REUTERS | Ricardo Moraes

The Tech Express: time to jump on board, say lawyers

“Computers are like bikinis.  They save people a lot of guesswork.”  Sam Ewing

A few days ago, my colleague, Karen Ngo, posted here outlining some practical steps leaders of in-house legal teams might take when identifying, acquiring and implementing the right technology for your legal department.

To follow up Karen’s key messages, I wanted to highlight some of the key takeaways from a recent report published by Legal Week Intelligence and Thomson Reuters which brings to life the shifting practices and attitudes of our in-house legal colleagues with regard to technology.  It is, after all, part of human nature for most of us to check we’re not completely out of step with conventional wisdom.

The report, which presents quantitative data based on a survey of 100 in-house legal professionals as well as anecdotal evidence, confirms some preconceptions of the technophobic lawyer, an archetype of the imaginations of many of our colleagues elsewhere in the business world.

In-house counsel are rarely found squirreled away in chambers, surrounded by dusty books with quill in hand, but with the exception of a few trend-buckers, they’re rarely at the vanguard of the technological revolution either.  63% of respondents still use Microsoft Excel or spreadsheets to help manage their legal spend.

There is, however, an apparent softening of attitudes and, in many cases, a positive embrace of new tech among the in-house community as budgets are compressed and the fear of getting left behind takes hold.

Nearly half (49%) of respondents have seen their legal spend come under greater scrutiny from the board during the past three years, underlining the urgent need for legal teams to streamline their day-to-day processes.

The key insights

Key findings of the survey include:

  • 57% of respondents say they use data in some way as part of the decision-making process.
  • 61% say data is either one of or the main consideration for influencing strategic directions their company takes.
  • Insight on tracking individual matters against budget and law firm performance against budget are seen as ‘extremely valuable’ by respondents.
  • More staff and a bigger budget for outside counsel would help in-house departments be more efficient.
  • Time and budget are the two biggest constraints to innovation.
  • 85% say technology will have a positive impact on their department over the next five years.
  • Matter management software tools and automation are seen as the technologies that will have the greatest effect on the legal industry in the next five years.

A noteworthy statistic is that more than half of respondents use data in some way as part of the decision-making process.  As Nick Hartigan, head of legal at Kier Group, highlights, analytics provided by a legal technology platform enable analysis of how much and with whom legal spend is being made and an assessment of the value accruing from it.  It also allows the business to identify where there has been a disproportionate level of disputes and litigation in a particular area, allowing properly-informed future focus on key contractual clauses and / or areas of vulnerability in the overall risk, compliance and policy framework.

Indeed, moving from an instinctive to a quantitative approach is far more likely to satisfy the CFO in any subsequent discussions about future expansion of the legal budget.

Some caution was expressed about technology’s limits.  Maurice Woolf, GC and head of a small legal team at Interoute, while positive about the possibilities says:

“You can’t be religious about the data.  It doesn’t provide you with the answer but it gives you an indication of where you need to look to improve things.”

Small teams, big challenges

The challenges faced by smaller teams cannot be underestimated.  Small teams are particularly prone to being in the time-poor “fire-fighting” mode which doesn’t allow many opportunities to take a step back and think more strategically about technological shortcuts, let alone time to invest in the project management effort required to set them up.  But when a break from the daily battle is made and an effective solution is identified which involves minimal disruption, the results can be very satisfactory, as Matthew Wilson, legal director of Uber for the UK, Ireland and Nordics explains.

An attitude shift

Traditionally a conservative beast, focused more on the strength of people and their intellects, it seems many lawyers are now gearing up for the shift to a new high tech age.  But old habits die hard in a world where carefully-cultivated, individualised ways of working are so important.  Those tasked with introducing new legal technologies need to map out exactly how they intend to win over potentially reluctant end users.

As Stephen Shapiro, group company secretary and deputy general counsel at SAB Miller, says: “…any technology that is adopted has to be developed in a way that encourages lawyers to use it and makes it clear how it will help them do their job better”.

The AI challenge

Progressive attitudes may be emerging but, scanning the horizon a little further, how ready lawyers are for embracing artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps another thing altogether.  There is, quite understandably, a lot of talk of the threats that AI will present for the profession but what about the opportunities?  As Nick Hartigan observes, what distinguishes great lawyers from average lawyers is not their knowledge of the law but the way they apply that knowledge through a combination of logical and lateral thinking – something that AI may struggle to replicate.  However, Hartigan notes the extraordinary potential:

“…if the development of AI accelerates and AI can start performing tasks that demonstrate some sort of higher subjective cognitive function, then that would truly be a game changer for what people can do from a technological perspective in the law”.

As ever, a close watching brief is needed on what is likely to be the biggest tech disruptor of our lifetimes.

Rob Beardmore

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