Legal Tech History: 1996 and All That…

Remember the sound of 56K modems? Can you recall when lawyers felt a new dawn had arrived with the widespread uptake of the internet? You may then have some recollections of 1996 – a heady time for legal innovation that felt revolutionary.

Artificial Lawyer caught up with Dennis Kennedy, the well-known legal tech expert and academic at the Center for Law, Technology & Innovation at Michigan State University, to talk about how he experienced 1996 to around 2001, and what he and other lawyers thought would happen as technology moved right into the centre of their legal lives.

Press play to watch the video, which was an extensive discussion but has been cut down to an easily digestible 18 mins.

AL TV Productions, Sept 2022.

In terms of what we cover…the video will help there. But one of the key points that came from listening to Dennis was that there were plenty of similarities with the 1996 legal tech surge and the ‘New Wave’ of legal tech that hit the world around 2016, twenty years later.

As Dennis explained, it was an ‘exciting time of new ideas and people were very ambitious’. But the challenge was that the tech tools in 1996 – although an epic leap forward compared to what most lawyers had on offer a decade before – were still quite limited, (and perhaps one can say that we will always have that feeling when looking back…?)

Dennis highlighted that lawyers believed the new technology would quickly make life better for them. He noted: ‘People thought they would not have to work such long hours.’ (… ! …)

‘Our tools as lawyers had not changed for 100 years, and now we could work better – is what we thought at the time,’ Dennis said.

It was clearly a very positive time, filled with hope. But there were also some worries. He told the story of using some early document assembly software and realised that it might just undermine the billable hour model that he used for client work – back when he was a fee-charging lawyer.

So, perhaps where we are today is not so far away from 1996! The great themes of legal tech seem to keep repeating.

One other point that was made that really struck this site was Dennis saying: ‘Innovation comes from constraints.’

This is such a great point, i.e. lawyers started to play with the new tools available to them, but what they could do was limited back then, which in turn drove legal technologists to be inventive, spurring on new innovation….leading all the way up to today. And that’s a nice thought to end on.

Thanks to Dennis for the enlightening discussion. Here’s to learning from our legal tech history!