TechReport 2020: Practice Management

The Practice Management report is sponsored by MyCase.
ABA TechReport combines data from the annual ABA Legal Technology Survey Report with expert analysis, observations, and predictions from leaders in the legal technology field. Every Monday we’ll be posting a new report from one of our experts, so stay tuned!

Law firms have always had an interesting relationship with technology. Technology, of course, continues to develop across all industries, including the legal field. As many of these software and programs are developed and experimented with, however, some are found to be useful to certain firms and useless to others, others are found to be highly available and rarely used, and others are forced out entirely because of new technology.

The American Bar Association and the Legal Technology Resource Center surveyed over 50,000 attorneys regarding the technology and software utilized and available in their firms. This report analyzes the responses of these attorneys on the availability and usage of various forms of technology in their firms, as well as how they personally utilize it. The 2020 Legal Technology Survey Report analyzes practice management software, and how the availability and low usage rates of this software may force developers into making a choice to continue to develop it. It compares this software to conflict management software, which is facing a similar negative trend and stagnation but is still in a better situation in terms of usage compared to practice management software. Through this analysis, firms with between 2-9 attorneys are an attractive market that seems to be growing more interested in technology, a fact supported by analysis on metadata usage and availability. This points to an increased prioritization and care for client and attorney security across all law firms.

Lastly, this report analyzes the continued decrease in usage of desktops as primary work stations for attorneys, and how this related to remote access for attorneys and how remote access— following the COVID-19 pandemic this year—may force smaller firms that have not been using remote access software as regularly into making difficult choices to stay competitive.

Practice Management Software: Availability and Use

The availability of practice management software has remained relatively unchanged between 2019 and 2020, with just a 1%  drop of law firms stating that practice management software was available for their firm (from 53% in 2019 to 52% in 2020). However, this small change does not illustrate more significant drops in law firms of certain sizes. Both law firms with 10-49 attorneys and law firms with 100+ attorneys have seen a 4% drop in the availability of practice management software, and solos have seen a 2% drop. The only law firms that increased their availability of practice management software were firms with 2-9 attorneys, which saw a 1% increase in the availability of practice management software.

While a 1% drop is not precarious, firms of 100+ attorneys have consistently had the highest percentage of availability of said software. 70% of these firms reported having the software available for attorneys in 2018, which dropped 3% to 67% in 2019, and another 4% in 2020 to 63%. This marks a downward trend of availability for large law firms—typically practice management software’s most adopted customer. These numbers might cause some concern for companies producing these software programs.

There is a possibility of shifting the focus to smaller law firms for increasing the availability of practice management software. Firms of 2-9 attorneys are the only demographic that reported an increase in availability each of the last four years, increasing a total of 4% to 60% since 2017. They are now the demographic that reports the second-highest availability of practice management software, and—unlike firms of 100+ attorneys that are in front of them—these smaller law firms are following a positive trend up in terms of increasing their availability.

These trends are supplemented by the reports of those personally using practice management software (as opposed to just having it available). The percentage of solo attorneys reporting personally using these software programs increased by 1% to 29% in 2020. For law firms with 2-9 attorneys, the percentage of people personally using these programs increased 2% over the last year to 45%—which is also 10% higher than the reported percentage of those using these programs in 2018 (35%). Both law firms with 10-49 attorneys and law firms with 100+ attorneys have seen large drops in reported usage of these programs from 2019 to 2020. For law firms with 10-49 attorneys, only 27% reported using these programs—a drop from 33% in both 2018 and 2019. For law firms with 100+ attorneys, the percentage using these programs dropped to 18%, down from 22% in 2018 and 2019 and down 10% from 2017.

These numbers raise some interesting observations. Despite reporting having the highest availability of practice management software programs at their firms (63% in 2020), firms with 100+ attorneys reported the lowest personal usage of these programs (18% in 2020). These large law firms also reported a negative trend for both availability and usage of these programs in the last year. This could be a troubling trend for the producers of these programs. Either they need to restructure the programs to provide more value to larger law firms, at the risk of alienating smaller law firms as consumers—or they could refocus their attention on capturing smaller law firms between 2-9 attorneys, as these firms are the only ones reporting an increase in the availability of these programs and a consistent increase in the usage of these programs.

Satisfaction of Practice Management Software

Some of the negative trends seen in the availability and usage of practice management software could potentially be explained by the reported satisfaction levels of those who used these programs. In 2019, only 57% of users reported being “somewhat satisfied” with their personal use of these programs. This number represented a 4% decrease from 2018. At the same time, the percentage of users who were somewhat satisfied with the programs rebounded back to 60% in 2020, so it is possible we will see a rebound in the usage and availability of these programs as well due to this increase in satisfaction.

The percentage of users who reported being “not very satisfied” with their software also reached a record high of 9% in 2019, and interestingly, this percent has fallen to a record low of 6% in 2020. While it only represents a 3% difference, it is further evidence that the quality of these programs increased between 2019 and 2020. This supposed increase in quality may be pivotal for the adoption and continued use of these programs in law firms of all sizes.

Comparison to Conflict Checking Software

Overall, compared to practice management software programs, law firms report a greater availability and use of conflict checking software. This comparison is important to note not because the two types of programs often compete with each other—they complete different tasks and are used for different purposes, but rather because companies with the capability to make and sell these programs may be incentivized to pick the production of conflict checking software over practice management software, should they have to choose.

Despite this higher availability and usage compared to practice management software, there are still some negative trends for conflict checking software. Solo firms reported that the software was available at 36% of firms, a 3% drop from last year. Law firms with 10-49 attorneys also reported a drop of 5%, from 74% in 2019 to 69% in 2020. Large law firms have stayed consistent between 2019 and 2020, with 93% reporting the availability of these programs. The only demographic of firms to see an increase are firms with 2-9 attorneys, as they saw a 5% increase in availability up to 63%.

There are a number of takeaways here. First, when compared to practice management software, the overall availability of these programs is evidently higher, particularly in firms of 100+ attorneys where 93% report having conflict management programs available as opposed to 63% for practice management software. It is also interesting that for both practice management software and conflict management software, the largest growing demographic in terms of having these programs available has been law firms with 2-9 attorneys. This could be indicative of these smaller law firms making a conscious effort to incorporate more technology and catch up or grow at the same rate as larger competitors, or it could be that these sized law firms reap particular benefits from these programs. In any case, it is an important note to make both for the producers of the software who may be interested in capitalizing on this market as well as for attorneys in law firms of this size who do not have these programs available, as they risk falling behind not only larger competitors, but competitors of a similar size who are adopting this technology.

The reported usage of this software denotes similar trends. The only demographic of firms to note a positive percentage increase in personal usage of conflict management software are law firms with 2-9 attorneys, increasing from 37% in 2019 to 41% in 2020. All the other demographics either did not change or had only slight decreases in the percentage. Compared to practice management software, however, the usage of conflict management software is far more common amongst firms with 100+ attorneys. 50% of attorneys from these firms report using these programs, compared to only 18% of attorneys from large firms using practice management software. This indicates that while firms with 2-9 attorneys may be an attractive growing market for these programs, conflict management software developers should be able to survive better off of the continued usage of their programs in larger firms compared to developers of practice management software.

Metadata Removal Tools: An Encouraging Rebound

The availability of metadata removal tools saw a 5% increase in 2020, up from a record low of 53% of firms reporting their availability in 2019 to a record high of 58% of firms reporting their availability in 2020. Once again, similar to the adoption of other programs and software, large firms with 100+ attorneys reported the highest availability of these programs at 93%. Similar to practice management and conflict management software, firms with 2-9 attorneys once again had a large increase in the availability of these programs. In 2019, only 40% of these firms reported having metadata removal tools available for attorneys; that number is up to 46% of firms in 2020. This continues to fit the trend that these sized firms are more interested than other sizes in “catching up” technologically with larger law firms.

Overall usage of metadata removal tools is also up, as 47% of respondents reported using these tools, up from 42% in 2018 and 2019. This is an encouraging trend in terms of data security and client security. 2019 represented a decrease in the availability of these tools and a stagnation in the usage of them. 2020 represents an increase in both the availability and usage of these tools, and while it is hard to pinpoint the cause of that, it is encouraging as a number of factors—such as an increased prioritization on security or increased education into what metadata is—may have contributed to this rebound.

Primary Computer Usage: Desktops are Decreasing

For the fourth year in a row, desktop computers remain the most popular computer for attorneys to have as their primary workstation. However, the negative trend of that percentage decreasing has continued into 2020, with the largest drop in the percentage of attorneys who report this yet. In 2019, 57% of respondents reported that a desktop was their primary work station. In 2020, that number has dropped to 49%. For the first time, not using a desktop has outpaced using a desktop as an attorney’s primary work station. Expectedly, laptops have continued their positive trend of growing in popularity. 47% of respondents in 2020 reported using their laptops as their primary workstation, up from 41% in 2019. If this trend were to continue, next year would be the first in which laptops outpace desktops in terms of popularity as a primary workstation for attorneys. Tablets have remained relatively unpopular as a primary workstation for attorneys; only 1% of attorneys reported them as their primary workstation, down from 2% in 2019. The “other” category has grown in 2020, however, up to 3%. It would be worth considering breaking up that category and exploring what these other options are for attorneys, as they are now more popular than tablets.

The use of a desktop as a primary workstation has fallen across law firms of all sizes, but the clearest drop is in law firms with 500+ employees. In 2019, 30% of attorneys at these firms reported using a desktop as their primary work station; that has dropped to 14% in 2020. Expectedly, laptop usage at these firms has skyrocketed from 69% in 2019 to 86% in 2020. There may be a number of reasons for this—desktops are a large capital expense, especially for firms that would have to pay for 500+ of them for all of their attorneys. Additionally, many of these larger firms may have the capabilities to allow employees to work from home more often, which would shift the primary way that they work to a transportable piece of equipment, such as a laptop. It will be interesting to see if the COVID-19 pandemic influences this number in the coming years. Many firms, presumably, shifted online this year and had many attorneys work from home. After seeing the possibility of doing that, it may hold that these firms prefer that and have their attorneys continue to work from home, which will make the decrease in desktop usage occur even quicker.

Remote Access May Become A New Normal

Similar to the rise of laptops as the preferred primary working station of attorneys, remote access is rising in availability and adoption across law firms. Remote access software is reportedly available at 88% of law firms that responded to the survey, up from 84% in both 2019 and 2018. Solos seem to lag behind other law firms, however, in the implementation and adoption of remote access. In terms of remote access software, 99% of law firms with 100+ attorneys reported having this software available, 98% of law firms with between 10-49 attorneys reported having this software available, and 90% of law firms with 2-9 attorneys reported having this software available. This stands in contrast to only 69% of solos who have this software available. And while that 69% is an increase from past years, it does stand to be a potential disadvantage for these solo attorney firms. If other attorneys can work both from home and the office, does that enable them to have more flexibility for themselves and for their clients compared to solo attorneys who lack that option?

This trend continues in the usage of remote access software as well. It remains far more popular at larger law firms compared to solo firms. 94% of attorneys from firms with 100+ attorneys reported using this remote access software in 2020, remaining the highest percentage from any sized law firm. Law firms with 10-49 attorneys were the next highest, as 91% reported using this software, a 10%increase from 2019. Law firms with 2-9 attorneys reported a usage rate of 80%, an 7% increase from 2019. However, solo firms reported only a 46% usage in this, down from 55% in 2019. This downward trend is interesting for numerous reasons. One, it follows a 9% increase between 2018 and 2019. The fact that the usage of this went back down after that surge, despite it being made more available, could indicate a decrease in the quality of these programs in the minds of solo attorneys. It could also, once again, point to a distinct advantage that larger firms have over smaller firms—the flexibility and ability to adequately do work on their own time and outside of the office.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a lot into flux, but one of the lasting consequences of it may be a new dependent nature on remote access and the ability to work from home. Large firms are well suited for this, evidenced by years of a high percentage of their attorneys having remote access software available and using it regularly. This may continue or even grow following this pandemic, however, solo firms risk being left behind in this new age. Remote access might also help attract clients that would otherwise not want to make the commute to an office, allowing larger firms with more resources to capture these potential clients. Solo law firms may have a choice to make in how they proceed: to continue to invest in a physical office space or in virtual capabilities for remote access?


Technological change and advancement remain an inevitability for the legal industry. One might expect, then, that as software and developments are made, that firms will adopt them at an ever-increasing rate. This, however, is not always the case. For practice management software programs, popularity has fluctuated over the years, but for many firms, usage and availability is down. Conflict management tools stand in a better position compared to these practice management programs, although their adoption and usage have stalled a bit as well.

For both of these programs, however, a particular segment of law firms may be an attractive segment to grow into—law firms of between 2-9 attorneys have seen an increase in the availability and usage of both of these programs. Additionally, this segment has seen an increase in the availability of metadata removal tools as well, pointing to the idea that this segment of law firms may be looking to become more technologically advanced compared to solo law firms or larger law firms that already have these resources.

Metadata removal tools, overall, have increased in prevalence and usage. This is an encouraging trend, as while it could be caused by a number of factors, it points to an increased emphasis on security within firms as well as increased education on what metadata is for attorneys. As certain technology increases in popularity, we also can see a shift in the obsolescence of other technologies. For the first time in this report, not using a desktop as the primary workstation for attorneys is more common than using a desktop. Relatedly, the usage of laptops as an attorney’s primary workstation has never been higher. This is related to remote access and “working from home” for attorneys.

Across the board, remote access is growing in popularity for attorneys, and usage and availability of software to enable that is at an all-time high. However, for solo firms, usage of this software has actually dipped. This points to an interesting observation for these firms, and a potential choice. Is it that these firms simply do not have the same resources available to allow their attorneys to have remote access? Or is it that the programs available are tailored to larger firms and therefore solo attorneys do not see the need for it? Whatever the case, following the COVID-19 pandemic of this year, remote access and working from home may be at an all-time high. As with many resources and technological developments, smaller firms and solo firms may have to make a choice on what to spend money on to survive and to stay competitive with larger firms that have so many programs available, even if they choose not to use them.

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