5 Predictions for Online Legal Practice Management Software in 2011For the past two years I’ve opined on what’s coming down the pike for the future of web-based legal software applications.  Feel free to check my accuracy for 2009 and 2010.

All I know is, if you can’t sense the excitement and momentum of cloud technologies for the legal vertical, you might possibly be asleep.

Perhaps I’m hyperaware.   But I can tell you from my other role as founding partner of a web-based legal practice management software company, all we’re seeing is growth.  Continually accelerating growth.  People jumping off legacy products like Time Matters and PC Law as if they were the Titanic.

So without further ado, our predictions for 2011.

1) Cloud Features : Beyond the Basics

The leading legal cloud-based products were introduced in 2008, which makes this year the fourth one in their production lifetime (yes my math is correct).  Since then, functionality shortcomings of these applications compared to their offline versions have largely been addressed.  In 2011, there isn’t much you can do in a desktop practice management application that you can’t do in a web-based counterpart.

So look to the legal cloud computing providers to introduce innovative, outside the box new features based on user response to their applications.  Rocket Matter introduced integration with Google Calendar and Dropbox in 2010 – anticipate more integrations which no desktop software can provide.

The challenge from a product perspective will be to prevent the applications from bloating.  One of the initial advantages of web-based software is its simplicity.  We build only the features that many customers want, as opposed to jamming every last piece of functionality into the application in hopes someone might use it.  As a result, legal web-based software creators will need to walk a fine line to deliver great new functionality without making the software more complicated and cumbersome.

2) Continued Clarity from Ethics Opinions

In 2010, we saw the beginnings of cloud computing ethics opinions in North Carolina, a decision passed down from New York State, and a call for inquiry by the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commision.  As a result, the leading cloud computing providers serving legal got together and formed the Legal Cloud Computing Association, of which Rocket Matter is a founding member.  This is a win-win organization for both industry and bar associations.

Responsible cloud computing providers want to ensure that a minimum set of standards exist to enable general trust of the technology.  If an irresponsible provider comes along and suffers a breach or data loss, it ruins our collective reputation.  Therefore we feel we have a stake in helping bar associations, practice management professionals, and attorneys understand the critical components of good cloud care.

As eyes turn to the ABA and North Carolina to see what ethics opinions they deliver, other states will follow suit. Hopefully the opinions we see will be sensible and not throw obstacles in the ways of attorneys attempting to conduct business as safely and efficiently as possible.

3) Tipping Point Away from Desktop Software

As I mentioned before, as the months pass, we’re seeing faster and faster adoption of Rocket Matter.  Perhaps it’s because of our marketing or our message or word of mouth. But I think a huge factor is the “obvious-ness” of the superiority of web-based software to desktop software.  In an age where people assume they can do anything from anywhere at anytime, why on earth would they want to be saddled with inelegant Windows-based desktop software if there was an alternative?

As Carolyn Elefant points out in her own prognostication piece, the first baby boomers turn 65 in 2011.  The workforce is shedding old blood for new, and that new blood grew up with the Internet.  Not Windows 95.

This is a bold prediction, and one that is going to be hard for me to prove a year from now.  But I suspect that towards the closing months of 2011, more law firms of 30 attorneys or less will activate a cloud legal practice management technology than they will a desktop version.

4) Growth in the Mid-Sized Firm Segment

As Carolyn also points out in her blog, solos and small law firms have much to gain from using cloud-based technologies.  So do larger firms in the 10-50 attorney market.

The cloud is no longer new, untested, and novel. WiFi is near universal (even made free at Starbucks in 2010 – hooray!).  Hardware purchased in 2007 and 2008, when legal cloud technologies were nonexistent or nascent, is coming up on life expectancy.  Mobile security among heterogeneous smartphone environments is now an issue.  Legal administrators can’t rely on Blackberry Enterprise Server to wipe data from a lost or stolen Droid or iPhone, but they can change a password on a web application.

The desire to practice law on Droids, iPads, iPhones, or any new tablet device continually increases at law firms.  With cloud-based legal software, the barriers to practicing law on a device of choice is eliminated.  The want of attorneys to practice with mobility will force firm IT staff to look at alternatives to the standard complicated network setups and nudge them toward the cloud.

5) Entry by a Big Boy

If I may be so bold, I’m going to predict that we’ll see a big newcomer to the legal cloud computing space in one way or another.

Up until now, online legal practice management software has been dominated by two upstart companies.  So the question then becomes, when will Lexis or Thomson enter this quickly growing market?  Or if not them, what about one of the traditional desktop applications for legal such as Tabs or Amicus Attorney?

Let’s say these companies woke up to the threat of web-based practice management to their desktop products in late 2008 or 2009.  That’s now two years ago. Two years is long enough for them to assemble a team and launch something.  So I suspect that legal software vendors are not going to stay on the sidelines much longer, and will enter the legal cloud computing market, whether through build or buy, at some point during this year.

So there you have ’em.  What are your thoughts?  How ludicrous are these predictions?  Or not?