Rethinking Legal Technology
Legal technology has recently evolved like Swiss army knife. While the technologies continue to improve, and the features continue to advance, the addition of ever more bells and whistles threatens to subsume the underlying value of the technologies themselves. Much like smartphone apps have developed in waves, with but a small percentage ever really used, and an even smaller percentage ever actually adding to productivity, so too have legal technologies. With tens, if not hundreds, of e-discovery, billing, contract management, project management, document automation, intellectual property, research and other legal related technologies available, the ability of in-house counsel to evaluate and make purchasing decisions involving those technologies has become overwhelmed. It has become nearly impossible to identify a technology that can swiftly and easily be deployed and integrated into a corporate IT infrastructure without the need for IT consultants or the assistance of other non-legal personnel. It has also become even more difficult to assess the productivity enhancements many of those technologies purport to provide, especially in real-time.
For typically resource constrained in-house legal departments, ease of implementation, ease of deployment and ease of use must remain paramount.
So, where does that leave us with legal technology?
1. Ease Complexity. Too many bells and whistles have made many legal technologies less helpful than expected. Take contract management. In many cases, simply tracking and finding contracts offers immediate value. And being able to share contracts under some simple set of rules – e.g. “view only” - with other internal departments, whether finance, human resources or other groups, may provide additional value. The ability to “tag” information, while valuable in the long-term, may, however, require resources that are not so readily available in-house. So, a system that demands of its users a form of embedded intelligence as a condition to use doesn’t really offer much if “embedding” that intelligence becomes a complex task of its own. Too many hurdles to daily usage make the technology unhelpful. Some design forethought should be applied before introducing “gates” or other hurdles to any legal technology platform, including whether they can be turned “on” or “off” by non-technical lawyers. Those same issues plague many legal billing systems. While the data capabilities of many online billing systems could be helpful, the principal purpose behind the technology – enabling a quick, easy method for law firms to deliver legal bills, have them reviewed, fully accrued and then paid – gets lost with many solutions. In too many cases, the benefits that could derive from billing “data,” and the basic transparency the technology seeks to offer, take a back seat to functionalities that are never used and are not essential. With ever more technology solutions layered one on top of another, the inherent complexity of the solutions quickly subsumes the practical advantages for which theywere originally intended. So much so that, in many cases, there has arisen the need for a separate “manager” within legal departments to oversee legal operations, including technology deployments and applications training. Whether or not that evolution has been a good or bad thing for productivity, the fact that it has occurred, and is continuing apace, should, at least, force those developing legally focused technologies to take a step back and ask whether they may have missed the mark.
2. Ease Implementation and Training. Does the solution require integration with the corporate IT infrastructure or can it be deployed as a service? How significant are the IT demands? Can the technology be used without extensive attorney training? With IT departments typically overwhelmed by revenue focused projects, whether inventory management, manufacturing flows, customer support or the like, it is not uncommon to have legal support systems de-prioritized. The more labor intensive the project, the more integration required or the more complex the IT needs, the less likely is the legal department to receive implementation support – at least in a timely manner. Ease of implementation should be a principal consideration, not an afterthought. And once implemented, can it be used? Again, if the inherent complexity of the technology requires extensive training, it becomes that much less appealing to the rank-and-file attorney who may not wish to dedicate days to technical training.
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3. Consider Payment Terms. Legal budgets are not typically over weighted with technology expense. They require a certain level of flexibility and adaptability to enable departments to address unbudgeted or unforeseen expenses that occur throughout a year, such as litigation. When managing a budget that may experience unknown variations, upfront commitments to material capital expenditures may create pause, especially if the returns from that investment are far off or not readily quantifiable. And, while capital expenditures may be necessary, pricing structures that afford flexibility can offer more value. With a business that experiences seasonality, for example, there may be demands in certain quarters for the legal team aggressively to manage its budget below forecast. In that light, alternative fee arrangements with external counsel can address those types of issues, adjusting payments throughout the year to align more effectively with seasonal expectations. In quarters where revenue is expected to be lower, legal expense, for known areas of expense, can be managed lower if fee arrangements are designed with that foresight in mind. If that can be accomplished with external counsel, why can’t technology providers have a similar sensitivity and offer equivalent pricing flexibility and adaptability?
4. Think about the Sale. Purchasing decisions for legal technology should reside within the legal department. While integration, deployment and support may require IT collaboration, the purchase decision should be made by those who will use, and benefit from, the technology. In some cases, “tack-on” offerings by larger enterprise solutions companies seem to offer a path of least resistance. While perhaps one “data” point in the calculus, it should remain just one data point among many. For legal technologies, it should be clear that the legal department is responsible for the purchase, responsible for using it effectively once deployed and responsible for ensuring that it enhances productivity.
Legal technology can offer a powerful productivity tool. It can enhance transparency, responsiveness, and internal analytical capabilities. But it should not be an end in itself. For typically resource constrained in-house legal departments, ease of implementation, ease of deployment and ease of use must remain paramount. The value in these solutions will only be realized once they become as simple to use, and as intuitive, as basic word processing. Until then, there will remain a continuous “push-and-pull” that counsel undertake as they attempt to assess the full costs (hidden and otherwise) and benefits of any of these so-called “solutions.”