Making the Best Better

In a recent article on legal practice Ken Grady offered this thought:

As we often hear today, lawyers need to become fans of data. The age of talking to a lawyer who gives an opinion based on the 10 or 15 cases she has handled is past (or it should be). Clients should recognize that advice based on such weak datasets is meaningless and should call out their lawyers for basing opinions on it. Excellence means knowing more than the average player. It means having that depth and breadth of knowledge that is hard to match. Law firms need to invest in building that knowledge within an area their lawyers [practice], or recognize that they have little to offer clients and move on to other areas.

Although technology was relevant to Ken’s discussion, his focus was on the importance of achieving excellence in the craft of legal practice. He observes that while the decades-long growth run the legal industry experienced up to the turn of the millennium did not require excellence among large swaths of the legal industry, the future most assuredly does.

Firms should support excellence — indeed drive for it. Excellence requires more than reading all applicable cases, statutes, and regulations. It requires doing research to understand the “why” behind how a field operates. Top consulting firms have long recognized that to be excellent, their consultants had to understand an area so well they could develop new theories and deeper understanding of how the area ticked.

The topic I’d like to explore is how firms and legal publishers can support that drive for excellence through truly integrated knowledge management.

To pursue knowledge excellence, firms need a combination of tools and content that give the lawyer the capacity to develop such unparalleled knowledge and understanding of their fields that their demonstrable expertise (and not just their brand) is a true competitive advantage. This means moving beyond closed systems where information is sequestered in the publisher’s walled garden as well as incremental improvement through single-purpose tools and towards an integrated knowledge environment that allows content to be mingled, analyzed and revealed as well as simply explored and discovered. It also means that legal research has to evolve from a discrete activity in which one navigates sequentially through a series of segregated online and hard copy content collections, to one where every query, action, engagement and interaction has the potential to bring forward relevant insights from wherever they may reside.

Most lawyers develop a favourite method for legal research and some may even develop an expertise at using that method, but this is not a path to excellence. Having a favourite method means picking a lane. Expanding the toolkit can help, but where adding tools means switching tasks, the benefits are incremental and not exponential. Moreover, even the most proficient researcher will not find information in a database or resource they didn’t consider and no feasible amount of human research will uncover patterns and insights that require review and analysis of hundreds or thousands of documents and data points – especially if the information resides in multiple knowledge resources accessible through different interfaces.

For publishers who develop the knowledge sources, what are they doing to ensure the lawyer can find the relevant insight in the time, place and format that is most useful? For the firms that purchase these resources, what are they doing to connect that material and those insights with the intelligence they’ve created in serving their clients and in developing their expertise?

I’m pleased to report that in several recent conversations with publishers, firms and public sectors legal departments, I’m seeing movements toward addressing the challenges. None of these groups had far to look as the inspiration and proof of value was often already in place elsewhere in firm operations.

On the practice management side, most firms understand the limitations of systems that do not talk to each other. Carrying on a practice where client intake, document management, billing, calendaring, reporting, and accounting (etc…) systems are walled off from each other, is more than a recipe for inefficiency, it’s a recipe for disaster. Interconnectedness is an essential precondition to analysis and the generation of timely and valuable knowledge that not only contributes to efficiency, but competitive advantage.

The pathways that have been created for achieving business management excellence offer lessons for achieving legal practice excellence. Increasingly, technology companies that support some aspect of law firm operations recognize that the company’s product becomes more valuable to the firm when it shares information and plays nicely with other tech used by firm. Legal publishers, including specialized resource and primary law providers, must follow that example and law firms that truly want their lawyers to be excellent must demand it.

I’m talking about much more than simple federated search. The current state of technology is such it is possible to import, crawl and connect data sources, enrich and combine third-party and proprietary datasets with machine learning modules, rules-based automations and human workflows, to generate exponential value that transforms products and entire organizations. An AI-driven aggregated knowledge base that enables data exploration and development of predictive models and intelligent recommendations, as well as workflow tools that serve content contextually and where needed (e.g., while typing a document or reviewing a pleading or demand letter). This is possible today. Firms pursuing excellence, and publishers that want to enable it – that is, the best that seek to get better – are starting to make this happen.


  1. The idea that more cases will improve the quality of the advice that a lawyer gives her client is misleading. The skill of a good lawyer or good research lawyer lies in knowing which of a comparatively small number of cases are the most useful or helpful. What is important is not the number of cases referred to but the judgment of the lawyer in picking the useful ones.

    It is impossible to make coherent sense of dozens of cases and no one, not the client, not the court, will be helped by long lists of cases. What I have seen of AI has not given me any confidence that its algorithms can pick the really useful cases. Yes, it can gather all the case with the same facts but that is not what help to anyone has to look like.

    Judges, particularly appellate judges, do not want — because they cannot deal with them — more than a few well-chosen cases, cases where the important principles are explored and developed. Counsel who do not respond to this concern do no one any good. Moreover, the cost to the client of the time taken by a lawyer to review dozens (or hundreds) of cases will be out of all proportion to the value of that exercise.

    By the way, I won’t believe in AI until Word can reliably capitalize the first word in a sentence.