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Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls…

I was updating my LinkedIn profile recently. I realized I recently reached a “tipping point” where I have been a lawyer longer than I have not. Reflecting on my demi-career, it strikes me how law firms have changed very little since I started my traineeship in 1993. Sure, there are new technologies available in the lawyers’ toolkit, but the way lawyers think about, and interact with, technology has hardly changed at all.

The lawyer’s main tools are word processing software for drafting documents and email for communication. This represents a technological advance, but barely. In some ways, I see regression. Back in 1993, at least in the UK, lawyers would never be expected to spend valuable time creating and formatting their own documents and other administrative tasks such filing and arranging meetings, even if they had the full range of office skills to do this. Email communication might be quick and easy, but its proliferation means that lawyers are responsible for typing and filing all communications.

Lawyers have failed to make a quantum leap in terms of developing new systems. Because technological change has been so slow and incremental, the change management skillset is almost completely absent from law firms. Law firms have indulged lawyers’ intransigence to important change management programs like knowledge management, legal project management and lean six sigma. The firm’s executive, themselves normally billing lawyers, place stability in the short term as a higher priority over innovation. The result has been a startling ossification in the delivery of legal services.

This intransigence has naturally had an impact on transformational programs that in any other industry would be prioritized as research & development. Law firms have not invested enough in terms of time and money to identify, curate and systemize their knowledge and big data and to development of systems that lead to consistent and predictable outcomes for clients. The result is that law firms’ valuable data remains unstructured and resides in impenetrable silos.

This would unthinkable in other industries. Think about how the experience of everyday transactions have transformed in the digital age. Take travel for instance. Booking a flight, checking in, and even checking baggage has been streamlined to the extent that human interaction is almost completely absent. Or think about how you now pay a cheque into your bank account using a mobile phone. Even banks look like laggards. When I order my morning lattè now, I preorder and pay using an app on my mobile phone and collect it at the café. When you start to think about these everyday changes, you will start to appreciate the shape of things to come for the delivery of legal services.

I do not refer to artificial intelligence or ROSS here. I’m talking about form driven interfaces in large back-end installs, that have revolutionized commercial and retail transactions. Soon, routine letter writing, reporting, and drafting of documents will not be carried out by associates creating each document based on the last best effort, but by assistants using document assembly tools that are already commercially available, or even clients using portals.

I can tell you with confidence that these programs will not be randomly rummaging around in the document management system or emailing all lawyers to ask if they can identify a previous matter that might contain a somewhat helpful document. Skeptics in law firms (they are legion) can’t see the utility of these systems because the window that they view the world from is MS Windows.

These systems will of course be founded on knowledge management and legal project management systems where precedents and market language, checklists, critical path analysis, budgeting and fee analysis, and client interactions have all been carefully curated and maintained. At the present time, only a handful of law firms are in a position to deliver this transformation, but when they do, the quantum leap will have been made and others will struggle to compete.

To those skeptics who say knowledge management is doomed… never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Comments

  1. You have put to words the frustration most of our ilk in the knowledge management/legal research world likely feel when you said
    “Law firms have not invested enough in terms of time and money to identify, curate and systemize their knowledge and big data and to development of systems that lead to consistent and predictable outcomes for clients. The result is that law firms’ valuable data remains unstructured and resides in impenetrable silos.”
    And you can easily substitute “corporate legal departments” for “law firms” in this assessment. But what is the solution when one doesn’t have a legion (or even two) of information technicians to tackle these silos of information, unlock the data, and use and repurpose it?

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