The External Drivers of Tech Adoption: Lessons from the 2018 Emerging Legal Technology Forum

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Efficiency, Emerging Legal Technology Forum, Justice Ecosystem: Technology, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Legal Technologists, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Thomson Reuters

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TORONTO, Ont. — The first session of the Legal Executive Institute’s recent 2018 Emerging Legal Technology Forum addressed one of the most vexing issues in the legal industry: the widely-acknowledged slowness of the industry to adopt technology — and particularly the role of lawyers as the bottleneck in the system.

Change is complex, but this panel, Embracing Technophobia: Training Technologically Competent Lawyers, identified two drivers that are moving things forward: client expectations and demands; and regulatory and educational requirements.

Those drivers won’t bring about change on their own, however; and the panelists in the session  represent professionals in different roles who are acting as catalysts to bring those forces together. Lucy Endel Bassli, founder & principal at InnoLegal Services, moderated a conversation among Esther Albers, Global Innovation Manager at Clifford Chance; Sukesh Kamra, National Director in Knowledge Management at Norton Rose Fulbright; Jason Smith, Vice Chair of the State Bar of Texas Corporate Counsel Section; and Carla Swansburg, Vice President & General Manager (Canada) of Epiq Systems.

Clients and Their Problems

Clients don’t just demand more innovation in the abstract — their interest in seeing innovation from their firms is tied to specific legal problems they face, and the challenges of finding speedy, cost-effective, and high-quality solutions.

Swansburg advised looking for the pain points in the practice and solving those. “Don’t start big by going out and acquiring some major technology,” she told the attendees. “They are likely to be just as painful for the lawyers working on them as they are for clients.”

Using technology to solve problems for those struggling with them is a quick path to adoption, she advised, adding that “shamelessly using client agendas is the best way to get lawyers engaged in leveraging technology.”

Process is central to all this. As Bassli noted, innovation is not just about technology. Fantastic gains can come through simple process improvements without the application of any advanced technology; however, only when a firm’s processes are mapped and understood can technological solutions present themselves.

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Lucy Bassli moderates the “Technophobia” panel at the Emerging Legal Technology Forum

The importance of clients as drivers of change is particularly apparent in cases where lawyers are advising technology companies on their own complex technology-related legal issues yet can’t answer questions about how technology can be leveraged to solve those issues, the panel noted. Indeed, lawyers may have expertise in the law of the client’s technology, but when the subject becomes the technology used to address the legal problems, the clients and the lawyers risk talking past one another. As Kamra explained, firm lawyers used to be able to hide behind the distinction between the practice and the business of law, but that distinction is eroding in the in-house world with the rise of clients’ discipline in their own legal operations.

Regulation and Training

The panel was fairly unanimous in thinking that success in tech adoption is not all about carrots — the stick plays a role as well.

The panel discussed American Bar Association (ABA) and Canadian requirements that should be pushing lawyers toward greater technology awareness and competence. In 2012, the ABA amended Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1, which pertains to competence, to read as follows:

Maintaining Competence — To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

To date, 31 states have adopted some form of that comment in their professional responsibility requirements. On the training front, however, only Florida and North Carolina have added technology requisites to their Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements.

In Canada, Swansburg noted that the Law Society of Ontario has recently launched a task force on technology competence that could set up new requirements.

As important as it is to shift to greater technology competence being built into the basic requirements for being a lawyer, however, these initiatives are moving slowly and haven’t exactly transformed the industry yet. The form of training that will help more lawyers turn the corner is likely to come from within their own organizations. This is why we see so many law firms hiring chief innovation officers and directors of innovation. In other firms the initiative may be coming from a knowledge management function or head of practice technologies.

The panel discussed a number of techniques that were helping their own organizations move forward, such as:

  • Albers identified a number of awareness-oriented initiatives at Clifford Chance, designed to simply start engaging lawyers in aspects of technology. These include a Global Technology Academy to distribute learning resources across the firm; a series of thought leadership initiatives, and a “microsite” with technology news related to legal.
  • At Norton Rose, Kamra described a “tiered” approach, with separate training initiatives on productivity tools like Microsoft Office; practice area-specific tools; and more advanced sessions on topics like automation led by the firm’s Knowledge Management team itself. He noted the critical phase many lawyers find themselves in: clients are starting to ask about applying technology to their legal matters, but lawyers aren’t always able to respond knowledgeably.
  • Swansburg mentioned the growing number of law schools in the US, led by Michigan State School of Law, Chicago Kent College of Law, Stanford Law, and others who are helping a new generation of students see the practice of law through a technology lens. In Canada, Ryerson University has proposed a new law school with a curriculum heavy on technology and business of law skills.
  • Ultimately, all panelists agreed that a tech-friendly culture was an important prerequisite for growth. Swansberg suggested that this is an area where a top-down culture is important — leadership must be visibly engaged in the push for innovation. At the same time, the panel underscored the importance of seeking out the firm partners who think a little differently about the business, and senior associates who will actually be using new tools and approaches. Their buy-in is essential, and their adoption becomes part of the culture.

It’s often said that innovation is about people, process and technology. This session reminded conference attendees that the people part of that equation is often the most challenging and important aspect.