Legal Technology is not all about tablets, cloud and getting there first

Legal Technology is not all about tablets, cloud and getting there first
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Guest Post by Rupert Collins-White in reply to Brian Inkster’s post on Big Law is so behind the Legal IT curve

Are big firms failing because they’ve not adopted certain technologies? When I was at uni one of my housemates read the I Ching (yes, the whole thing), but the only line I remember with total clarity from his regurgitation of this is that ‘not acting is acting’. In other words, not doing something is doing something.

We should take these words seriously when thinking about whether business ‘should’ have adopted technologies.

However – if you don’t want to read this post in full, here is an executive summary of my thoughts on this:

  • Seeing progress in legal IT as being solely around individuality/consumer-focused technologies like mobility and cloud is wrong-headed, or at best highly narrow.
  • There is no such thing, really, as ‘legal IT’.
  • Small law firms are also, in many ways, rubbish at IT adoption.
  • IT adoption, as a non-focused measure, is also rubbish.
  • In some areas of leveraging clever IT – areas that I’d argue that are very important – Big Law is doing surprisingly well, and certainly better than smaller firms.
  • Legal has also suffered in terms of IT because it’s failed to allow non-lawyer IT leaders to have real power.
  • Many industries have failed to leverage technologies that would be great for them – legal is not alone in that.
  • Legal hasn’t failed to adopt certain technologies just because it’s antediluvian (thought that is often a reason) and doesn’t like tablets – there are bigger reasons behind it.
  • Legal, big and small, can be really bad at some areas of IT other than straightforward adoption of technologies – such as information security. Because of that, I’d say that it might be a blessing it hasn’t hurled itself into the cloud.
  • Legal has been let down by being served by too many small suppliers, supplier market fragmentation and the upset of recent consolidation. That’s not really affected small law. Now that there are fewer large legal-focused IT vendors, mainly using enterprise standards or basing their solutions on major IT backbones (Dynamics, SOA etc) I think we’ll see much more ‘innovation’ in Big Law because a feeling of security surrounds development.

Now, for those of you with adult attention spans, let’s get on with some myth-bashing.

Reading Brian Inkster’s post about whether big law firms are better at IT than smaller firms gave me an overwhelming feeling of that moment in Groundhog Day when the alarm clock clacks over every morning.

For my sins, which must be many and various, I’ve spent 15 years now either writing directly or indirectly about technology – consumer and enterprise. I was writing about how IT directors should be real board-level people, and calling for CIOs in UK business, back in 1999 at IT Week magazine. And here we are.

Brian’s post about how ‘far behind’ big law firms are in terms of technology struck a chord with me, because a) I agree that legal business is an industry that has yet to make the most of the incredible information technologies that have been created or developed over the last 15-20 years, but b) I don’t agree that this is represented by whether legal has adopted wholesale cloud technology or tablets or suchlike.

Some initial thoughts about why this ‘small law’ view of ‘big law’ is wide of the mark:

1. Attitudes to information security in legal, big and small, really are far behind the business curve. Some examples: Dropbox. Un-encrypted email. Lax protocols on teleconferencing. A delusion that client files held on-premise are safer from hacking/intrusion than holding them in a data centre. Did I mention Dropbox?

2. About how we described the future of cloud in larger law firms in Briefing magazine:

When I wrote in our interview with Eversheds’ CIO Paul Caris that ‘cloud is probably the future for law firms’, I meant that it’s probably the future for all or most services and solutions.

That’s a BIG call. I don’t think for a moment it’s possible to say whether cloud will be the way any particular solution will be delivered in future, let alone all or almost all solutions. I certainly think that most of the talk about how it’s inevitable that cloud is the future is premature, to say the least.

3. A ‘failure’ to adopt technologies is hardly the preserve of legal. There are so many examples of businesses or whole sectors have not adopted technologies that would be really great for so them – eg presence, unified comms. And simply not adopting something compared to somebody else isn’t a crime in and of itself.

4. I don’t think law firms, even big ones, have really given IT leaders the level of status or power that they need to reform legal business. I’m not saying this is true of all big firms, or even all firms. But legal needs more CIOs, with more power.

But to get to Whether Big Law Really Is So Behind The Legal IT Curve…

I don’t agree with Brian – not because he’s plain wrong, but because I don’t think you can measure success or failure by whether some firms have adopted IT.

Let’s break that down into an ordered list, because legal.

1. Getting some perspective

i) It’s not accurate to describe the picture of IT ‘adoption’ in legal as a split between big and small (or ‘new’) law. It’s not accurate, in my opinion, to talk about IT adoption in this general way at all. It’s not really right to talk about legal IT – because there’s no such thing as ‘legal IT’ (there, I said it). There’s just IT. We’re in legal. We use what fits. Often we have to tailor it some. There really are hardly any genuinely legal-only solutions.

‘Legal IT’ is just another anachronism attempting to divide the world into law and non-law, into lawyer and non-lawyer. Talking about legal IT is just another variant of one of the Big Problems legal business has – that it’s truly different, that somehow there’s an IT just for legal. This was much more true a few years ago than it is now, and it was only a partial truth then. I’ll still use the phrase ‘legal IT’ in this post, because it’s an idea that’s embedded – but it’s not really true, and I think it causes problems rather than solving them.

ii) The IT businesses focused on legal have fitfully tried to change the platforms firms work in, but there’s been limited interest in taking on the innovations offered, when they have been offered. So far, so Inkster.

But, almost in the background, vendors have paid the price for a grander misstep, which is leading them to a future that I think will be really productive for their client firms:

There are now fewer IT vendors playing for legal’s dollar or pound than there were even three-to-five years ago, and those vendors are generally larger. Most of the interesting new entrants to ‘legal IT’, IMHO, are those selling new kinds of products (or new to legal), like collaboration tools, social media tools and suchlike. There are also some ‘new’ vendors in the ‘big IT’ space, eg PMS/CMS, though even these are generally parts of bigger businesses, repurposing stuff to legal.

IT vendors specific to legal have all but disappeared, and that’s a good thing. Legal just isn’t a big enough market to support real innovation on its own. I think this lesson is being learned across the supplier side of the equation.

The reality is that today’s legal solutions are becoming a lot more like solutions in other industries. They are becoming less specific, as legal businesses learn how to work like businesses in other sectors. Newcomers are based on enterprise grade backbones (Lexis One, Avanade et al). SAP is back in the picture with Shoosmiths and other, bigger names to come.

Big Law is also a much faster adopter of customer relationship management and business intelligence than ‘small’ law – though one marketing director joked to me recently that legal will never buy Salesforce until it changes its name (to Partnerforce, perhaps – Mark, I told you I would publish first).

And there, I think, is the real problem with law when it comes to IT.

2. Where law is challenged when it comes to IT

i) The big problem is that law sees itself as different to everything else. We know this. As many have said, it’s really just a business sector whose product is legal advice.

But law is significantly different in a few key ways compared with many sectors/industries, to which we might be unwittingly and erroneously comparing it when looking at ‘IT adoption’. It operates on a relatively unusual high-value/low-number employee set-up. Firms often have loads of direct owners that also carry out work. Many law firms, therefore, operate what I think is an arguably defunct business structure that actively disincentivises IT investment.

In my opinion, having lots of partners who are remunerated by taking all the profits out of the business every year kills investment appetite and risk-taking approaches to innovation more than any need to sweat assets or other challenges. It’s the number one barrier to IT adoption, because it denies the business the capability to invest in the future.

Not only that, those making IT business cases in legal also have to sell investment to owners who simply will never see the ROI, because they will cash out before it happens. Short-termism rules. Many, many law firms cannot truly ‘think’ like companies – to think of a future of the corporate body, rather than partners – and so they will not be able to compete in IT innovation with companies. That is the real IT-related threat of the new entrants – and it’s embedded in the firms themselves.

ii) Law firms are almost entirely non-enterprise grade in manpower size, but some are enterprise grade in revenue and operational needs. Many of the global 200-300 could or should use enterprise ERP software such as Oracle, SAP etc, but they don’t. They should have adopted ERP solutions ages ago, but didn’t. The reasons for that IMHO are varied, but many of them lead us back to 2(i).

Therefore, most people in the legal sector, which is an insular one, by and large, have never seen first-hand the immense benefits (and occasionally equally large downsides) of enterprise-grade IT. Many lawyers would not understand the benefits of it even if they had seen it. It’s no great surprise, then, that they fail to adopt some of the more interesting and potentially useful consumer-crossover technologies, such as tablets and cloud.

This is an area that smaller firms really can have the same solutions as Big Law – because ERP-style solutions are becoming available, via the cloud, on SaaS models. But do small firms need them? Really? If they adopted them, does that mean they’re ‘ahead’?

iii) Law has been failed by a (historically) fragmented vendor sphere and this has impacted Big Law far more than Small Law. I’m not saying the vendors have been bad, necessarily, but by too many vendors and a lack of (direct) interest by the biggest players, such as SAP, MS, Oracle etc. It’s also failed to push vendors to really innovate, or to adopt their most innovative solutions.

Those vendors that engage with legal did not or could not press upon their clients the advantages of ‘new’ technologies such as cloud computing. The reasons for this range from fear of the unknown to more of 2(i).

iv) Brian mentions in his post about how far behind big firms are in using social media to generate attention/PR/visibility/revenue/work/etc. I’d say it’s true that big law firms don’t really know what social media can do for them, but that’s really a business issue – do corporate clients care about social media presence?

I’d suggest that possibly the big problem with law and social media is that law doesn’t  easily understand the world in terms of individuals and consumers. Big Law doesn’t really focus on individuals except if they are particularly wealthy or litigious, in a social media-focused way. Events and dinners, yes. Namechecking a GC on Facebook, no.

That’s not to say there isn’t enormous opportunity on social media platforms for law firms – but I think most of the examples they get given by knowledge people or marketing or PR agencies aren’t right for what they do, or aren’t fully formed.

Here’s an example: I used to work for the Law Society Gazette (I told you my sins were many), and while there – this was 2009/10 so I’m not talking about pre-Facebook days – solicitors would write to us and send adverts calling out for participant firms in group actions.

I always wondered why on earth firms didn’t mine social media platforms heavily for group action participants directly. I still think that. But of course we in Europe don’t have US-style class actions with their punitive damages – so the driver to adopt technological routes to market is far less than in the US.

That point relates directly to what I think are some of the bigger reasons law firms haven’t needed to, haven’t been able to, or should not be at the same point in ‘IT adoption’ as small law.

And social media might be a much better tool for BD for firms as a tool rather than a marketing channel – using monitoring tools to measure the reputation of and risk for clients, rather than telling the world about the firm. Maybe they are (Eversheds is) – but you wouldn’t see it as much as a firm that calls for business on Twitter every day.

3. Show me some positivity, Rupert

i) I’m genuinely surprised by how far legal has come in terms of BYOD and use of tablets, etc. So what if, by SME firm standards, tablet use in legal is still small? This is a straight economies of scale argument. Apple doesn’t really do bulk discounts. It’s barely cared about enterprise sales as a discrete ‘thing’ until very recently. Apple makes most of the tablets in play in UK legal business, especially ones bought or chosen by users. Rolling out 500 iPads is big money! And therefore I refer you once again to 2(i).

But tablet use and even BYOD in all its flavours is taking off in Big Law, and I think it’s astounding how little time it’s taken for this to happen, if you look with enterprise eyes and you look at other IT adoption rates in the past, or compare legal to any risk averse area (government, financial services, eg) that trade in sensitive data. The big IT suppliers to legal are, across the board, building the next iterations of their solutions for mobile and tablet.

Through enterprise eyes, in the less than four years since the iPad reinvented tablet computing for most people (the iPad turns four on 3 April 2014), a huge amount has changed. Many firms are still working out how to ditch Windows XP – the idea that one of them has 500 iPads is, frankly, bleeding edge to point of blackout.

If you think about legal’s adoption of tablet computing in relation to Gartner’s generic ‘hype cycle’ chart, which is probably as realistically useful as the chart on the blog post that started me writing this post (ie, not really), legal business has gone from technology trigger to slope of enlightenment in under four years. That’s incredible.

Gartner Hype Cycle Curve

ii) There is nothing wrong with sweating IT assets. You would be a profligate fool if you did anything contrary to that. Big business has long buying cycles, Big Law equally so (especially considering 2(i)).

Until recently, the Windows dev cycle was five years just to make a product, and it was accepted that businesses would stay on an OS and related platforms (eg Office) that they understood for years after that. That’s a 10-year run for a multi-solution offering like Windows/Office. But, since Facebook, we now suddenly expect legal business to be straining to hurl itself into the constant-renewal, data-anywhere cloud model. It’s unrealistic.

iii) Moreover, this argument shouldn’t be about ‘IT adoption’ – it’s about the commercial drivers to change and innovation in IT use in legal, which are contextual and distinct by market and segment.

US firms, for example, will find it easier to adopt cloud solutions in law firms than the UK for many reasons, but mainly because US data laws are shoddy compared to the EU, and because Snowden/NSA. Offshore firms, for example, are probably never going to go the cloud, because their client data must stay within certain places.

UK and UK-based international firms are under larger commercial pressures compared to many US firms, and living in lower-growth environments. They’ve been pushed into being much analytically capable when it comes to using tools like business intelligence and sophisticated reporting, and many people say that they’re more fundamentally corporate than many US firms. However, the US market, being more insular, has turned more to market/competitive intelligence and benchmarking than has the UK (or so I hear).

So the rate of IT adoption, I propose, is a poor measure – especially when applied to a really clunky benchmark like big or small law. Much better to think about which kinds of firms, and where, have adopted technologies and why.

Here’s an example:

US firms might be much more willing to put data in the cloud because the US is the unsafe place firms in other jurisdictions, eg ours, want to avoid putting data into when it goes in the cloud. A real world example is Eric Hunter’s firm, Bradford & Barthel, which gets a lot of airtime as a Google Apps law firm. B&B cannot, and in its current form, should not exist in the UK – because information is stored with Google (as far as I understand it).

Does this mean that Big Law is ‘behind the cloud curve’? Not necessarily. The curve, such as a thing could be, must relate to its context.

4. In conclusion, because this has to end somewhere

Big Law isn’t ‘behind the curve’ of legal IT. It might well be behind the curve in terms of many information technologies more generally, but it pretty much embodies ‘legal IT’, so it can’t be greatly behind itself.

Big Law is miles ahead of many SME firms when it comes to adoption of some technologies and processes and methods. It’s less developed than smaller firms in others.

It’s false to think about IT adoption in general when one means quite specific sets of technologies or advances or methods of delivery, such as cloud.

Big Law firms are much like any big company (though, importantly, sometimes more like very big companies than companies their own size in terms of headcount), in that they have big IT systems they’ve paid for and they can’t turn on a dime – or even on a half-decade timescale.

Legal really could do so much with so many new technologies, and it’s failing to do that – but it’s not size that’s the primary cause of that failure.

My thanks to Brian for making me think harder about what I write about than I normally do – and for the space to reply on The Time Blawg.

Rupert Collins-White
Rupert Collins-White

About the Guest Blogger: Rupert Collins-White is a director and head of content and community for Legal Support Network and editor of Briefing and Legal Practice Management magazines.

Image Credit: Gartner Hype Cycle Graph: Jeremykemp at en.wikipedia

NB: Captions added by The Time Blawg Editor

NBB: This is the second in a series of Guest Blogs on Big Law, Small Law and IT. See also Big Law Little Law by Mark Gould.

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  1. Great article and a refreshing viewpoint about how law firms actually work with IT.

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