Technology in Legal Industry, a Far Fledged Dream

Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson
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Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson

For the past two decades, I have led an extraordinary team of knowledge management professionals supporting what has become the largest global employment law firm with over 70 U.S. and international offices. The opportunities to deploy traditional and cutting‑edge KM tools are enormous: enabling over 1,000 attorneys to share their collective knowledge and subject expertise; ensuring the delivery of consistent, quality work product to clients regardless of whether they are working with attorneys in New York, San Francisco, or Mexico City; and developing innovative KM products and services that deliver value to clients. The challenges are equally enormous: gaining user adoption; demonstrating to working professionals the advantages of using technology for client service; and trying to explain that increased efficiency is not a threat (to their billable hours) but, rather, a competitive advantage.

Another significant challenge for KM professionals, however, is the attractiveness of the next new thing, the shiny technology object that promises to forever transform the way things are done. This is particularly a problem for KM professionals working in the legal industry, which for many decades has eschewed true technological innovation. Lawyers have been trained to rely heavily on precedent and past practice in advocating for their clients – an outlook that seems to also shape how we run our businesses. I often imagine Clarence Darrow coming to work in a 21stcentury law firm. It might take him two weeks to figure out how to use a laptop, iPhone, computer-assisted legal research, and the internet. But my guess is that pretty quickly he would file pleadings, represent clients in court, and perform the myriad other core services that lawyers perform. The way we deliver legal services today is, in fact, not much different from how we did it a century ago.

So, the legal industry has a lot of technology catching up to do and there is no shortage of technology vendors, innovative thinkers and imaginative attorneys dreaming up new wonders that will absolutely transform legal service delivery. At legal technology and KM conferences, the current buzz is about artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, expert advisors, document automation, next-generation legal research tools and contract analysis engines. Legal technology start-ups such as Neota Logic, RAVN, Kira Systems and Fastcase are developing tools and approaches that may forever transform the practice of law.

  ​The way we deliver legal services today is, in fact, not much different from how we did it a century ago  

But, which new innovation is appropriate for your organization? Whether in law or in any industry, the temptation to grab the newest, coolest, shiny object can be irresistible, particularly when we read, courtesy of vendor press announcements, that our competitors just licensed the latest AI platform. That problem is often magnified when our constituents or our leadership read those press releases. No one wants to become another example of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma – the company that gets left behind because it failed to catch the innovative wave transforming its industry. I know numerous examples of firms that have licensed cutting-edge software platforms–often at significant cost—and are still trying to figure out what to do with them.

I have learned – admittedly through painful experience – that the key is to focus on the needs of the users, not the technology. What are the users’ pain points? (For us, our users are both our attorneys and our clients.)What inefficiencies are they identifying? The mantra I often repeat to my team is never put your feet up on the desk and say “wouldn’t it be great if our attorneys did X” or “wouldn’t it be great if we bought Y technology for our attorneys to use.” Such brainstorming ideas are doomed to failure – largely because of the problem of user adoption. Attorneys and other professional service providers are masters of their domains and don’t like to be told “hey, I have a better way of doing your job.” But when those same providers come to you and say “I have a particular problem. Is there a technology that might help?” user adoption will become much less of a problem.

Several years ago, our KM team began working with document automation software. We identified various documents we thought were ripe for automation given their repetitive usage – e.g., employment applications, offer letters, and arbitration agreements. We identified internal administrative documents that seemed ideal for automation – e.g., client engagement agreements and conflict letters. We approached the practice groups and internal corporate departments and explained how technology could make their lives easier. They invariably said “that’s cool” and indicated interest. But months went by with no action on their part.

Fast forward two years and the situation has changed. Faced with client demand for greater efficiency and internal cost-savings pressures, client teams and corporate departments approach us to see what technology solutions could address their clients’ pain points – particularly regarding repetitive processes including document generation. The document automation software we had been promoting for years is now seen as an incredible innovation. As a result, we have automated over 150 documents used in delivering client services and in our internal processes.

Similarly, we observed that clients (in-house lawyers and HR professionals) were calling us far less frequently to ask basic questions such as whether a worker could legally be engaged as an independent contractor. We used to receive those questions routinely; more recently, clients pose that question only in complex situations or, even worse, only after a lawsuit has been filed challenging the independent contractor status of an individual or hundreds of individuals. Upon investigating, we learned that it simply took too long and cost too much to consult with counsel every time an independent contractor needed to be engaged. So companies would take the risk, often with unfortunate and costly results. Now, there’s a pain point crying out for a technology solution.

We searched for a technology tool that would enable us to take the thinking of our best subject-matter experts and create a decision-tree approach to fact-gathering and an underlying reasoning engine that could help guide in-house counsel in making these decisions cost-effectively and, critical to the business, quickly. We found Neota Logic, a provider of expert-advisor software and we subsequently launched a joint venture with them – ComplianceHR – to develop applications that would assist in-house counsel in responding to a wide range of compliance questions – now including wage-hour questions such as whether employees are properly classified as overtime exempt under the new DOL regulations taking effect December 1, 2016. This was a use-case-based solution.

Even with the current wave of futuristic technology tools, we have taken this user-centered approach. Consider Littler’s recent launch of a data analytics initiative. Over a year ago, we were simultaneously presented with three separate opportunities to apply the science of data analytics to our practice and our client services. Having identified the specific use cases, we hired a global director of data analytics who was charged with, among other things, deploying the technology that would help us address these specific opportunities. Similarly, before we started a pilot project using contract analysis software, we identified several use cases where contract analysis would serve very specific needs.

These are examples of the importance of putting the user and the use case horse ahead of the technology cart. Understand your users’ business requirements, engage in some design thinking exercises with them, and then, and only then, work with your application development professionals to find the technology solution that best meets those business requirements. Your users are far more likely to adopt your solution (it was their idea!) and your technology implementation will be more likely to succeed. Plus, you won’t have a closet stuffed with shiny objects.

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