Technology can (and should) change the practice of law
One of the ironies of large law firms is that many tout their technology law practices but relatively few seem to have mastered the integration of newer technologies into the everyday practice of law. This dedication to the “old way” of doing things is seen in operations as varied as billing, case management, and client communications, and the persistence of outmoded practices flies in the face of firms that are otherwise dealing with cutting-edge technologies, like artificial technology, machine learning, and big data. Law firm technology clients, no doubt, must observe with wry amusement their lawyers who provide counsel on the complexities of emergent issues like cybersecurity and initial coin offerings, and who otherwise do business as if it is 2002.
While it is difficult to run a business that is in a constant state of disruption, law firms have little choice but to adapt to the rapidly changing technologies shaping the future. That rate of change will necessarily involve some missteps as firms experiment with and field-test new methods of delivering legal services; however, our experience is that some of these ideas will be true game-changers. Here are a few examples of innovations within the legal industry that we have explored first-hand and that hold tremendous potential for the future.
Machine learning for contract review
Last year was a watershed year for cloud-based tools that read contracts and extract provisions for further summary and export. With new revelations of the power of this approach, our firm decided to separate fact from fiction by exploring the opportunity machine-learning tools presented for our client contract work. We evaluated 17 vendors in this space and conducted two multi-month, in-depth pilot projects to verify the accuracy and efficiency of the software systems. Our thorough review of the technology confirmed that machine-learning tools are ready for prime time and can add significant value.
As part of our evaluation, we compared the raw output of a machine-learning system to actual work product developed by a team of associates. One recently completed project included more than 1,300 contracts (totaling more than 26,000 pages), which had taken more than 10 weeks for three associates to review. The contracting tool we tested read the 26,000 pages of contract language and extracted 40 provisions (such as assignment, change of control, governing law and termination) in two and a half hours. The comparison of language from the tool’s processing routines matched the associates’ selected quotations and section summaries 95% percent of the time. Make no mistake, associates are still required to read contracts, complete summaries, and escalate issues; however, the amount of time and money saved using these tools is an order of magnitude above what could be achieved using other management approaches.
The development of client portals is hardly new, but the explosion in available data and capabilities will test systems that did not plan for the future. Custom solutions, like a client portal, often lack scalability because those responsible for the initial design/build phase of the project lacked the vision to anticipate how the technology might evolve and needs might change.
The lesson we took away from designing our own portal system is that a modular framework is absolutely necessary. Without the crucial investments in backend systems required to integrate and synchronize content and accelerate the deployment of each module, portals become stuck in time, incapable of adapting to new requirements and new technology. Over time our firm has been able to integrate an amazing volume of information into our portals — including document management, knowledge management, case management, calendars and deadlines, status reporting and billing, and work-in-progress on a near real-time basis.
These portals accelerate access to the key pieces of information in each area of matter management, so that lawyers spend less time searching for documents or waiting for reports and handoffs from other departments, and more time strategizing and applying their legal expertise. For some lawyers, operationalizing matter management has been a mindset shift — one that required legal teams to listen closely to the client and embrace new ways of working. Clients using the portals have reported up to 30% reductions in time spent per matter and 20% to 30% decreases in partner time spent per matter.
Outside counsel suite
In January 2016, a global Fortune 500 company decided to significantly expand Husch Blackwell’s approach to case management to cover a nationwide portfolio of litigation. The assistant general counsel asked the firm to take over management and payment of the large volume of invoices submitted each month by local counsel.
To efficiently provide this service, Husch Blackwell’s Legal Project Management team worked with its technology development staff to build an outside counsel-billing portal. Just as other e-billing platforms, local counsel uploaded LEDES-formatted invoices, which the litigation management team reviewed and approved or rejected using the platform’s online tools. Approved invoices automatically were routed for payment, whereas rejected invoices could be corrected and resubmitted. The Outside Counsel Suite also provided the team with tools to more easily identify variances among case strategy, the work plan and activity, and to better enforce budget expectations.
Now in the client’s third fiscal year, the benefits of using case management protocols with a technology platform to manage case strategy and review bills are clear to all stakeholders. The initiative has reduced the client’s risk profile and provided greater alignment with the client’s business strategy. The client saved more than half a million dollars a year on legal spend and positioned its staff more strategically. The firm’s approach also provided in-house counsel tremendous transparency, both for priority cases and the portfolio as a whole.
Technology assisted review (predictive coding)
Discovery is extraordinarily costly in civil cases involving the review of large numbers of electronic documents for relevance and privilege. Technology assisted review (TAR) reduces the overall cost of discovery by replacing a linear and manual process with supervised machine-learning technology that mimics the judgment of attorneys based on their review of a document sample.
Use of predictive coding has allowed our firm to tackle discovery situations where the volume of documents was still significant even after the negotiation of search terms and the application of other restrictions. In one instance, the firm’s use of TAR reduced the total review set by 85% after training the system with a sample composed of 2% of the total set of documents. This resulted in substantial cost savings and a much more focused one-touch review.
While predictive coding is not a one-size-fits-all solution to discovery issues, the benefits of TAR also are not restricted to the review and analysis of large document sets. The approach has promise for early case assessment through analysis of the underlying documents and subsequent assessment of the validity of the claim and/or defense. TAR also has potential to help with information governance by identifying important business resources and providing a basis for reducing the storage of documents that ultimately could be a subject of a legal hold or discovery.
The future is now
Technological and business innovations do not occur in vacuum, but are often set in motion by necessity. For those law firms that have successfully integrated newer technologies into their legal-service delivery models, that necessity has been driven by client goals and the ever-important imperative to meet client budgets. The innovations detailed above are just a sampling of what is to come, but even these examples are a powerful reminder that the future is already here.
Angela Quinn is the chief client officer at Husch Blackwell LLP. Chris Smith is a litigation partner in the firm’s Healthcare, Life Sciences, and Education industry group. Both are based in the firm’s St. Louis office.
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