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Over the Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to catch up on my reading while lounging by the pool. Of particular note was the new report released by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA), entitled Legal Technology Future Horizons.  The report is a hefty 140 pages and lured me on with the promise to  “provide insights and practical ideas to inform the development of future business and IT strategies for law firms, law departments and legal technology vendors.”

The report is based on research conducted by Fast Future Research, which included  “research, workshops and two global surveys; interviews with managing partners and CIOs from law firms and corporate legal departments, vendors to the legal industry, external futurists, and academics and experts on technology and innovation; and case studies on the application of IT in law firms.” It’s a massive piece of work that is not easily digestible under the best of circumstances, but especially poolside after a couple of Margaritas. Nonetheless, I took the time to plow through the entire thing and found some of it to be highly informative and insightful while at the same time found myself vehemently disagreeing with some of the analysis.

Given the scope of the report, I’m going to spread my response out over the next couple of weeks.  I’m going to review the major findings, highlight some that I think are particularly important and explain why I find myself in disagreement with others.  This is not meant as a criticism of the overall research, which I find generally is of a high caliber.  Rohit Talwar and his research team have done a very fine job. However, having spent a considerable time working with some of the top law firms and legal organizations as well as being a part of several organizations involved in the exploration of the future of work, I find that my own perspectives and expectations of how technology will disrupt the legal profession is slightly different from the view of the future conveyed in this report.

The report identifies four key themes relating to the transformative role of IT on law firms across the globe:

1.- The Client Is the Priority

“We must focus IT investments on securing and enhancing customer relationships. Strategic priorities must include quality of insight and advice, speed, responsiveness, flexibility, enhancing the capability and efficiency of professional staff and the capacity for innovation. Operationally, client demand is expected to focus on clarity of progress and budget reporting, providing real-time visibility of legal workflow, improving collaboration, integrating with client systems and building intelligence into systems to add insight and value and reduce the level of human involvement required.”

This is perhaps the theme of utmost importance for law firms. The changing nature of legal services and the rapid evolution of technology is forcing law firms to respond to the demands of their clients for better, faster and less expensive service. Several of the leading law firms have recognized this and are investing substantial amounts of money and resources in developing client facing digital workspaces and collaborative applications to address this practice imperative. The growing realization that information is a commodity and that clients want access to this information at any time from anywhere is forcing law firms to develop solutions that provide for greater transparency and integration with client processes and technologies.

Enterprise social networks and other collaborative technologies including client communities will grow in importance in the legal industry over the next couple of years. Law firms will seek to leverage the power of social technologies and processes as they seek to provide additional value to their clients and also as a powerful platform for client engagement.

2.-Leverage Lawyers

“We must enhance the productivity, strategic insight and impact of lawyers. At the most basic level, they need to perform from anywhere at any time on a range of personal devices that could emerge over time. Next, we must build intelligence into lawyer support to anticipate and provide the content they need when they need it — from analyzing critical information to presenting in court. Artificial Intelligence will play a major role in learning how lawyers work, personalizing the support and gradually automating many of the tasks historically performed by professionals.”

In this instance, I agree with the theme but do not agree with the proposed solution. Quite frankly, I do not believe that artificial intelligence will play a major role in law firms any time soon. The focus instead should be on helping lawyers get a better understanding of how they can use technology to become more efficient and effective in their work. Here again social and collaborative technologies will play a major role. Expert systems may also prove increasingly useful as a way for lawyers to package and deliver services.  But relying on A.I. for analysis and directing lawyer decision-making still strikes me as a bridge too far for most law firms.

Lawyers will rely less on email and traditional forms of communication and instead opt for collaborative platforms that enhance their ability to find and share knowledge throughout the firm and with clients and business partners. Likewise, advances in data analysis (Big Data) as well a mobile technologies will enable lawyers to focus on delivering real value on a real time basis by having access to all relevant information through their mobile devices.

3.-Re-Engineer Processes

We must take a process- and project-management approach to all work undertaken. Workflows must be streamlined, broken down to discrete tasks to be allocated to the lowest cost resource that can complete them — a lawyer, outsourced service partner or intelligent system. This will accelerate the commoditization of many tasks and could reshape the legal value chain as more low value tasks are parceled out to external providers. This in turn will drive the firm to focus on developing new, value-adding higher-fee services.

I completely agree with this theme. The ability to enhance business processes or in some instances replace old processes with new ones will be an important focus for law firms over the years to come. Technology will enhance the ability for lawyers to communicate more effectively and will enable lawyers to spend less time looking for information and more time providing legal analysis based on that information.

Enterprise social networks, mobile technologies, collaborative platforms, expert systems and enhanced search technologies will provide lawyers with an enhanced ability to quickly find the information they need and then to collaborate real time with others in order to complete tasks and projects. At the same time, social technologies and processes will have a significant impact on the various departments and functions within law firms including marketing, business development, recruitment, professional development and knowledge management.

4.-Innovate to Differentiate

As a greater scope and volume of work is automated and the price gets driven down, firms must focus on using IT to generate and support client-focused innovation. This may be the development of new products and services, taking on activities traditionally performed in-house by the client and moving up the value chain into areas such as new product development. For example, as clients enter new markets with technology solutions like driverless cars, these will be highly disruptive and will require new thinking in areas such as risk and liability. Increasingly intelligent products might even have laws embedded; for example, cars could fine us for exceeding the speed limit. Law firms will need to use IT to help develop early warning systems that alert them to the emergence of such new ideas. Leaders will seek to gain a “first mover advantage” by approaching the innovators and becoming involved from the product design stage.

Innovation will be a major component as law firms try to differentiate themselves from their competitors. However, the example given here, “driverless cars” is not a particular useful example for law firms trying to figure out how to use technology to deliver real value to clients. In our work and research we have seen explicit examples from law firms on how they are using technology to innovate and deliver legal services in a non-traditional way.

Law firms need to learn from corporations who devote significant budgets and resources to fuel innovation. Companies like Salesforce.com, IBM, P&G, Virgin and Pernod Ricard are using social technologies and processes to promote innovation at every level of their organization. Law firms need to recognize this as well – that innovation can come from anywhere in the firm. Even the most lowly associate or paralegal may have an idea or suggestion that can have a substantial impact on the firm’s bottom line. Law firms need to recognize this and develop technology platforms that enable everyone to have a voice and impact on the future of the firm.