During my time as an articling student in Montreal, technology at the big firms consisted of a Blackberry, a billing system, and a boomerang-shaped conference call contraption that no one knew how to use. The only people on staff who knew about technology were the one or two guys who raced around the office making sure your desktop could communicate with the printer down the hall. That was 10 years ago.
Today, it’s a whole new ballgame. Aside from iPhones, FaceTime, Slack, Trello, videoconferencing, and all the other ubiquitous tech we rely on, there is also a range of new technologies available to help solve legal problems, such as “artificial intelligence, machine learning, practice management technology, automated document assembly, predictive coding and mapping technology.” (here). And instead of one or two tech people on-hand to handle your email problems, law firms are hiring technologists and engineers and data analytics specialists, along with non-lawyer management positions like Legal Ops, to help run the business of law so lawyers can finally get back to lawyering.
Putting systems and people in place so lawyers can focus on law is driving this revolution. Reed Smith LLP, for example, has had a team of legal engineers on board for the last six years, as part of the firm’s Practice Innovation Team. “Many in the team have a legal background, others are technologists,” says Lucy Dillon, Chief Knowledge Officer for Reed Smith. “Their role is to be a bridge between our IT department and our attorneys and clients to develop tools which help with the efficient delivery of legal services. We also have a data science capability to assist with data extraction and analysis. These roles will become increasingly essential as the practice of law evolves: how we incorporate data analytics into our services to deliver new insights and solutions will be increasingly central to a forward thinking, data-driven legal environment.”
Katherine Lowry, Director of Practice Services at BakerHostetler would very likely agree. Lowry describes a few of the changes her firm has made in recent years. There was the adoption of ROSS’s AI technology in 2015 and the creation of a Legal Innovations Group dedicated to applying advanced technology such as data analytics, predictive analytics, machine learning models, etc. The firm uses an analytical framework to identify change and define the process for review of products powered by advanced technology. And they conducted studies with their attorneys and products to decrease the trust gap and encourage adoption of new advanced technology.
And they created IncuBaker.
“IncuBaker is dedicated to the education of our lawyers, design-thinking workshops for attorneys and clients, and a refinement of services offered around blockchain, AI, and data analytics,” says Lowry. “This solidifies years of work of researching how emerging technology will impact our firm.” As part of the program, there was the forming of a Global Legal Blockchain Consortium, and the participation in various other initiatives, like Enterprise Ethereum Alliance and the Accord project. And, on November 7th, the Sovrin Foundation announced the addition of BakerHostetler as a founding steward of the Sovrin Network.
Lowry acknowledges that not every lawyer will need to write prose and code, but they do foresee the need to complement next-generation lawyers with these skills, in addition to being able to apply a deeper level of understanding of core technology such as DLT/blockchains, machine learning, and predictive analytics. “Our future goal is to work with law schools in defining the role as a legal engineer and building an internship program to support the development of this role.”
Mark A. Cohen, Founder & CEO of Legal Mosaic, thinks this is great, but when it comes to roles like products manager, chief delivery officer, chief professional development officer, strategist, etc, “… It’s crucial that new positions, designed to better align law firm delivery to market expectations, be given teeth. That means leads must be given a real voice and, in some instances, a seat at the management table. An example is Chief Digitization Officer.”
Daniel B. Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law (which recently announced a partnership with ROSS Intelligence) explains the critical role AI plays in freeing up time for lawyers to practice law. He believes that law firms will adapt to the opportunities furnished by AI in at least two fundamental ways:
“First, use of AI to improve legal research will generate efficiencies and will enable firms to deploy expensive lawyer (and paralegal) talent to more human-necessary uses. Business development and client counseling, for example, is a necessary, and certainly human-intensive, project and freeing up associate and partner time to focus more systematically on these key tasks would yield benefits for firms. Likewise, as law firms redouble their efforts at pro bono, which is at least as much a hope as an expectation, efficiencies in legal research and other tasks susceptible to new forms of automation will free up time and energy for this socially beneficial work.
“Second, AI will help create new vistas of learning and of perspective. Increasingly, natural language processing provides means and mechanisms to generate advocacy documents, be they legal briefs or policy white papers. This gives lawyers not only an ally, a fresh pair of eyes, as it were, on their tasks at crafting such essential documents, but also a new way of making the connection between the sources of law and the construction of arguments.
“The way I would put it is this: It improves the lawyer’s tactics of persuasion. The human makes the essential final choices, and that is the right strategy, but machine learning helps this lawyer learn how better to persuade. Thinking about this from the perspective of a modern law firm, AI quite simply expands the bandwidth of firm talent and, with it, opportunities to think more coherently and efficaciously about strategy, as advocates and as counselors.”
Stanford Law Professor and ED/Cofounder of Code-X, Dr. Roland Vogl agrees that there is a substantial shift taking place. Vogl said in a recent Ross interview: “I think law firms will be more like management consultancies that go into their clients’ businesses and help deploy new solutions to their legal problems. For that, law firms will have to employ legal engineers. There will also be other professionals with a seat at the table, such as legal project managers.”
Mary O’Carroll, Head of Legal Operations at Google, says there is no doubt positions like hers benefit both law firms and clients. In our e-conversationfor National Magazine, she said: “I’ve never heard anyone say that they regret establishing a Legal Ops role or that they are not sure if it is successful. One of the reasons that this role is proliferating so quickly is because of the immediate return that you get on your investment. With someone focused on the operations of the department, attorneys are able to better focus on the high value work that they were hired to do.”
Whether we are talking about IncuBaker or LegalOps or the just-opened Orrick Labs (of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe), it is clear law firms are embracing new technologies and new faces so lawyers can get back to what they were trained for. Perhaps, as was highlighted in this November WIRED article, it’s time to embrace technology and AI as our new co-worker — one that “doesn’t suffer from exhaustion or burnout.”
As Dr. Zev Eigen, Global Director of Data Analytics at Littler Mendelson, puts it, “Firms are chock full of lawyers. Lawyers know how to lawyer. Many went into law because they are the polar opposite of innovative and entrepreneurial. They wanted to be a part of a profession, not so much a business. So, the leadership of law firms recognize that they need to appear/ be innovative because their clients want it and they fear being left behind…” [see full interview with Dr. Eigen on this blog.]
In doing so, law firms will continue to expand, innovate, adapt, and most of all, (some would say, finally) service their clients in a way that matches their expectations in 2017 and beyond.
Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.