Embracing Design: Accelerating Progress in Legal Technology

Topics: Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Stanford Law School

practice innovations

I have written previously about the disappointing pace of adoption of legal technology. Powerful new tools have been developed, and more are being created every day. They just aren’t being used as much as they could be or should be.

There are many reasons for this. Today I want to focus on one fundamental issue and suggest an approach to address it.

The issue: Most lawyers don’t realize how much better they could serve their clients by adopting new approaches, technology-based or otherwise. Proposed technology solutions therefore seem unnecessary, as well as inconvenient, difficult and expensive.

The suggestion: Law firms that want to make progress should engage in a rigorous design process, engaging teams of their lawyers to explore how they might serve their clients better. Such a process will help the lawyers internalize the advantages of new tools and new methods, including technology solutions.

The concept of design in legal service is relatively new. A leading example is underway at the Stanford Law School which has established a joint venture with the Stanford School of Design to pursue it.

For the purpose of this post, what I mean by a “design process” is simply bringing a team of lawyers together with an experienced design professional to consider a specific legal service issue, taking into account all the relevant objectives, resources and constraints. There is more to it, but that should do to make the point.

Here is how the process might go if a firm empaneled a team to examine the following issue in the context of a specific practice group:

How can we serve our clients at the lower fees they are demanding, while maintaining quality and competitive profitability?

The team would begin by identifying significant sources of cost which might be reduced if the work were approached differently, likely finding potential cost-reduction targets such as:

  • teams of highly compensated personnel;
  • review of large sets of documents and other data, both external and internal;
  • examination of complex bodies of law across many jurisdictions;
  • time-consuming communication within the law firm and with the client; and
  • repetitive communications and data examination by different personnel, at different times, throughout the engagement.

The team would look for structural opportunities to do the work differently, and likely finding examples such as:

  • elements of engagements which can be subdivided and assigned to different resources to reduce costs;
  • elements of engagements that have become routine and are candidates for automation; and
  • engagements done so many times in the past that patterns emerge which can be followed to increase efficiency.

With findings such as these, the team would turn to specific tools and methods to deliver legal service in a better and less expensive way. Among the options, technology solutions likely will emerge such as:

  • Collaboration Platforms—technology platforms that facilitate communication across teams, and reduce unnecessary and repetitive communication;
  • Advanced Research Tools—innovative legal research tools that provide sophisticated guidance on the application of case law by the courts, eliminating much of the lawyer-analysis time that would otherwise be required;
  • Data Analytics—modern tools for dealing with massive data sets which dramatically reduce the time needed by lawyers and other legal professionals, and which detect useful patterns as well; and
  • Document Automation—technology-based systems programmed to draft litigation and transactional documents pursuant to the guidelines provided, as the facts of an engagement unfold, and which “learn” with experience.

Throughout the process the team would consider the quality and financial implications of the potential solutions. Work would only be designated for a technology solution when the process concluded that it could do so without compromising quality. Indeed, empirical evidence shows that quality can actually be enhanced when technology and humans work together.

The financial questions would include how to cover the cost of the new technologies and how to adapt billing practices to a model less based on billable hours; again, empirical data shows that the outcomes for the firm can be superior, with savings net of new costs outpacing fee reductions, so that profitability actually can increase.

The foregoing illustration is both bare bones and optimistic. The actual process is messy, rarely linear, and leads to an outcome that cannot be preordained. It almost always is illuminating and energizing, however, and the process has a good chance of producing meaningful design changes.

Equally as important, all lawyers who participate in such a process will be more ready to embrace technology than they were before they did it.