes more and more omnipresent.

Market: The judiciary finally boards the train of legal tech and automation. Authors predict an increase is online courts, in courts using case management software, and in using legal analytics to speed up decision making.

When it comes to the service providers on the legal market, experts expect some cross-industry mashups, where players from other markets (e.g. accounting, analytics & data mining) join forces with legal service providers.

The trend where law firms are being run like business continues, with law firms hiring more people who have joint business and law degrees.

Law Firm Management Software: authors expect the trend of focusing on process automation to increase efficiency to continue, which will allow law firms to scale their services. Many predict that law firms will finally start becoming more client-centred, with a heavy focus on improving the client experience, and on client collaboration through improved client portals.

Cloud: as mentioned before, the usage of the cloud in the legal market is expecting to keep on rising. When it comes to lawyers using the cloud, security will remain a main challenge. The good news is that many predictions see the clouds getting connected, i.e. they predict that the interoperability between the different cloud platforms will increase. Experts also see a rise in edge computing, and an accelerated adoption of PaaS (Platform as a Service).

(Google Maps is a good example to explain what edge computing is. Google uses servers all over the world. When you use Google Maps in your area, you’re presented with a local copy of the information that is stored on a server near to you. Edge computing means that the information storage and the computation power are distributed to bring them closer to where they are needed. PaaS: the Wikipedia defines it as “a category of cloud computing services that provides a platform allowing customers to develop, run, and manage applications without the complexity of building and maintaining the infrastructure typically associated with developing and launching an app.”)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most predictions have to do with Artificial Intelligence. In general, the experts expect advances in NLP (Natural Language Processing), conversational AI (chatbots), Computer Vision, and Reinforcement Learning (a type of Machine Learning). More specific for the legal market, most authors talk about how the work of lawyers changes as AI and automation will take over certain tasks lawyers and paralegals were performing until now, and how this will increase the efficiency of law firms. The increased usage of AI is also expected to have an impact on compliance, research, due diligence, and legal documentation (creation, analysis and review of legal documents).

Apart from that, there are also more specific predictions. Law firms are expected to start using more data-driven legal marketing, predictive legal analytics, and Virtual Assistants. AI is also expected to start contributing to finding new legal solutions.

Most of the predictions about Security are rather dire. All experts warn about deepfakes and that there will be a considerable increase in incidents of security breaches, both on-premise and in the cloud. Artificial Intelligence is increasingly being used by both cybercriminals and by those fighting cybercrime.

eDiscovery: the experts see three trends and three challenges. The trends are a) that eDiscovery continues its move to the cloud; b) that the line between e-discovery and information governance will continue to blur; and c) the continued increase of AI usage. A first challenge has to do with the tension between eDiscovery and privacy legislation with regard to analytics. A second challenge lies in the increase of atypical data sources like ephemeral messaging, IoT device data, collaboration tools and app-based information. A third challenge is how to deal with an increase in deepfakes and fabricated evidence.

When it comes to Blockchain, the experts don’t agree. Some point at the fact that thus far, there has been far more hype than actual results. Most of them, however, are expecting an increase in real-life applications in the legal market. At the same time, they also expect more cases of Blockchain fraud and litigation.

 

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A Chatbot For Your Law Firm

We have talked about chatbots on several occasions in the past. Most of those targeted legal consumers. Today, we’ll have a look at how a chatbot could benefit your law firm.

Let’s start by defining what a chatbot is. A chatbot is a computer program designed to mimic human conversation. It is typically powered by rules or by more advanced Artificial Intelligence technologies like Machine Learning. Most chatbots are text-based, but more advanced ones like Siri or Alexa, are voice-based. In law firms, they are often used for simple tasks like increasing lead generation, client intake, booking an appointment or accepting payments. More advanced legal chatbots can generate, review and analyse legal documents.

You may think a chatbot is not for your law firm, but you’d be mistaken. There are many benefits, both for your clients and prospective clients, as well as for your law firm.

What makes chatbots attractive to the legal consumers?

  • First, there is the unprecedented popularity of messaging apps. One of the reasons chatbots can be found everywhere is because they became popular on messaging aps. The first chatbots appeared on Facebook Messenger and soon after were offered on other platforms like Skype, weChat, Telegram, Slack, Kik, Line, and SMS.
  • People love their mobile devices, and chatbots are typically designed for mobile first.
  • People love to text. Did you know text messages boast a 98% open rate? Chatbots benefit from this.
  • People love interaction, and chatbots are interactive. They increase engagement.
  • Chatbots are available 24/7.
  • Our online culture is an instant gratification culture. Chatbots can give instantaneous responses. Research shows that 70 % of consumers prefer a chatbot to interacting with a human being, if it means they’ll get an instantaneous response.
  • Chatbots can mimic lawyers for several tasks, which means the legal consumers who need those services can get their needs met faster, and typically at a lower or no cost.

What are the benefits for your law firm?

  • Because consumers love interaction, conversational marketing has become a key part of promotion for any business, including law firms.
  • Chatbots can perform repetitive tasks that lawyers do. They have proven useful in:
    • Client acquisition and intake, as well as lead generation.
    • Answering FAQs, so you don’t have to email back and forth answering questions you are frequently asked.
    • Document generation and review.
  • Using chatbots to take care of repetitive tasks therefore leaves you more time for more productive and profitable endeavours.

So how do you get started? Once you know what you want your chatbot to do, there are plenty of tools available. In his article, “5 Often-Overlooked Steps to Building a Useful Chatbot for Your Law Practice“, Tom Martin from Lawdroid explains the best way to proceed. He outlines 5 steps.

Step 1 is to determine what your chatbot’s purpose is. Do you, e.g., want to use it to allow new clients to enter their details into your system and book an appointment? Or do you want a more advanced bot who, e.g., can generate or analyse legal documents? Be as specific as possible.

Step 2 is to determine where your bot lives. Will you offer your chatbot on your website, or on Facebook, or Whatsapp, etc.?

In step 3, you choose your bot’s personality: its name, visual style, backstory, and the conversational tone. (People enjoy a bit of humour). Make sure you also tell people they are dealing with a chatbot.

Step 4 is to determine your chatbot’s conversation structure.  Martin breaks this down in six components. First, you need to do some preparation where you look at some essential questions like who your target audience is (e.g. existing or new clients), what they are trying to do, and what they need for that. Next, you can diagram your dialog tree, where you map how the conversation can unfold. Let your chatbot start the conversation with a greeting, and make sure that you manage the users’ expectations: explain what the bot can and cannot do.  Martin calls the next step the “Glide Path to Goal”: the conversation should lead the user to a goal, and to reach that goal as effectively as possible, open-ended questions should be avoided. So, it’s good to suggest possible answers the user can choose from. Once the conversation is ended, and the goal is achieved, it’s good to thank the user, and to provide him or her with a deliverable or a specific call to action. Last but not least, make sure you pay sufficient attention to error handling.

In the fifth and last step, you choose what tools you will use to build your bot. Martin’s article includes a checklist and a list of available platforms.

The checklist includes the following items:

  • Is creating the chatbot free or paid?
  • Is any coding required?
  • What are the publishing platforms for the chatbot?
  • Does it use or need Artificial intelligence?
  • How are the third-party integrations with apps like Gmail, MailChimp, Office 365, etc.
  • What are the supported languages?
  • What is the recommended use? (You don’t need a bot, e.g., that uses Machine Learning if you only want your new clients to fill out their details).

If you want to build your legal chatbot, the following platforms are currently available:

(In his article, Martin goes over the checklist items for each of these platforms).

Let’s leave it at that for now. We’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this topic. The articles listed below can help you further.

 

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Google My Business for Law Firms

In an online world, legal consumers need to be able to find your law firm. Google My Business (GMB) plays an essential – and often overlooked – part in that.

What is it? GMB is a free online listing in Google’s business directory. It is available for businesses and organizations to manage across Google’s services like Search and Maps. What is important is that Google uses GMB listings in the local search results it presents. A well-organized entry in GMB therefore results in a better ranking in Google’s local organic search results, making it easier for people to find your firm. (‘Organic’ search results are the ones that are not paid for).

GMB offers other benefits as well. It allows you to manage your own information: you can specify areas of expertise, address, opening hours, your website and how you can be contacted. GMB also offers you several ways to interact with your target audience (see the overview of features below). Lastly, GMB offers metrics, called insights that allow you to better understand and expand your online presence (see below).

Google My Business offers several useful features.

Messages: people can use GMB to leave you private messages that you can reply to.

Questions and Answers are similar to messages, except that they are public, so people can see them in the ‘Knowledge panel’ of your law firm. (The knowledge panel offers a summary of your GMB listing and is what is shown in the local search results).

Posts are short announcements you make that have a limited life span. You can use them, e.g., for promotions, or to wish people a happy new year, to announce days with different opening hours, to announce new staff, etc.

Bookings allow people to directly make an appointment with your law firm.

A GMB listing also offers Reviews from your clients. Google has de facto become the largest review site.

Insights is the name Google gave to the metrics it provides with regard to your GMB listing. You can discover how people found your firm (e.g. what key words they used), where they came from, how many people directly clicked on the link to your website, or on the telephone link, etc.

So, how do you start using your GMB listing? Stacey Burke describes the process in four steps: claim the listing, have Google verify it, optimize it, and keep it active.

Step 1: Claim your listing. To be eligible for a GMB listing, you must be able to meet clients in person, either at your law firm’s physical address, or at their premises. If you haven’t claimed your listing yet, perform a search on your law firm’s name and address. If a knowledge panel appears with information on your law firm, it is already listed. If there is no knowledge panel (area in the rectangle) then you will want to create a listing following these steps from Google. To claim the listing, you will need a Google account.

Step 2: Verify your listing. To make sure not just anybody claims your law firm listing, Google will have to verify it first. This step is required in order for your law firm’s listing to be eligible to appear on Maps, Search, and other Google properties. Once you’re verified, it also means Google deems your law firm a legitimate business, providing third party verification of your company’s credibility when people search for your law firm online. To verify your listing, sign into your Google My Business account where you will see a “Verify Now” option. As part of the verification process, Google will contact your business to ensure your contact information is correct and legitimate.

Step 3. Optimize your listing. Once you’ve claimed your listing, you want to optimize it for the best search engine results. First, you have to add the basic information like the name of your firm, the phone number and other contact modalities, as well as the business category and location, the service area (=geographical area your law firm mainly serves), and opening hours. Optimizing your listing is an art in itself, and these two articles will greatly assist you in the process.

 

Step 4. Keep your listing active. In its search results, Google tends to favour law firm that remain active: make posts (e.g. to announce blog posts), answer questions, make sure to get reviews and respond to them, etc. Burke recommends checking your GMB listing once or twice a week.

 

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The Legal Technology Trends of 2019, part 2

In November, the American Bar Association (ABA) published its annual Legal Technology Survey Report. The report typically is accompanied by a series of detailed reports on specific subjects, that are published over a period of several weeks. In a previous article we dealt with the first three of those reports. In this article, we’ll have a look at the next five, which deal with practice management, budgeting and planning, technology training, solo and small firms. A ninth report was published on lawyer well-being, but it largely repeats items raised in the other reports.

Firm Culture

When it comes to demographics, the report found that the majority of respondents, no less than 71%, were male, although the gender gap decreased as age decreased. 33% of respondents was between 60-69, while less than 2% were under 29 years old; 21% were in their 50s.

With the exception of solo lawyers, the vast majority of lawyers still mainly work from a traditional office space. 34% of solo lawyers work from home. Overall, the profession keeps flexible working hours (offered by 77% of law firms) and mobile: roughly 50% of lawyers have telecommuted. 88% of those who telecommute work from home.

The report also found that there is a large and continuing gap between what the larger firms offer in terms of amenities, cyber protection, and training and what smaller firms offer.

Overall, lawyers are still working too hard, and continue to not acknowledge the strain this puts on their mental health.

Practice Management

Law Technology Today summarizes the following key points regarding the survey’s findings on practice management solutions.

Usage and satisfaction of Practice Management software: while the rest of the world increasingly relies more and more on technology, the legal profession hasn’t really followed suit. The use of practice management software has been more or less stagnant for the last four years. The majority of users of these packages remains satisfied with their usage.

Need for improvement and all-inclusiveness: one of the main problems with practice management software is that most of them are still only offering partial solutions. There isn’t any program that handle every aspect of law firm management. As a result, law firms typically must rely on several programs, where their interoperability leaves much to be desired.

Rise of CRM as an alternative: as a result of the limitations of existing practice management software, there has been an increase in the usage of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions in law firms.

Shifts in the Use of Laptops, Computers, and Mobile Devices: 57% of lawyers still use a desktop computer as their primary work computer. This confirms the downward trend of the last years and corresponds to the increase in the use of laptops as the main work computer, which now stands at 41%. This shift towards laptop computers can be seen mainly in large firms, followed by medium sized firms. For small firms the increase in laptop usage was limited to a 1% increase (to 35%), and for solo lawyers, the number remained the same at 40%.

The Continuing Increase of Remote Access: one of the main findings of the report is that lawyers are increasingly using remote access, with 73% of lawyers using telecommuting technologies in 2019, compared to 68% last year. These are mainly used to occasionally work from home.

Consistency of Fee Structures and the Adoption of New Technology: there was little change in how law firms charge. Most law firms, 69%, are still using hourly fees. Fixed fees saw a slight increase from 15 to 17%, which came at the expense of contingent fees which fell from 11 to 9%. Other fee structures remained the same.

Budgeting and Planning

There is some good news when it comes to budgeting and planning: in 2019, the law firms that have a budget for technology slightly increased their spending. Solo firms spent about the same as last year, and have no intention of spending more next year, where all other firms that have a budget intend to increase it for next year.

The report also advises to consider budgeting for technology training (see below), and to start using metrics to measure technology usage and the track what is working and what isn’t. “Plan well, spend wisely, and prioritize accordingly; technology is and will remain an essential part of running a law firm.” (Law Technology Today)

Technology Training

In 2019, lawyers need technology to efficiently run their practice. In fact, by now most bar associations require lawyers to be familiar with “the risks and benefits associated with technology”. To be able to use that technology effectively, training is essential. A majority of 82% of lawyers understand that technology training is important. The bad news is that in 2019, fewer attorneys had access to technology training at their law firms. Barely more than half of the attorney respondents to the survey had technology training available at their firms. The chance of having training available at the firm rises with the size of the firm, as was the case in previous years. Interestingly, the report also warns that solo lawyers may be overestimating their technology competence and underestimating their need for training.

Solo and Small Firms

Solo and small firms (with 2 to 9 attorneys) still form the majority of law firms: with 32% and 31% respectively, they’re good for 63% of law firms. When looking at the ages of the lawyers, the largest (10-year) segment consists of lawyers between 60-69.

The survey found that technology adoption among solo and small firms appears to be stagnant or declining. The only exception is the use of practice management software, which slightly more solo and small firms are using in 2019 than before. As mentioned before, rather alarmingly, less than 50% of solo and small law firms use file and email encryption, file access restriction, intrusion prevention and detection, web filtering, whole or full desk encryption, or employee monitoring.

 

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The 2019 Social Law Firm Index

Good2bSocial (www.good2bsocial.com) recently published its annual ‘Social Law Firm Index.’ It is study of social media marketing adoption, use, and best practices within the legal industry. The Social Law Firm Index analyses each firm’s presence on the internet and across social media and evaluates their social usage to extend thought leadership content and to engage with clients and constituents. It measures social media reach, engagement, and marketing performance on platforms that include Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Based on this information, the report also publishes rankings of America’s Top 200 law firms for best social media achievement.

The report observed the following trends for 2019:

  • There is a notable rise in ‘Paid Social’, especially on LinkedIn. When you publish an article, your followers or connections can read the article. That is referred to as organic social or organic reach. Paid social is when you pay the platform to promote your content as ‘sponsored content’ on other people’s accounts. The amount of law firms that uses paid social tripled over the last year, from 10 to 30%. LinkedIn remains the most popular platform for lawyers to publish and promote their content.
  • There is a decrease in the use of Facebook, and an increase in the use of Instagram. This reflects a general trend that is not limited to law firms: younger users prefer Instagram to Facebook.
  • People use more videos and podcasts. Traditionally, law firms mainly use blogs. But to stay competitive on social media, video is now a required medium, and law firms are increasingly starting to use video. There also is an increase in podcasts. (Our recent article on podcasts explained the benefits).
  • Law Firms continue to invest in marketing automation. “With marketing automation, your law firm can utilize various tools [to] save time, free up bandwidth and ultimately improve ROI. Time-consuming processes can be replaced by a system that can automatically send out emails based on an email response or website visit. When firms combine content with marketing automation, they can analyze what their clients engage with and how. By knowing more about your client, you can deliver better customer service.” (Legal Newswire)

The report always selects the best performers, and based on their performance, distills the current best practices.

  • Measurement and ROI: the law firms that score well clearly identify their goals and develop clear metrics to evaluate how well different strategies work.
  • Think like a leader: “Most Law firms produce client-centric content that discusses pain points or issues that their clients are facing. They are also publishing content that provides added value to their existing clients. Thought leaders also produce content on a regular and frequent basis, written in an easy-to-digest and understandable style and length.”
  • Employee Engagement: legal consumers want to know the people who will represent their interests and use social media to learn about them. The best performing law firms are investing time and money to properly train their lawyers and employees on the use of social media and digital marketing. They also use specialized platforms that offer employee advocacy tools, like LinkedIn, Elevate, PostBeyond, and Clearview Social.
  • Automation: as was mentioned before, more and more law firms invest in automating their marketing efforts. Notable is the increase in law firms using chat bots on their websites to engage with new leads, 24/7.

The report traditionally also focuses on the worst performers. These are the mistakes you want to avoid.

  • Making marketing decisions without data: The majority of law firms don’t use any metrics to evaluate and improve their marketing efforts. (Confirming what this year’s ABA Tech Report called ‘random acts of marketing’).
  • Having home pages and practice area pages on your website that offer low content. One important criterion, e.g., is whether the page answers the searcher’s query. Avoid pages that are thin on content or merely copy content that can be found on other pages. Are you using the right key words that will attract potential clients? “In today’s marketplace, firms need more than just a sharply designed website—they also need to make sure that they’re using appropriate key terms, that they have content that is both useful and relevant, and that there is an organized and logical home page.”

The report expects the trends it identified (and mentioned in the first part of this article) to continue in 2020.

 

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