NEW YORK — As law firms grasp the transformative impact of innovation on the business and practice of law, they recognize such innovation as a competitive necessity, particularly as clients pursue sophisticated offerings from other vendors and legal service providers.
But innovation is hard. For example, while roughly one-third of law firms are now exploring artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-based tools, less than 7% have implemented AI as part of their business operations. Firms struggle to bring together technology advancements with their practical application.
At the VANTAGE Executive Summit, part of the VANTAGE Worldwide Conference, one of the panels — “Innovation with Impact” — explored innovation topics ranging from best practices, examples, and industry impact were discussed in-depth by law firm leaders, data scientists and cognitive computing experts, offering attendees a 360-degree insight into this complex subject.
The panel moderator, Eric Sugden, Chief Technology Officer of Thomson Reuters Legal Enterprise Solutions, spoke with Legal Executive Institute and shared his comments about the innovative technologies taking place within the legal environment and the very real business impact they are having on law firms and their clients.
Legal Executive Institute: In innovation, is it best to focus on home runs or go for singles?
Eric Sugden: The prevailing wisdom from the panel is that you need to play “small ball;” go for singles because it’s best to try a lot of different ideas and not get too invested in one idea until it proves out or fails fast. Home runs are great when they happen, but taking big swings on a regular basis is a low percentage play.
Should we set aside time for innovation, or is it expected to be done in our free time?
Innovation has to be part of your organization’s culture. You can’t expect it to happen without some sort of program or resources behind it. Some firms have dedicated roles to push innovation and help drive that change in the organization.
Can innovation happen at any level in the organization?
Yes, it can. You certainly don’t want to have innovation come only from the top. You need to encourage grassroots innovation and give employees the space to make that happen. Always being focused on short-term results can definitely stifle your innovation efforts.
Short-term thinking can prohibit longer-term vision and innovation. Innovative firms look beyond “this year’s” results and develop plans and staff to drive for those important long-term results.
AI has all the buzz right now. What are some of the key innovations in that space that have you interested?
AI is real, and there are serious applications of machine-learning (ML) already happening in the legal industry. Most of these solutions focus on very niche solutions — solving real problems but in very narrow areas.
One panelist commented that machines will never be as general as humans, but they can be better than humans in doing things that machines do well, such as repetition, mundane work, or churning through large sets of data — a good example there is document review. Another panelist had an example of document summarization where a long document could be summarized by the machine down to a sentence or two. These are the types of solutions we are seeing today.
How are innovations in business intelligence and analytics providing key insights to the law firm executive team?
Big data and analytics can be transformational for a business, and there are plenty of examples of this — sports, entertainment and marketing. These are all industries that have changed dramatically over the past 10 years due to an increased focus on analytics. The same is true for legal, but we are still in the early days of that transformation.
What other areas of innovation are of particular interest to you?
Innovations aren’t limited to technology innovations. Many firms are focusing on improving and streamlining business processes that can be very innovative, and these firms have a competitive edge because of these process changes. So that’s an area that’s been very interesting.
A lot of innovation goes to increasing worker productivity through automation. What are some areas in legal where this is gaining traction?
Another way to think of ML or AI is that it’s a machine-automation of tasks that humans either aren’t very good at, or work that is not very interesting or engaging. These are the areas where most of the productivity gains are being made.
A great example of this in legal is having the machine read the time-card narrative and, from that data and other information on the matter, make an accurate coding of that time card for phase, task and activity. This is a process that lawyers are bad at and one that does not make best use of their skills or time.
All this talk about AI and ML gets very confusing for most law firms. How do we make sense of it?
You just need to think of AI and ML as another type of computer program with some specialized algorithms that solves a particular problem. Usually these solutions are around automating some function that a human used to do.
For example, applying a complex set of rules in the processing of billing guidelines. The “machine” ensures that all billing guidelines are met, and it does that with high levels of accuracy while a human could easily miss certain conditions. This is a simple form of AI — rules-based decision-making — but very common.