Law firms looking to take advantage of the most advanced technology for ease of workflow and productivity may not have to look very far, given the proliferation of new products and software on the market, but industry experts say firms need to foster an environment that allows for innovation.
For any firm, regardless of size, coming up with technological solutions means understanding your clients’ needs, synthesizing data your firm has collected to make more strategic decisions and creating an infrastructure within the firm that allows staffers to rely on such data at the touch of their fingertips.
This is more important than ever as firms vie to stay relevant in the technological age, according to industry insiders.
“It’s innovate or die,” says Ryan J. Schlunz, chief innovation officer of Stoel Rives LLP, a firm based in Portland, Oregon. “You need to be constantly thinking about it in any business — how you serve your clients and how they want to be served, and if you’re not constantly thinking about that, you won’t exist in the future.”
Increasingly, firms are bolstering their personnel with positions such as chief innovation officer or chief knowledge management officer to harness the technology that is available on the market and devise long-range solutions for a more nimble, efficient practice.
Here, industry leaders discuss some of the ways in which law firms can be more technologically savvy.
Go Deep With Your Data
Imagine an attorney is tackling a certain type of case and needs to identify who has the most expertise in that area. Or he’s drafting a document and requires the best tools to put it together. Or a deal is closing with a client and the lawyer wants to to track data for that client.
Firms need to have some type of database infrastructure in place so the information to make quicker, better decisions is available instantly, according to Meredith L. Williams, chief knowledge management officer at Baker Donelson.
“Being able to tap into every piece of information within your organization within a matter of seconds is critical,” Williams said. “It’s Google for a law firm, or shopping for information. It allows you to really be a game changer.”
Baker Donelson uses data modeling to forecast outcomes for different cases. By looking at a subset of cases that have appeared before a certain judge and analyzing how those cases have performed, for instance, the firm is able to better strategize on behalf of a client.
“If you can know that information going in, think about the communication you can have with your clients,” Williams said. A trained lawyer and president of the board of directors of the International Legal Technology Association, Williams says data collection and analysis allows firms to put themselves in clients’ shoes.
“The client is very happy because we have all this information. They’re able to see data and start analyzing on their own, and we’ve got extra cases,” she said. “If you truly connect with your client in that regard, that’s a whole other stickiness factor.”
Baker & McKenzie LLP partner Theo C. Ling advises that firms also look to data visualization as a way to illustrate the story beyond the data.
For instance, in his practice area of data privacy and information governance, there are varying legal requirements across different jurisdictions. Data visualization can help map the ways to deal with compliance matters in a more fluid, less static way than just drafting it up in document form.
“Database visualization is the ability to tell a story beyond a 200-page memo, in a visual form,” Ling said. “Lawyers communicating within a Microsoft Word doc [are beholden to] a static process, when there are a lot of areas, especially compliance, where laws change or operations or practices change.”
“Unless you go back and redraft that 200-page memo, the advice may be outdated,” Ling added. “With data visualization, you have the ability to deal with the issue of ongoing compliance.”
Consider Collaboration Platforms
Another way to keep your firm tech-forward is incorporating new ways for lawyers to communicate with each other and with clients.
Email is no longer the quickest or most preferred platform, particularly when involving large groups of people and multiple teams, says Ling.
Platforms like Slack or Skype for Business are a vehicle to connect teams of lawyers in real time, the Toronto-based lawyer says. The instant messaging service WeChat is another way organizations are communicating during the course of an M&A transaction.
Such connected applications allow for “much more flexibility and transparency” in communications, according to Ling. “Whether that’s the legal profession driving it, or clients pushing us to adapt, that’s an interesting thing to think about,” he said.
When it comes to collaborating, Baker & McKenzie actively uses Microsoft SharePoint so teams can share and post content without having to turn to email to send documents or other attachments.
“We’re trying to leverage technology to allow lawyers not have to recreate the wheel every time, because there are a lot of insights and best practices that are built out from client engagement to client engagement,” Ling said.
Firms now have available to them a host of products programmed to perform the once time-consuming tasks of document review and contract discovery. But while certain products can save a huge amount of time and money, legal industry experts caution that firms must first research whether other kinds of products are worthwhile at the end of the day.
“We see lots of examples where firms get software, but don’t take the time to document the requirements,” said Dan Safran, CEO and president of legal consultancy LegalShift LLC. “They get the dog and pony show from a bunch of vendors, then they buy the product only to find out they wasted the money.”
“Try to better use the technology you already have invested in, even if it’s document management,” he advised.
Invest in the Right People
Forward-thinking firms are also increasingly relying on technical experts who have backgrounds in data analytics, user experience design, network security and technology, according to industry leaders.
This kind of human capital is essential in drawing upon a more diverse skill set to effectively leverage technology that relies on data analytics and other statistical functions, they say.
Edelson PC, the consumer tech, privacy and class action firm, directly absorbs those with technical expertise into the firm rather than hiring outside experts when the need arises.
The firm has bolstered its in-house computer forensics lab with its own experts who specialize in network security and computer projects.
“The one thing we’ve personally tried to embrace and integrate here is making sure we’re at the front end,” said partner Christopher Dore. “Instead of having some outside expert who you’re paying a couple hundred bucks an hour to, who frankly wants to tell you what you want to hear, but you want them to talk as little as possible, we bring that to the inside, give them a seat on the inside. That creates an interwoven fabric based on law and technology.”
Dore says that any firm practicing in the tech and privacy space needs to be conversant in technological issues to better understand clients’ business. All too often, he said, clients are speaking a language attorneys don’t understand.
But built-in experts who, despite not having a law degree, possess an in-depth understanding of legal issues, know what makes a good case and understand the elements of the causes of action, can address that disconnect, Dore said.
“Put someone in that firm who is that bridge between a lawyer and a tech-related client,” he said. “Nowadays, any medical company or financial company will have a lot of technology related issues, so it’s becoming a core part of any legal practice to understand those issues.”
“Real innovation comes at a point when you’re evolving the firm to the next stage of having these skill sets built in,” he said.
Be Vigilant About Cybersecurity
The same idea applies to keeping your information secure in today’s digital environment. Law firms are certainly not immune to hacks and data breaches, and legal experts say the first wall of defense is training your staff to understand what constitutes a threat.
“Lawyers are very quick to throw technology at the problem, but the reality is, technology is not the problem. It’s really a people and process problem,” LegalShift’s Safran said. “You have to train people to use more complicated passwords. If someone sends a [suspicious] email, you don’t just automatically open it or respond or give the requester your user ID and password.”
As hackers turn to increasingly sophisticated tools and methods, it’s important firms stay vigilant and aware on top of installing firewalls and intrusion detection technology, he added.
“If you talk to security experts, it’s not if, it’s when,” Safran said of the potential for a security breach. “The tools are changing and they’re so sophisticated, you have to assume that at some point, you’re going to be hacked. It’s like being chased by a bear in the woods: You don’t have to be the fastest human in the world, you just have to be faster than the guy behind you.”
This mentality could very well be applied to other aspects of a firm’s tech innovation plan.
As firms introduce new products into the workflow, it’s important to understand what lawyers actually find useful and what a firm’s capacity is to adapt to new ways of doing things.
“You need to figure out who you are culturally, what the propensity for change is, before you pop out a ton of technology,” Baker Donelson’s Williams said. “Understand what people need and work with their workflow. Don’t just introduce new stuff to them.”
While firms are increasingly being lured by new products and tools, at the end of the day, it’s understanding your clients’ business and their needs and finding technological solutions that work that are key, said Scott Rechtschaffen, chief knowledge officer of Littler Mendelson PC.
“In my view it’s not about any specific technology,” the San Francisco-based shareholder said. “It’s about doing what good technology companies do, which is go out and talk to your clients about what their problems are, their needs, and listen to them. That’s an approach to technology that law firms need to pay attention to.”
“It’s very important that firms focus on what they deliver and continue to ask the question: Is there a better way of doing this?” he said.