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A New Mindset: Empowering Lawyers Through Technology

Mon 14 Mar 2022

Seven law firm CIOs and other leaders in legal technology sat down with Litera’s Evangelist Sherry Kappel at the Changing Lawyer Summit to talk about how almost two years of a pandemic has altered the technology landscape for legal organizations.  What emerged was a picture of an industry that is moving well beyond the first stages of scrambling to accommodate remote work and Zoom meetings – the panelists are seeing some genuinely profound shifts in the way lawyers and firms think about the role of technology in their work and their organizations.    

Kappel’s guests were:  

  • Matt Coatney - CIO, Thompson Hine LLP 
  • Britton Choi - CIO, Sheppard Mullin 
  • Sandee Kastrul - President and Cofounder of i.c.stars (a technology training program for underserved young adults)  
  • Tracy Elmblad - COO, Hinshaw & Culbertson 
  • Doug Caddell - Global CIO, Mayer Brown
  • Ginevra Saylor - National Director, Innovation and Knowledge Programs, Gowling WLG (Canada) LLP and board chair of ILTA 
  • Leigh Snider - Legal Process Engineer Manager, BakerHostetler 

Changing Technology  

As a bit of foreshadowing, Kappel cited a recent Bloomberg Law study that showed that 54 percent of law firm leaders surveyed were “open to using technology.”  Not a very impressive share, but that’s up quite a bit from the 40% who said the same before the onset of the pandemic.  Covid-19 stimulated some new thinking around tech.  

The panel outlined some of the creative steps that their departments and firms had taken in the early months of the pandemic, and some of the lessons learned.  For example: 

  • Creating a weekly operations call with 40 leaders across the firm.  That became an important cross-functional teambuilding step at one firm.  
  • A new process called “Check on Me,” where a IT staff shadowed lawyers and others to identify workflow pain points and make recommendations.   
  • The realization that everyone on the IT team was now front-line support to the firm – everyone was on call.  
  • A Workforce of the Future task force quickly went beyond just addressing remote work issues and started taking a broader view of the future of work at the firm.  
  • A new staffing dashboard system at one firm to address the realization that knowing who was busy had become much more difficult in a remote environment.  
  • Work from home policies shifted. To the extent firms had policies in place before the pandemic, they seemed designed to discourage WFH.  That has flipped, and now policies are designed to make flexible work much easier all around.    

The overall sense of the panel was that the turmoil generated at the start of the pandemic had a side benefit. The crisis moved technology front and center for everyone in the firm. It stimulated new ways of thinking about what was possible that carried forward even beyond the initial phases of the pandemic. Elmblad put it this way: “There’s not a lot of debate.” There are more and more opportunities to invest in technology and more support from leadership. The months in the pandemic “were a few years that allowed the tech to shine.”   

The Next Challenge: A Hybrid Model 

Quickly moving an entire law firm to a fully remote model was a considerable challenge. But that is only the beginning, and firms started to shift some work back to the office. As Ginevra Saylor put it, “We haven’t faced the biggest challenge yet, which is the hybrid environment.”  

What kinds of equipment best supports people who move between home and office work environments?  How do you make meetings fair and productive when some people are in the room, and some are coming in via Zoom? How do you sustain a culture where people aren’t all in the office simultaneously? These are some of the future challenges that have yet to be fully worked out.   

This challenge has re-ignited the importance of standardized workflows that consider the needs of clients and the firm itself.  As Doug Caddell put it, “The workplace of the future is the bigger challenge. And it’s not just our workflow internally, but our clients’ workflows because they are experiencing the same thing. One of the things we are focusing on as we think about the future workplace is workflow and workflow technology. Not just technologies, it’s people too.” 

The Changing Tools of the Trade 

CIOs and other firm leaders have several levers to pull when reshaping their operations. This panel engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about some of the exciting developments in several specific areas that have been transformed in the wake of the pandemic.   

Changing Talent Needs 

Sandee Kastrul’s description of her i.c.stars program, which provides technology, leadership, and business training for underserved groups, stimulated a lively discussion about the state of talent management in the legal industry. Kastrul described her program as focusing not only on tech but, more importantly, on systems thinking and making that focus on systems thinking the anchor of everything the program does.  That shift recognizes that to operate in the world today, IT professionals need to learn to be consultative, to learn how to meet and engage with people, and to build social capital.   

Matt Coatney confirmed the value of this approach. “Business enablement, rather than strictly technology, is the skill for IT pros.  That’s essential. We are shifting from IT in a back-office function to business enablers. It’s a different set of skills.”   

Artificial Intelligence 

Coatney also noted the extent to which AI is permeating every part of legal practice.  Starting with ediscovery, AI has moved into prominence in legal research, contract management, patent landscape analysis. AI is becoming like everything else; more integrated, cheaper, easier, and it’s turning up in the practice of law and the business of law. “It is permeating and accelerating in legal.”   

The Cloud 

The pandemic has driven forward shifting tools and processes into the cloud.  The panel was unanimous in believing that moving to cloud-based models is more efficient and more secure than other alternatives.  As Saylor put it, “It’s arrogant for us to think we are better at security than cloud companies,” who work with security issues all day. She pointed out how often lawyers need to be reminded about protecting paper resources and avoiding loose talk in elevators, for example.  

Law firms still need to understand the security environment for cloud applications and carry out due diligence when selecting providers. Still, the dispersal of legal work due to the pandemic has been enabled by the cloud and has reinforced the cloud as a driver of new solutions. Britton Choi pointed out that another driver of increased cloud usage is the difficulty of recruiting and retaining information security professionals. Shifting more applications to the cloud helps to solve that one practical problem.  

Secure Portals 

Kappel wondered whether remote work and the changes it has brought about would finally end the problem of lawyers exchanging insecure emails with clients, another security issue that has gained more visibility. Saylor noted that this is a behavior problem, not a technology problem. Communications and collaboration should be taking place on secure portals. Still, it has been hard to change the behaviors around that, and in many cases, clients are as resistant as law firm lawyers.   

Leigh Snider has noted that her firm has had some success with a secure client intake portal with a workspace platform on the back end.  The idea is that secure collaboration can flow organically out of that intake portal.  

KM and Tech Adoption 

Something has shifted around knowledge management and innovation initiatives, the panel agreed. KM teams are working on technology adoption and promotion, and change management. Ginevra Saylor put it simply: “We don’t have to sell our KM services to our lawyers anymore.  We can’t keep up with demand – they are coming to us.” 

The significant change, she says, is that there isn’t any “back office” anymore. Everyone is on the front lines, not just the lawyers, working directly with clients. The “us” vs. “them” distinctions between lawyers and other teams are falling away as all kinds of skill sets are being deployed on client-facing solutions.  

Saylor says this interaction increasingly entails helping clients with non-legal issues and problems. That phenomenon is, to some degree, turning tech teams into revenue-generating units. That shift underscores the need for the type of training that Kastrul provides in her i.c.stars program: technology professionals need business skills, leadership skills, and negotiation skills in addition to their core tech skills.   

Most wanted superpowers 

Kappel wrapped up the session to request that the panelists identify the “superpowers” they most want to see on their teams.  Their responses underscore the extent to which multidisciplinary skills and roles are playing in the industry as it emerges from the first impacts of the pandemic: agility, diversity, curiosity, thriving in uncertainty, empathy, patience, change management, communication, and an outside-the-industry perspective were all mentioned.   

Judging from the experiences represented on this panel, the pandemic had a much broader impact than simply changing work patterns; it has set off a comprehensive set of changes to how legal organizations operate, which will likely continue to ripple through the industry for years to come.    

View the video of this Changing Lawyer Summit session here

Download the full report to explore more of the industry insights in Litera’s The Changing Lawyer 2021 research. Recordings of the Changing Lawyer Virtual Summit sessions are also available on our YouTube channel.  


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