Right before our eyes a major transformation is occurring within the legal profession. I believe 2010 will emerge as a year that we will look back upon as a tipping point. A year where lawyers left behind the traditional confines of their office walls—no longer tethered by phone cords, computer cords, or real estate leases--to practice where and when it suits their needs and the needs of their clients. 2010 will be the year that being small, mobile, and almost expense-free went mainstream.
Several trends are intersecting to drive this major transformation. They include the rapid innovation of mobile technology, the changing perceptions of consumers, economic trends that are squeezing the bottom line for many law firms, and the rise of solo and small law firms started by big firm refugees. Let me identify and discuss how these trends are coming together to change the practice of law in fundamentals ways, and whether the Apple iPad is the tipping point in this change.
Technology Trends are Powering Change
The strongest trend is the exploding use of mobile technology because of significant recent innovations within that field. For several years laptop computers have outsold their desktop counterparts, so that more workers--including lawyers—can be productive when outside of their office environment. Being tied to a desk for 8+ hours a day is receding as the norm. Workers can take a laptop home, to a coffee shop around the corner, or to a conference a continent away and be able to do almost everything they could do while sitting at their desk.
Over the past several years we've also witnessed a dramatic maturing of the smart phone, such that more models have capabilities almost equal to many laptops. Blackberries, iPhones and Android phones all have functionalities that just a few years ago were limited to desktop and laptop computers–and they now do things no desktop or laptop ever did.
And thanks to iPhone Apps as well as now Google and Palm Apps, these phones are becoming more productive daily. Look at the growth of the Apple App Store and how Blackberry, Palm, and Google followed suit. Sure there are tons of games, but also a huge rise in the number of productivity apps like DocumentsToGo, various calendar and task management apps, and even legal-specific apps like Black’s Law Dictionary, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and numerous ones listing state statutes.
These changes will accelerate in 2010 not only because the hardware and applications continue to mature, but conductivity, speed, and reliability are maturing too. This smart phone connectivity trend began to really accelerate in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, and continued with the release of the Droid late in the year. Phone companies no longer tout lots of free minutes, but speeds at which you can transfer data. In fact, just last week two of the largest wireless carriers significantly dropped the price for talking on a cell phone, but not transferring data—that side of the wireless business is still growing and generating huge profits.
Beyond cell services, we're also finally seeing the maturing of wireless broadband so that most lawyers can be connected 24/7. Wireless broadband subscribers grew by 90% in the US in 2009, fueled by both a growth in coverage areas and lower pricing. The price for this wireless service has dropped by 30% and more over the past severa1 years. We are also seeing the increase in WiMax connectivity, although that has been slowed somewhat by the poor economy. WiMax is the next generation in wireless data transfer that promises faster data transfer than current 3G networks.
Not only is mobility changing for lawyers, but for their clients as well. Individual and business clients are using technology to spend less time in the office; and many start-up businesses are forgoing the expense of office space. With the rise of tools such as Skype and GoToMeeting, more people are conducting meetings on-line rather than always in person. And how soon will we see a case where a client at a police stop calls his lawyer to oversee the interaction via his iPhone using the UStream Broadcast app?