Legal apps arrive

A brief history

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines an app as “a self-contained program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device”. It is the latter half of the definition – especially in relation to iPhones and other smartphones – which popularised the term, and it is this meaning with which this article is concerned.

The late Steve Jobs was largely responsible for the emergence and swift growth of apps, following the phenomenal success of Apple’s iPhone, which was released to the market in 2007. By March 2011 Apple had sold over 100 million iPhones worldwide, such was their appeal. Although iPhones are largely generic in their design and customisation options are limited, the ability to download apps allows its users to extend the functionality of their handsets. Hundreds of thousands of apps – which can be developed and distributed by anyone with a basic understanding of computer programming – are available for download from Apple’s App Store, and range from retro games to geo-positioning programs showing locally reviewed takeaways, to those with more business-centric purposes. The multitude of apps available led to Apple’s catchphrase “There’s an app for that®” (for which – as you can see – the company was even awarded a trademark!). Many apps are free and generate money through advertising, but others need to be purchased.

In the face of Apple’s initial dominance of the app market, Google developed the rival Android operating system, which spawned a vast array of smartphones taking advantage of Google’s version of the App Store – the “Android Market”. Android-enabled phones are generally far more customisable than iPhones and its apps are easier to distribute, with fewer restrictions. Android phones also tend to be less expensive than their iPhone counterparts, with lots of manufacturers – including HTC, Samsung and LG – vying for market share. This variety and affordability has resulted in the solid growth of Android phone ownership, opening the floodgates for Android app development and providing some serious competition for Apple.

Relevance of apps to the legal sector

Forward thinking law firms have always sought to harness web technologies to promote their services and keep in touch with their existing client base. Web 1.0 technologies such as the humble website and email newsletters led to increasingly interactive Web 2.0 concepts such as blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. The beginnings of Web 3.0 can be seen in certain apps, such as those making use of a mobile phone’s geo-location data or its abilities to make sense of its surroundings. Current examples of this extension of web technology include proximity sensitive directory services which list the closest restaurants, pubs – or law firms – and QR codes which can, for instance, allow a potential house buyer to scan an estate agent’s sign with a phone camera and immediately view information on the particular home for sale. Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, personalisation and the Semantic Web are the next steps for Web 3.0.

The involvement of Stephens Scown Solicitors in the FoodFinder SW app appears to be PR, pure and simple. The app is, according to the firm, “a mobile guide to the best quality producers, retailers and venues in the Westcountry” – and therefore has no legal application at all. But no doubt people who use the app will associate it with the firm and presumably form a link in their minds between good food and sound legal advice.

Eversheds has released an app providing employment law guidance, which has been “designed to give you easy access to information on international employment law on the move ”. Although it has a clear and specific legal purpose, the firm warns that it is “not a substitute for legal advice” – and obviously hopes to gain business from users who consult the app for basic information and subsequently decide they need some actual legal advice.

The Accident App from Croftons Solicitors is also designed to garner new business, but provides more than just information. It “can be used in road traffic accidents, workplace injuries or any incident where a claim may be made”, allowing the user to initiate a personal injury claim. It’s rather innovative – and provides a nod to Web 3.0 – in harnessing the various functions of a mobile phone to store evidence: the phone camera can be used to take pictures of an accident, the microphone can record witness statements, and the phone’s geo-location at the time of the accident can also be saved. The information gathered can later be used to pursue a claim.

But although apps are already being used for marketing by law firms, legal apps which are actually useful to lawyers themselves are scarce, at least for the moment in the UK. The major legal publishers have yet to release any apps dealing with British law, although LexisNexis notes that its eBooks can be read on mobile devices using Stanza software. However, the US arm of LexisNexis has produced an app for its Lexis® Advance research service. The service is currently available for the iPhone, with an iPad version in the pipeline – indicating the growing popularity of the larger tablet devices amongst legal professionals (see The rise (and rise) of the iPad lawyer?).

WestlawNext, a US version of Thomson Reuter’s Westlaw UK (in association with Sweet & Maxwell), already provides a legal research app for the iPad, as well across other mobile platforms, including Android and Blackberry. Meanwhile, Fastcase is making waves, with its free, searchable library of American cases and statutes which can be accessed via its iPhone app.

The only noteworthy legal app currently available for the UK market is iLegal which aims to provide access to primary legislation (although concerns have been raised by Scott Vine regarding its claim “to access the revised text” – see The iLegal iPhone app). But the rise in popularity of devices with larger screen acreage such as the iPad and Android tablets will undoubtedly encourage the major legal publishers to bring their legal app offerings to the UK market, after dipping their toes in the water across the pond. So UK-based lawyers may soon be using apps for their own needs, rather than simply as marketing tools.

Alex Heshmaty is a law graduate with over ten years of business experience in the legal technology, marketing and publishing sectors. He currently works as a freelance journalist and legal IT consultant.