Do We Need Native Apps in the Legal Industry?

If you look Apple’s App Store, you’ll find a lot of law firm products.

Baker McKenzie has 17 apps in the Apple store with a wide range of functionality and subject matters.

On the justice side, there are some native applications, but not all that many. We see some in the immigration and divorce space most commonly.

Notifica is a beautiful app that provides support for users facing deportation

When do you personally download an app from an app store? What apps do you use on your phone? For me, I use Slack and email to harass my teammates, What’s App and Twitter to harass my friends, and news apps to harass my brain… that’s pretty much it. So when is a native application in the legal context a good idea? Let’s explore.

What’s a Native Application?

A little bit of orientation here: When we talk about “native” apps, we’re talking about apps that can be downloaded in Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store and live natively on your mobile device. By contrast, a web application is one that can be accessed via your browser. A mobile-responsive web application is one that can work well in web browsers on desktop, mobile, and tablet.

One of the earliest product decisions to make is whether your product will be web or native. I would say that approximately 20% of the calls that come into our office start out with the prospective client thinking they want a native application. There are some pretty serious drawbacks of native apps and some pretty well-defined use cases for when a native application makes sense of your use case and your user. I’ll run through a few of these considerations.

When to Choose Native

Native applications or “mobile apps” are usually considerably more expensive to build and maintain. That’s because, typically, Apple and Android applications need to be built and maintained separately, so you can expect initial development costs to be quite a bit higher than a web application, especially if you also want a browser-based product on top of it all. Maintenance costs are similarly more expensive.

There are some ways to reduce these upfront and maintenance costs through the use of “hybrid apps.” For example, React Native offers a path to delivering a cross-platform native application, with the speed and efficiency advantages gained by using a javascript environment. Where necessary, React Native supports the integration of lower level languages so there is no restrictions on functionality, which has burdened app development in other environments. This development process is not fringe, it’s the foundation of apps like Uber, Facebook, Pinterest, Skype, and Instagram.

But more important than cost is the issue of use case. When do people download native apps? There are two primary reasons:

  1. When it’s something they need to access regularly. Social Media, email, games, banking apps, shopping, etc.
  2. When it’s something they want to have quick access to in an emergency
These reasons listed above are highlighted by this data round the most downloaded apps.

While people use a lot of native apps, getting them to download new ones is extremely difficult.

Most smartphone users download 0–1 new apps per month.

Notably, the app store has health, finance, and business categories, but no “legal” category. Most of the native apps listed above fall under “business” “reference” or “utility,” making them harder to browse for on the app store.

“Business” and “reference” don’t make it into the top 10 categories — there are only 24 categories. “Utilities” makes the list because that category includes things like browsers, password managers, etc.

When does native make sense in the legal industry?

In thinking about the contexts where these factors might be present in the legal industry, I see a few use cases for native applications, and really only a few:

  1. Products used by lawyers regularly in their practices. Certainly, a lot of legal tech companies have native applications to be used by lawyers in the practice of law. This makes complete sense, particularly for case management-type products.
  2. “Alert” apps. For example, the Dawn Raid apps and apps to help immigrants facing an ICE raid. You can set the app up in advance and quickly launch the app and press a button to get help. These are interesting use cases to me, but I’d love to see some data around their success.
  3. When a product can benefit from using a phone’s native functionality, for example, apps that help with issues like chain of custody and authenticity when collecting evidence via the phone’s camera or screenshot functionality.
  4. Client-facing apps to allow users to check in on matters that are pending with their law firm.
  5. Apps that track legal obligations, for example child custody and alimony schedules.

Surely there are others, but those are the ones that come to mind. If it’s simply a brochure site put into application form, I have a hard time seeing the value in those as native applications — clients would be more likely to seek such information in a browser context, and the additional maintenance costs don’t feel justifiable. On the justice side, most people facing critical life issues typically don’t seek out a native app to address them. They may do some online research, but heading to the App Store to search for and download an app to help with an employment issue is probably not a realistic expectation on the part of the users.

Are there use cases I’m missing for native applications in legal? Let me know.



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Nicole Bradick

Nicole Bradick

CEO @ Theory and Principle — a legal technology product development firm. Musings on product design, development, legal tech, etc.