Bridging the Legal & IT Spaces
Many years ago, when I was a relatively new in-house attorney in a very large law department, I was invited to join the department’s newly formed “technology steering committee”. The law department had decided that the IT department did not understand the technology needs of the lawyers, so it decided to create its own IT infrastructure. I think I was invited to join because I had asked for a personal computer on my desk rather than dictating to a secretary, and I was spotted sometimes crawling under desks to hook things up. After a few months of deliberation, the committee decided the law department’s technology needs included a time and matter management system, some sort of network and electronic mail system to help us communicate with each other and share information better, and some tools to help us manage the documents we created and reviewed. We ended up developing a homegrown database to track matters and lawyer time, installing local area networks at the sites where the lawyers were located, and using dial up modems to connect the different sites. While the system indeed connected the law department, it lived apart from the rest of the company information. Other departments were developing similar arrangements, resulting in many silos of information throughout the company.
So what has changed in 25 years? Many legal departments still focus on these same goals of managing time and matters, communicating with each other and the rest of the company, and document management. While the tools have improved and while we are all certainly much better connected- email, instant messaging, video conferences are available anytime, anyplace, and on any device- and while we have better tools to manage the growing volume of documents, many of the same silos persist.
While silos cost time and money on the business side, they also can have a huge impact on the legal side of things. For example, in the old days, it was relatively easy to collect the information needed for a lawsuit or in response to a compliance issue. It took a lot of work to make paper copies and store them, and it took more work that it does not to create electronic copies and move them around. Electronic information only lived in certain fairly well designated places, since end users did not have a lot of control over the process.
“Lawyers need a system that works with the corporate IT structure, rather than the traditional world apart”
In contrast, the combination of ease of access to tools to create and share information (such as the growth of mobile devices, many of which are owned by and controlled by end-users, and not the company), combined with relatively low storage costs, improved connectivity, and a movement towards everything in the office creating digital information (in the old days we never had to turn over the hard drive from a copy machine!), means that nowadays company information can live anywhere, in many formats. This proliferation of information often results in quickly increasing legal costs because the lawyers often have to sort through and turn on huge amounts of data even for relatively small lawsuits or compliance issues. It also makes it easier to miss vital information.
In response to these changes, a marketplace of tools has developed to help companies find, sort through, and produce the information required by the legal department during the course of a given lawsuit or compliance action. Many of these tools work well, and do enable the efficient searching and sorting of vast amounts of data. While a modern law department cannot function without these tools, the costs in time and money can still be huge for any given lawsuit. Many vendors like to show me how their tools are “more efficient” than the competition, and how they will increase my “return on investment.” However, my clients, the business people who are making and selling products and services, like to remind me that we are not in the litigation business, and saving 10 percent of something he thinks should not cost anything is not a “return on investment.”
Where does this leave the legal department?
We certainly need to make sure we are using the most efficient tools to help us find and use the information we need in any given legal action, but we can add a lot more value by actively participating with the rest of the company in figuring out how the company can best create and manage information in the first place. To do this, we need to make sure the lawyers work closely with the IT department and the rest of the company (especially the HR department) up front, when systems are being designed and implemented. In the long run, it is better to make sure all of the company information lives in one place and is easily accessible and searchable, rather than having to repeatedly track down information, export it, and then search it. Some recent trends in business IT make effective information management even more critical. With the advent of mobile access and BYOD, information lives in more places than ever before. Likewise, we can make sure the company knows when it can get rid of stuff, and that the company has an effective program to keep only what is needed to do business, or what is required to be kept for a lawsuit or investigation, and get rid of the rest.
The payoff of such coordinated planning is that the choice of legal technology becomes much easier. At that point, the lawyers need a system that works with, and may be part of, the rest of the corporate IT structure, rather than the traditional world apart.