For a long time, law firm CIOs broke into a cold sweat when lawyers clamored for the slick smartphones, laptops, and tablets they saw advertised on TV. Unlike Research In Motion’s ubiquitous BlackBerry, these consumer-friendly gadgets weren’t easy-to-manage, easy-to-secure devices that were designed for business use.

But no more. The American Lawyer ’s 17th annual survey of law technology reveals that the once unthinkable has become conventional: Consumer-friendly technology is in; enterprise-centric gear is out. Nearly 90 percent of the firms surveyed expect to see fewer BlackBerry users in the next 12 months, while Apple- and Android-based smartphones continue to gain momentum. “The marketplace has spoken,” says Dana Isaacoff, chief information officer at Williams Mullen, which had approximately 500 BlackBerry users a few years ago and now has about 40. “Consumers have learned that smartphones are more attuned to their needs, and it would be irresponsible for us to stand in the way of that. To the contrary, we want to usher in an era of user-friendly, flexible devices.

Yet as they usher in that era, firms are finding challenges: How are devices that have both personal and work-related uses (and are often owned by the lawyers themselves, not the firms) best managed? How is security ensured? How is work product kept separate from personal content? It’s not just the hardware that has changed, either. The popularity of social networking sites is spurring firms to consider how best to leverage this new medium. Can it be used to develop business—and if so, how? Cloud computing, a burgeoning force in both consumer and business markets, is also raising questions. What types of applications should be performed in the cloud, and which should stay in-house? The survey and follow-up interviews don’t find just differing opinions on how to tackle these issues, but some fairly dramatic splits.

In other areas, results from the survey—which was answered by 83 Am Law 200 CIOs and tech chiefs between mid-July and mid-September—showed more consensus. CIO morale was high: Ninety percent of respondents said they were satisfied with technology-related decisions management had made; 84 percent said they were satisfied with their compensation. We did find some movement in compensation: 36 percent of CIOs reported earning between $300,000 and $399,999, up from 25 percent at that level last year (above $400,000, there was little change, with 24 percent at that level compared to 26 percent last year).

Technology budgets have also been stable: Only 15 percent of respondents said their capital budgets had increased by more than 10 percent; just 11 percent said they decreased by more than 10 percent. Operating budgets experienced even less movement—6 percent of firms saw increases of more than 10 percent, with another 6 percent seeing decreases at that level. Also unchanged is that recession-born mantra: You want it, you justify it. “We’re seeing an uptick in business, which is good, but I still have to make a very strong business case for what I want to do,” says one CIO who asked not to be identified. “The money does not just flow anymore.”

There is consensus, too, regarding Microsoft Corporation’s new Windows 8 operating system: It can wait. Just 7 percent of firms said they plan to migrate to the updated version within the next 12 months. “Most firms have recently moved to Windows 7 and would prefer to not go through it again soon,” says Phillip Rightler, chief information officer at Thompson Coburn. There is also concern about Windows 8′s touchscreen-centric design. “A lot of people won’t go to it until they actually have a [Windows 8] notebook with a touchscreen,” says Ken Kroeger, chief information officer at Kutak Rock.

Regarding mobile devices, there is also agreement, at least about the risks. Of the firms that allow users to bring their own devices to work, 82 percent said their biggest concern was security. And even when the devices are supplied by the firm—such as the 8 percent of respondents that give their lawyers tablets—their dual work-play orientation makes the devices hard to lock down or manage. Personal content and apps reside side by side with work content and apps.

What to do about this is a question that firms are addressing, but in dissimilar ways. Nearly a fifth of firms—19 percent—restrict in some way the mobile apps that can be downloaded to a device. But another 80 percent said they don’t. (One percent of respondents said the question was not applicable to their circumstances.) Close to two-thirds of firms prohibit lawyers from using cloud-based file storage and synchronization services like Dropbox on mobile devices, but another third allow them. And 68 percent of firms—a solid but by no means eye-popping majority—use mobile device management (MDM) software. This is a relatively new type of application that gives IT departments a variety of tools for handling consumer-oriented devices like iPhones, iPads, and Android-based gear. MDM software can ensure that passwords are being used, and that users have the latest mobile operating systems installed, among other things.

For the CIOs that use it, MDM technology is seen as pretty much mandatory: “It gives you visibility onto what [devices] are on your network,” says John Sroka, chief information officer at Duane Morris. “It gives you the ability to wipe work content without wiping the entire device, and the ability to keep devices off the network if they are out of compliance, for example, by running an old version of Android that is known to be insecure.” MDM software also enables firms to push security policies onto devices, and implement encryption.

But many of these packages are still works in progress—which might explain their less-than-universal popularity. Of the 56 firms that implemented MDM software, only 42 reported a positive or even somewhat positive experience. “There was a rush by vendors to get these products to market to solve a problem,” says Sroka. “[Today] there are maybe four that are considered stable: Good Technology, MobileIron, Zen­prize, and AirWatch. When I go to meetings with my peers, those are the ones that come up.”

The new devices are complicating hardware refresh decisions, as well. It used to be that a lawyer got either a desktop or a laptop. But 37 percent of respondents think a tablet should now be added to the mix. How it should be added is another story: Twenty-five percent plan to issue attorneys a desktop and a tablet on their next refresh; the other 12 percent plan to issue a laptop and a tablet. The “consumerization” of IT is also influencing, at least at some firms, the amount of time elapsing between purchasing cycles. While 80 percent of firms said their cycles were as long or longer than they were five years ago—little surprise given the economy and the increasing longevity of computer hardware—19 percent said their cycles were shorter. “For us, what it came down to was attorneys traveling more, with weight mattering, so we updated the laptop pool with ultrabooks and other lightweight machines,” says Ted Ferguson, chief information officer at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. “The consumer market is in a way pushing the corporate market.”

Then there is the cloud. More firms are embracing it: Seventy-four percent of respondents use hosted services, up from 65 percent last year. And they are in agreement about the biggest benefits of cloud computing: Eighty-three percent of respondents pointed to simplified support and maintenance; nearly half (44 percent) noted the ability to get by with less—and less powerful—hardware in-house.

But when it comes to how the cloud is used, firms once again take very different positions. A majority—63 percent—use hosted services for e-discovery and litigation support, and more than a third use the cloud for human resources and email management (virus checking, SPAM filtering, and so on). But only 13 percent use cloud-based storage, and just 8 percent look to the cloud for that bread-and-butter law firm task: document management. Indeed, the breakdown was uncannily similar to last year’s. Certain types of applications, it seems, just aren’t catching on.

Given that security remains the biggest worry about the cloud—68 percent of firms using the cloud and 91 percent of those not using it cited it as a concern—one might chalk up the tepid response to hosted storage and document management to firms’ unwillingness to put client-related material on third-party servers. But e-discovery relies on client information, too, and that’s been a popular use for the cloud. In interviews, CIOs offered various explanations for the seeming inconsistency: E-discovery vendors have a long history with law firms, so they are trusted more; document management systems are often integrated with other law firm platforms—like dictation systems and IP software—making them harder to push out to the cloud; storage is often cheaper to do in-house than in the cloud. But one IT chief, whose firm has wholly embraced cloud computing, work product and all, says there’s a simpler explanation: Firms are just being inconsistent. “You’ll see a firm saying the cloud isn’t secure, we can’t use it, we can’t put our client data at risk, but then think nothing of letting a partner put half their database onto a thumb drive and take it home,” he says. “You can’t have it both ways. You’re either in a secure environment, or you’re not in a secure environment.”

Firms are also still working out how to leverage social networking technology. As was the case last year, three-quarters of respondents reported using services like Twitter and Linked­In, but open-ended responses to the survey and follow-up interviews reveal very different levels of engagement. Some firms are using these sites merely to issue press releases, or for recruiting or alumni relations. Others, however, are actively pursuing business development. Williams Mullen, for example, has presences on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, with each of these sites seen as having unique attributes—and potential. LinkedIn, says Isaacoff, is “a key networking tool,” and all attorneys are encouraged to have a profile on the site. Meanwhile, Twitter is “a great vehicle [for] communicating with clients, but without disclosing our client relations,” she notes. On YouTube—a newer initiative for the firm—Williams Mullen has its own channel, posting videos of attorneys talking about changes in the law, among other things. “These avenues,” says Isaacoff, “let us reach a very new, very active audience of potential clients.”

The consumerization of IT may be daunting and complex for tech departments. There is still much that needs to be figured out and fine-tuned. But on one point, there is no disagreement: It’s here to stay. As Brian Conlon, chief information officer at McDermott Will & Emery, puts it: “Any CIO who ignores consumerization is choosing extinction.

View highlights of the 2012 Am Law Tech Survey.