The Evolution of IT Geeks into KM Geeks

10 Feb

evolutionBy Kathryne Valentine, Knowledge Management Solutions Manager, Dentons US LLP

As a Knowledge Management (KM) Solutions Manager, I am often asked what I do and how I arrived where I am today. Like many of my generation, I fell into information technology (IT) accidentally.  Particularly on the IT support-side, people suddenly found themselves in this new role simply because nothing came before.  It wasn’t until people with no background in technology were told to use computers to do their customary work and were expected to somehow know how to do so that new support roles began to emerge, roles for trainers, documentation writers, service desk analysts, interface designers, and all around IT geeks.  Remember, this was in a time long before Google and YouTube videos were around to help interested people quickly learn how to perform discrete tasks.

I believe IT people fall into two groups. The first group is the IT machine-people; these are the engineers, programmers, network geeks, and many others who relish the mechanics and general geekiness found in machines.  We really need these people, but often they are reserved and prefer talking to other people – especially end-users – only if and when necessary.  If they could or would articulate it, they might say something like this, “Please don’t make me explain this to a user; we don’t even speak the same language.”

And, this is where the second group of IT people comes into play. The second group, which includes me, is the IT people-people.  We are those who now fill the new roles that sprang up in the late 1990s and early 2000s as people in all work environments were permitted and then encouraged to interact directly with computers to do their job.

I remember seeing the first IBM PC on the floor of the large insurance company where I worked, standing out there all alone, and wondering, “What would you do with that thing?” No one knew.  We had to figure it out.  At about the same time that machine rolled in, I happened to be looking for a change from the training I had been doing on the sales side of the business and the company sought someone who knew that side of the business but could learn about computers.  So, for the next three years, I travelled around the country talking to the salespeople about how they could use computers to help automate much of their manual work and become more efficient.  Of course, the salespeople were receptive because greater efficiency means more productive, which means more money in their world.

After this program was introduced, the company next needed a system for tracking and managing support calls from the field and – voila – the first help desk was born. In those days, most of the calls had nothing to with things not working; rather, the calls came from people looking for ideas on how to better manage and use the information they were generating.

I next became an entrepreneur and entered the completely different real estate development and construction project management industry. We too bought a computer and printer, as well as a new miracle technology – the facsimile, or fax, machine.  Again, we had to figure out how to incorporate all of these new gadgets into doing business.  In this interlude, I needed to teach myself how to use the programs we bought to run our business, including the likes of WordPerfect, Lotus 1.2.3 and Quicken.   We weren’t learning the programs to become proficient in the programs. Instead we were trying to learn how to use them to solve real business problems and manage our growing business.  This taught me the most valuable lesson that I have carried throughout my IT career: IT people in support roles need to focus on how people work and the specific tasks they need to accomplish.  I also learned to quickly identify the most tedious tasks in people’s work and ask, “Is there a better way to do that?”

Fast forward several years and I found myself developing classroom training for federal government agencies in Washington, DC, which led to working with law firms in training, help desk support, and overall problem-solving for impatient and frustrated lawyers whose primary complaint was, “I just want to practice law; I don’t want to have to become a rocket scientist to use this computer.” There, I learned a very simple lesson that I have applied ever since: find out what the person wants to accomplish, ask questions, and listen.

By asking questions and listening closely to the answers, you learn the business that you support. You simply cannot be effective in technology support if you do not understand the business the people you support are immersed in every day.  Fortunately, this is precisely where IT people-people shine. We like communicating with our end-users, we like solving real business problems, and we like discovering new ways to perform tasks.  And in the practice of law, the observation made earlier about working in sales rings equally true:  more efficient means more productive, which means more money.

So 1000 or so words into this post, you may have noticed that KM hasn’t reappeared since the first paragraph. Where and how does KM come back into the story?  Many years of approaching IT support from the perspective of analyzing and understanding how people work to help them solve real business problems made for a natural and seamless transition into KM.  When the large firm I was working in combined with another large firm, team and role realignment opened the opportunity for me to move from IT into KM – another field that hadn’t existed and sprang into prominence at some point while I was out there in the working world minding my own and other people’s business.

In KM, the same rules apply. Doing your job well requires focusing on and getting to really know the business, what it does, how it makes money, and what its goals and visions for growth and sustainability are.  You need to know how all of this translates into the needs of the people doing the actual work. And, you need to remember that these people generally have no background in either IT or KM and likely have no interest in necessarily learning much about either.  They simply want to get their work done well.  Once you know and understand this and find out what their current problem or need is, you can identify better ways to accomplish the task at hand and explain the benefits of doing the task differently.  When approached this way, IT support and KM make their end-users happy and productive. And, they will return to us again and again with more tasks that need to be done in a better way.

Are You Ready to Go Paperless?

1 Feb

paperBy Ginevra Saylor, National Director, Knowledge Management, Dentons Canada LLP

If you still have not settled on a New Year’s resolution for 2017, you may want to consider making this the year to take your practice, law department, or firm paperless. The benefits of ditching your dependence on paper are many, and the obstacles have dwindled to a surprisingly surmountable few.  So, if you are thinking of making the move, here are few quick tips for getting started.

  1. Consider the benefits

Over the years, the content of clients’ matter files has changed from primarily paper to digital. Even so, many organizations have not fully adapted their record-keeping practices to reflect this reality.  For many, files have become a mix of paper and digital records, with neither alone telling the full story.  Of course, lawyers and firms need access to complete matter files to answer clients’ questions quickly and accurately and perform their work properly; when matters close, lawyers must secure, preserve, and sometimes transfer accurate files.  The obvious solution is to create and maintain one complete record of every matter, and doing so digitally makes sense given that most documents start out that way. Going with the digital brings many benefits, including providing remote and multiple access, eliminating redundant tasks (like printing and filing paper copies of digital content), reducing risk, freeing space, and decreasing physical storage and labor costs.

  1. Define paperless

The concept of a paperless office means different things to different organizations. For many, if not most, it does not mean purging all paper once and for all. Rather, it more likely means instituting a policy or practice of creating, storing, backing-up, and retaining operational and client files in digital format only. At least for the near future, many people will continue to find reading, revising, and proofreading content easier and more effective on paper, rather than on screen.  Some will also prefer printing material to read while commuting, in meetings, or in other places where computer access is inconvenient, uncomfortable or unavailable.  While paper continues to be a reality (and an expense, albeit a much lower one) in many paperless offices, the difference is that paper becomes a temporary convenience that is destroyed as soon as no longer needed. So, when taking an office or department paperless, decide how much paper you will continue to support.  Weaning people off paper can take time and making clear from the outset that paperless will not mean no paper goes a long way to assuage fear; however, being too permissive can cut into the benefits.  For instance, continuing to file both digital content and multiple paper copies and sending hard copies of digitally stored material to and from off-site storage facilities wastes time and money.  But, treating paper as a temporary convenience can strike a good balance.

  1. Assess your readiness

You will also want to make sure your practice is ready to shift to completely digital records; this will help you select a realistic target date and identify the processes, applications and hardware you may need to put in place beforehand. Make certain the office has an effective solution for converting the few materials still received (the occasional posted letter or fax) or created (handwritten notes and marked-up documents) in non-digital format to digital.  Depending on the size of the office, this could mean investing in or retooling centralized scanning services, multifunctional scan/print/copy devices at assistants’ work stations, or portable hand-held devices.  Consider how the office will ensure relevant voice-mail, any hard documents that must be kept, and physical objects are connected to the digital record.

To ensure that finding material in digital files will be as easy, and ideally far easier, than in paper files, make certain that digital files have been well-maintained and organized. In firms and law departments that have invested in a document management system, particularly one designed around clients and matters, digital files probably have a structure similar to or better than paper files that most people already are accustomed to; even without a document management system, most offices will have developed a system for organizing and sharing matter files on their network. However, keep in mind that everyone may not have been equally vigilant about moving relevant email into the proper place or refraining from saving documents locally.  Taking time to review and fine-tune your structure and ensure everyone is following established practices before transitioning to a paperless office is prudent.  If you have invested in advanced search technology, finding anything digitally should be much faster than even the most meticulously kept paper system; however, depending on your office’s uptake of your search engine, you may want to spend some time refreshing and upgrading people’s search skills.

  1. Do your research

Your planning process will also involve researching or updating research on your legal, professional, and ethical requirements for maintaining client matter files. In many jurisdictions, nearly every document in a lawyer’s file now may be kept in digital, rather than paper, format.  However, each jurisdiction is different, so legislation governing evidence, electronic records, lawyers, and the specific areas of law practiced, as well as bar and law society regulations, must all be researched carefully.  In some jurisdictions, original hard copies may be required in specific circumstances and for other scenarios no clear answer may exist.  For instance, gray areas may surface for environmental, real estate, trusts and estates, and tax matters.  When considering what, if any, material must be retained in hard copy, be careful to distinguish between what lawyers are required to keep as part of the file and what lawyers traditionally have kept as a service to their clients.  Each organization will decide for itself how much – or if – it will choose to retain as an added service beyond what it must.  And, even if no longer required by legislation or professional regulations, the firm may have agreed to preserve certain materials for clients either expressly or by implication; so, before destroying those hard copies, the clients’ agreement would likely be needed.

  1. Craft a policy and procedures

After completing all of the above preliminary steps, if you decide your organization is ready to go paperless, you will be well-positioned to start a project; two of the key deliverables will be a policy and procedures. A detailed look at what might go into that policy and procedures is far beyond the scope of this post and best left to those with expertise in records management.  But, as you may want to take this on in stages, some key points to think over before diving in include:

  • whether your paperless approach will focus only on records opened after the policy’s and procedure’s implementation or will also address conversion of records back to a specific point in time;
  • whether the policy will address both retention and destruction of digital files;
  • who will own and enforce the policy;
  • how any paper that must be kept will be retained, and
  • how and by whom gray areas in the law will be addressed.
  1. Set the stage

Depending on the size of your organization, change management may be your biggest challenge. In larger organizations, you are likely to encounter a mix of people who have been operating paperlessly for years (and wondering when management would catch up) and people who remain quite comfortable working amidst tottering paper towers.  Identify and start working with both groups early and throughout the project.  The former will be your champions and, as with any project involving behavioral change, will be critical to your success, supplying you with their own best practices and providing practical counter-arguments to the skeptics’ objections.  Your early adopters’ practical success stories about how they are working more efficiently and effectively, with reduced risk and stress and more satisfied clients, will speak far louder than the theoretical business case.

Anticipate and be prepared to counter inevitable objections from those who remain wedded to paper. One of the most common concerns will likely be access to documents if the system goes down.  Surprisingly, people seem to forget about all of the access issues – much more common than a system failure – associated with paper in the case of, for instance, fire, flood, blizzards and other emergencies that can keep us physically separated from our paper.  In all of these cases, we would likely have remote access to our digital files and no access to our paper.  Undeniably, systems do go down preventing access to digital content.  However, these tend to be infrequent, of relatively short duration, and mildly disruptive.  And, most organizations have set up their systems to reduce and mitigate this risk.

As we depend less and less on paper in our working environments, it seems inevitable that we will all go paperless at some point. Yet, until paper truly becomes a thing of the past, there will be those who object, focusing on the risks associated with the unknown.  For me the most compelling argument for going paperless came in the form of a New York Times photograph of confidential papers strewn across a city street that ran under the headline, “Fire at Brooklyn Warehouse Puts Private Lives on Display.”  It serves to remind us that even what is known and familiar has its risks – we have just learned to live with them.

Report from Tableau Conference: 13,110 Data Enthusiasts Descend on Austin

3 Jan

tableau_conf_pic_2016By David Hobbie, Senior Manager, Knowledge Management (Litigation), Goodwin

Along with a small team from Goodwin, I (pictured at far right in photo) attended Tableau’s massive “Data16” conference in Austin, Texas from November 7 through 11, 2016.  The conference focused on the broad uses and deep technical functions related to only the Tableau data visualization program, which I have written about here.

Like other tech conferences, this one has many different benefits for attendees, including obtaining hands-on training, meeting peers facing similar issues, hearing about product innovations and developments, and learning strategy and adoption techniques from other organizations that have implemented a data-driven culture. And make no mistake, legal KMers, there is such a thing as a data culture, one that values insights and knowledge gained from data but that also enjoys a good muddy wrestle with a data cube, relational database, or clustering algorithm.

I went to build my hands-on skills developing Tableau dashboards and visualizations for my firm and to better understand how to enhance data-informed visualization-based decision-making.

From my perspective, key events were the product keynote, the Iron Viz competition, and the many training sessions.

The event hashtag was #data16.

Keynote

One of the most important events of the week was the main keynote Tuesday morning, attended by all people at the conference as well as 10,000 online. It was conducted by many different Tableau company product managers and executives.

The keynote saw multiple product development announcements, covered by Gartner and Interworks.  Typically the announcements referred to future releases; the expectation from the community appears to be that the announced improvements will be in place, roughly speaking, before the time of the next conference, although formally the announcements pertain to developments in the next few years. The past has seen some grumbling about product announcements not met with actual releases. Regardless, Tableau is a very successful and innovative analytics and visualization platform that is a “Gartner quadrant leader” and also has a large user community that continually suggests improvements and helps each other. For instance, two of the Tableau resources I find myself returning to again and again were not published by the company, but address “string calculations” and “case statements”.

Probably the most intriguing developments from a knowledge management perspective was an announcement concerning the introduction of natural language querying and machine learning for database discovery. With natural language querying, instead of needing to manually manipulate filters or click into visualizations, users will use natural language to adjust a dashboard’s views in Siri-like fashion by, for instance, asking a precipitation database “where the highest rainfalls in July 2015 were.”

Another feature will also be machine learning that will aid identification of databases related to the users’ current visualization. This feature will apparently leverage both popularity of other databases and the other databases’ similarity to the current one. Similar suggestion algorithms can be found in any decent shopping website, and also in Westlaw/Lexis research tools.

Other very impressive, if more technical, developments promise to greatly increase the speed of ingestion and analysis of large data sets (“Hyper Data Engine”), and aid the extraction, transformation, and loading (“ETL”) of data before it gets into Tableau (“Project Maestro.”) These developments show that the company is seeking to extend its capabilities beyond the visualization and analysis of data, and into the ETL that is essential for effective use of data within businesses.

Iron Viz

The Iron Viz competition is a crowd favorite, not to mention a truly impressive spectacle, at least for those who have tried their hand at creating effective data visualizations.

Three teams, consisting of a visualization creator paired with a Tableau company “assistant,” receive the same dataset one day before the competition. In front of a live audience who can see every move projected on big screens, the teams start from a blank workbook and create one or a small series of visualizations of the data in just 20 minutes. A panel of judges (Tableau executives and consultants) and the audience (through twitter) then vote.

This year the dataset consisted of 150 million rows of data about New York City taxi rides. The wrinkle was that contestants were permitted to pull in public external data if they so chose.

Without going into any gory details, the winning visualization was Curtis Harris’ Yellow Taxi, which highlighted the long hours and constant work of New York cab drivers. While all contestants were of course Jedi-level visualization developers  – and I do not take lightly their level of learning and years spent developing the skill level required to do what they did – the competition highlights one of the key benefits of Tableau: it is designed to allow users without programming or technical skills to quickly develop visualizations, learn from complex data sets, and effectively communicate their insights.  In other words, it is a platform for knowledge acquisition and transmission.

Educational Sessions

The sessions were generally quite packed. To give some sense of the scale here, each hands-on training room had rows of tables with laptops, at least 150 and often as many as 300 per room. Finding your level within the sessions wasn’t entirely straightforward; I went to a few labeled “advanced” that I didn’t get much from (the levels are Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, and Jedi). I learned this newbie tip from colleagues who had been before: it is very important to register for any hands-on sessions through the mobile app the week before the conference. There were typically lines of people waiting to get in on “stand-by” outside the hands-on sessions.

I went to sessions on calculations, user-centered design, building a Tableau community at Staples, and leveraging data visualizations across a large mid-Atlantic health care company.

No sessions addressed legal risk or legal visualizations specifically. An intriguing session from Grant Thornton, however, suggested that large accounting firms may leverage data analysis to create systems that highlight risky transactions. One example involved the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the idea being that large transactions involving the children of government officials or labeled a “facilitation payment” should be looked into by clients’ risk management teams. This type of service requires extensive access to client data.

Aphorisms and Takeaways

    • The joy of discovery is key to science and to data visualization—Bill Nye.
    • To convince others to change you have to go beyond data to speak the others’ language.
    • A great viz will, however, inspire conversation.
    • Don’t try to cram it all into a single viz; you won’t get sustained engagement that way. (Brian Stephan)
    • Data visualization and data analytics are making a difference with climate change, supply chain optimization, emergency response, education, medicine, drug development, and more.
    • Applications of data visualization and data analytics are continuing to grow and add value to many organizations, leading to significant investments in data and data analytics people, processes and technology.

People-Finding: Achieving One of KM’s Three “P”s

5 Dec

crowdBy Chris Boyd, Senior Director of Professional Services, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Our firm defines KM as “delivering more value to clients by putting the knowledge of all attorneys at the fingertips of each attorney” and includes within “knowledge” the following three “P”s:

  1. Work product: model and sample documents, how-to guides, checklists, and other practice aids.
  2. Project-related information: profiles of cases and deals.
  3. People-related information.

This post focuses on the third “P”: people-related information. KM projects that focus on the first two Ps typically get more publicity and recognition within firms, probably because the output is more tangible; it’s usually obvious if a practice group has forms and matter profiles, but less obvious if the firm has a way to locate expertise.  But connecting attorneys to the right people to answer questions and help clients achieve their goals can be the most powerful KM resource of all.

Below are some ways to achieve the third “P,” referred to from here on as “people-finding.”

Internal expertise.  This is a critical part of people-finding, and much has already been written about it by excellent authors.  See for example, the listing in Gwyn McAlpine’s November 23 ILTA KM blog post under Enterprise Search / Expertise Location.

External expertise. Clients frequently want referrals to attorneys in practices that a firm doesn’t provide or to professionals in fields other than law, such as accounting, banking, or consulting. A strong people-finding resource should help attorneys tap their colleagues’ referrals to find external experts.  The main challenge is deciding which referrals to collect and post, given that gathering every last name from every attorney is neither feasible nor worthwhile.  Our firm limits the scope by simply including in the referral tool only those attorneys and other professionals whom firm lawyers have recommended in response to internal requests for help.  This approach both limits the work and, more importantly, ensures that each referral is supported by a firm attorney who has recommended the name to a colleague with a client question.

Experience with judges, arbitrators, and others. Information about judges, arbitrators, mediators, and experts can be useful for litigators.  For example, when drafting briefs in support of a substantive motion to be heard by an unfamiliar judge, it would be useful for the litigation team to know that the judge does not take kindly to requests to exceed page limits and will not allow counsel to repeat at oral argument any of the points already set forth in the briefs. Similarly, if a litigation team is bullish about a client’s chances to defend a case at trial, the team will want to avoid using a mediator who is known to “split the baby” between the parties and instead seek someone who has a reputation for pressing for an outcome that is in line with the actual merits of the case.  And when retaining a testifying expert in a matter in which opposing counsel is known to be aggressive in deposition and cross-examination, the attorney will want to know how the witness has performed in similar circumstances – whether the witness can retain composure under pressure and testify clearly and persuasively.

A strong people-finding resource enables a firm’s litigators to quickly locate information about each of these key players in the litigation process. A judge’s profile should note the firm’s attorneys who have clerked for or appeared in front of the judge, the matters the judge has presided over, and perhaps even link to external profiles of the judge’s cases and decisions.  The resource should enable attorneys to search arbitrator or mediator names to find out which of the firm’s attorneys have experience with them.  And expert profiles should outline expertise, link to CVs, and note the cases they’ve appeared in.

Who-knows-whom. A final category of people-finding is providing attorneys the ability to find out who at a firm knows a specific person or knows people at a specific company or other organization.  Two ways to do this are (1) an enterprise search for the person’s or company’s name in documents or time entries, and (2) a search in ContactNet or similar tools to see if the name occurs in a colleague’s public contacts or the email addresses of emails sent to or from the firm.

People-finding is a critical component of a strong KM program. Enabling attorneys and other professionals to find internal experts is a great start; enabling them to find external experts, information about key players in cases, and who-knows-whom is even better.

For Your Viewing Pleasure…

23 Nov

catalogBy Gwyn McAlpine, Director of Knowledge Management Services, Perkins Coie LLP

Did you miss any of ILTA’s programming for knowledge management professionals this past year? Below is a catalog of what you may have missed.  Because programming is member-driven based on your requests and feedback, the categorization below gives you insight into what your peers think are hot topics.

But first, some background for those new to ILTA programming. ILTA produces KM programming in a variety of formats, building upon timely themes.  Each year, you can count on targeted articles and sessions in the Knowledge Management White Paper, typically published in June, and at ILTACON, held in August.  Throughout the rest of the year, the ILTA KM blog delivers a steady stream of thoughtful content approximately every two weeks.  Keep an eye out for articles in other places, such as the Peer to Peer magazine, and ad hoc sessions, such as webinars, virtual roundtables and vendor product briefings.  To facilitate open sharing and discussion, the latter are not always recorded, so be sure to attend those with topics of interest to you.  Lastly, the Connected Community Discussion Board features lively Q&A and announcements among an active, 1600-member community.

And because Knowledge Management can touch on many other areas, don’t forget to check out programming that may not be specifically targeted to KMers but is relevant to you nonetheless. Searches in the Connected Community will lead you to publications, recordings and discussions across a multitude of areas.  Also browse the ILTA TV page where you will find dozens of short interviews with thought leaders in fields that touch Knowledge Management directly and indirectly.

Note that you do need to be an ILTA member to access many of these resources. What are you waiting for?

Artificial Intelligence/Expert Systems

Collaboration/Tacit Knowledge

Data Analytics

DMS/Information Governance

Enterprise Search/Expertise Location

ILTACON

KM Strategy

Other Innovation

SharePoint/Portals

Upcoming Programming

In 2017, we have big plans for programing relevant to KM professionals. Look for a year-long focus on artificial intelligence and the changing legal market.  In addition, the biennial KM survey, which provides useful comparability metrics, is due to be published in July 2017. If you have suggestions for content you would like to see, respond to this blog post or feel free to contact me directly. Better yet, start a discussion amongst your peers on the Connected Community Discussion Board.

*For all the Blue Book die-hards out there, sorry. Just use the links. You’ll find it.

Evolution of the Contract: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

11 Nov

contractBy Lesha Van Der Bij, Principal, Optimize Legal

Contracts have been a key component of legal transactions for hundreds of years. Many lawyers, including me, began our careers reading Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company and learning the tenets of contract law – offer, acceptance and consideration.

For some lawyers, the process of drafting and reviewing contracts has remained largely the same since the days of Carbolic Smoke Ball. These lawyers begin working on matters by trying to remember a past file where they drafted a similar document, asking a colleague for sample agreements, or even reviewing first principles.

Over the years many, within and outside of the legal profession, have come to recognize that taking an ad hoc approach to contracts is suboptimal. Not only is it inefficient, it can lead to clients receiving varying quality of responses and work product from different lawyers within the same organization.  With clients expecting more from their law firms and the emergence of new technologies, the process of drafting and reviewing contracts has evolved.

Standardizing Language

The standardization of contract language began in earnest in the 1990s and early 2000s when many law firms created model agreements. Unlike sample documents pulled from past matters, which may vary in quality, a model is reviewed and approved by senior lawyers to establish an agreed upon standard.  Models tend to include best-case language that differs depending on the party (for instance, vendor or purchaser) the lawyer represents.

By developing models, law firms could take a consistent approach to each type of contract. Standardization also helped highlight boilerplate clauses that tend to not need negotiation, enabling lawyers to focus on more contentious and deal-specific provisions.

While model agreements promote consistency and efficiency, lawyers still spend substantial time creating first drafts and conducting side-by-side reviews that compare key clauses in their deal documents to those in their model agreement. Many law firms also have a difficult time maintaining and updating their vast collection of model agreements. So, after much initial hoopla, many model document collections start to languish.

Process Mapping

As interest in Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement techniques started to increase, a number of law firms began applying these approaches to contract work. Consultants or in-house experts would lead a group of lawyers through a typical transaction, mapping out the various steps to identify and try to eliminate inefficiencies, while documenting a more streamlined process in a checklist or project plan template.

Checklists setting out the key steps in a particular transaction are then used to instruct junior lawyers and ensure that important steps are not missed. Project plan templates outline a matter’s milestones, staffing, and time estimates – information that is then used to develop more accurate fee estimates and keep matters on budget.

While checklists and project plan templates help standardize and streamline contract drafting and review, much of the time-consuming drafting remains in the lawyers’ hands.

Process Automation

Standardizing contract language and workflow generated an excellent opportunity for enterprising individuals to automate contracts. Limited automation (for example, through mail merge macros) has existed for many years. More recently, sophisticated and easy-to-use document assembly tools have emerged.

Document assembly tools enable users to answer a questionnaire asking for information about the transaction, such as parties’ names, deal type, currency, and closing date, and with the click of a button the deal information is incorporated into the applicable template to generate a first draft. While lawyers still must massage their agreements to ensure that they accurately convey the particular circumstances of each case, these technologies significantly advance the drafting process. The time spent drafting massive agreements for complex transactions, often containing only slight modifications, is greatly reduced.

That said, one downside is that these technologies require much effort and time to create templates and questionnaires. While the end user’s experience is relatively simple and seamless, the logic required to create the underlying questions is not always intuitive. An understanding of the underlying law is needed to create the templates and most lawyers have neither the requisite patience nor time to code documents.

So, many law firms still struggle with how to automate their model document collections. And, once the models are automated, how will law firms maintain and update them? Will history repeat itself, this time with coded model agreements languishing?

 Boosting Technology’s Role

In the march toward greater efficiency, still more emphasis is being placed on technology’s role. Some of the newest technologies have moved beyond automation and into machine learning and artificial intelligence. Most notably, contract analytics tools that are learning the language of contracts are being used in a number of interesting ways.

Some businesses are using these tools to analyze their day-to-day contracts by, for instance, triaging routine contracts, identifying problem clauses, and highlighting when legal counsel should be called. Law firms have started using contract analytics tools for reviewing hundreds or thousands of documents as part of due diligence.

Even with the aid of a model agreements and checklists, reviewing key clauses in numerous contracts is labourious and time consuming. Contract analytics tools can quickly identify the contracts from the mounds of data room documents, classify the key clauses in them, and produce an easily digestible summary for the lawyer’s review – all within minutes or hours instead of days or weeks.

While these technologies remain a far cry from robots replacing lawyers, they do provide the information required for quick and effective issue spotting.

Peeking into the Future

Contract drafting and review has evolved from a seemingly bespoke practice into an increasingly automated, computerized, and commoditized process. So, where are we headed?

Standardized Technology. Using automation and artificial intelligence tools to create first drafts and initially review contracts will become routine as technologies become easier to use and better supported. Companies offering these tools may well consolidate or industry leaders may expand their offerings to include all-in-one, one-stop-shop contract management systems.

New Legal Skills. Lawyers will need to develop a solid understanding of these technologies as they become a standard part of the contract process. Law schools will offer programs to provide graduates with basic knowledge of and skills using the range of tools available. Law societies will also specify a minimum level of technical proficiency that lawyers must possess to practice law.

New Roles and Mixed Professions. Lawyers will work more closely with technologists and other professionals to optimize the contract process. As tools and practice evolve, new hybrid roles that combine law, technology, and process improvement will develop.

Fewer Lawyers Required. Smaller teams of lawyers will be able to complete larger and more complex contract-related work. For instance, teams of junior lawyers conducting due diligence reviews will be replaced by one or two lawyers overseeing a computer-based document review. The volume of day-to-day contract review will also be reduced as businesses use these new tools to conduct initial assessments and identify problematic agreements requiring legal advice.

Greater Access to Legal Review. For a subscription or fixed fee, smaller businesses and individuals will have access to tools that can provide them with basic advice on routine contracts, enabling these groups to obtain previously unavailable legal advice.

Of course, contracts are but a subset of the overall practice of law. That said, the evolution of contract law provides a useful case study that may apply to the legal profession as a whole.

The practice of law clearly is changing. As new processes and technologies develop at a rapid pace, these changes bring opportunities for lawyers ready to adapt.  Not only will lawyers have the opportunity to improve legal service delivery, but also to free themselves from much of the mundane tasks and focus their time on work that can add significant value.

Four Lessons Lawyers Can Learn from Software Developers

31 Oct

yingand-yangBy Dan Hauck, CEO, ThreadKM

While many may not realize it, lawyers could learn a great deal by examining how software developers work and solve problems. A few years ago, I spent every day with outstanding lawyers while practicing at a large firm. It was a great experience that eventually led me to the world of legal technology. Now I work every day with incredibly talented software developers. Reflecting on this transition, I have come to realize that for all the differences between lawyers and developers, profound similarities exist.

But let’s start by stating the obvious: lawyers and software developers often fall on opposite ends of the technology spectrum. Some lawyers openly profess to not understanding technology, despite the fact that the American Bar Association and numerous states enacted a duty of competency surrounding the use of technology in the practice of law. By contrast, most developers love exploring new tech, eager to try out the latest apps and devices. And while lawyers typically excel in the soft skills of argument, persuasion and compromise, software developers are proficient in math and computer science – precision-based disciplines needed to build great code.

Fascinating, however, is that lawyers and software developers alike are considered knowledge workers. Both often are engaged in “non-routine problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking.”  In short, they are paid to devise solutions, not just follow instructions.

Neither lawyers nor developers produce work in a vacuum. Rather, they focus on solving particular problems for their clients. A developer’s client could be an external paying customer or the developer’s own company. Either way, solving the problem generally involves a combination of education, experience, original research, and effort. And, that is knowledge work in a nutshell.

Watching how developers approach their clients’ problems has taught me some valuable lessons that lawyers would be wise to adopt in their own practice.

Lesson One: Plan, Then Execute

Although this may seem obvious, for many lawyers opening a new matter triggers an urgent rush to act. Whether jumping in with research assignments or document drafting, doing something feels productive. But, is that the best approach?

When starting a new software development project, writing code is among the last steps a developer completes. Before starting, good developers spend significant time planning the project, asking the client questions like:

  • What is your goal? Often, the client’s goal can be accomplished in a better way that differs from what the client initially had in mind. Understanding the goal helps formulate the best course of action.
  • What seems to be the best way to reach your goal and what risks might require us to change our plan? Developers look well down the road to envision the completed project to visualize both the end point and every step needed to get there. Developers frequently use kanban boards to visualize the process, a method becoming increasingly popular with lawyers, as well.
  • What tools and people are needed to best execute our plan and will those resources be available? Rarely can a project be handled by one person. Ensuring the right resources are in place – people with the appropriate knowledge and skills – when needed is critical to understanding how and when a project can be delivered.

Lawyers should ask similar questions before beginning work on their next matter. The planning process doesn’t take too much time and is essential for building a path toward client success. And, in most cases it may even be billable. Clients appreciate your taking time at the outset to plan their work because doing so can help prevent costly mistakes.

Lesson Two: Automate, Don’t Repeat Common Tasks

As observed above, a key component of knowledge work is original effort. If the same task has been repeated hundreds or thousands of times with little or no variation, it no longer remains a problem that a knowledge worker need solve. The task is ripe for automation.

tasks

The image to the left illustrates the lifecycle of a task that can be automated. The first several times require significant planning, research, and effort. But over time, the task becomes more familiar, risks diminish, and the process takes less time to complete. As a process matures, the task can be automated.

Automation brings many benefits. First, it reduces the likelihood of error when completing the task. Second, it increases both quality and consistency. And third, it increases the volume of work that can be completed in the same amount of time.

Software developers are experts at identifying and building solutions that automate repetitive tasks. Once developers have done a task several times, they begin looking for ways to automate that task going forward.

Somewhat slowly, automation is taking root in legal work. Tools like document assembly, automated contract review, and technology-assisted e-discovery all are examples of how automation is making traditional, repetitive tasks faster and more reliable. Yet many lawyers still refuse to incorporate them into everyday practice, even though the firms that are leveraging these tools have a distinct advantage in attracting new clients.

Lesson Three: Ditch Blame, Embrace Process Improvement

Like many of us, lawyers want their work to be perfect. But, too many lawyers assume that if no problems cropped up, their work was in fact perfect. In reality, this rarely is the case as numerous important documents that top law firms have drafted have been rife with errors. (Read here, for example.) To lawyers, an error means that something has gone wrong, which in turn means someone’s work was not perfect. Mistakes are always blamed on people instead of on processes; and, the tendency to place blame on someone generally outstrips even the desire to solve the problem.

In the engineering world, big mistakes also happen – mistakes like, for instance, causing $135M worth of damage to a satellite…by dropping it on the floor.  Or, like accidentally erasing all of the animation files for Toy Story 2 during the film’s production.  While both instances involved individual mistakes, they stemmed from process failures. In the latter, a single computer command deleted Pixar’s next big film release. But, rather than lead a witchhunt for the guilty finger that pushed the button, management chose to empower the engineers to recover the film and put new processes in place to make sure this kind of accident would never happen again.

In law firms, the instinct to assign blame for errors can be powerful. And, it’s not always useful. Lawyers faced with grave errors in delivery of their services should first ask themselves what they can do to immediately fix the problem for the client and, as soon as the fire is squelched, examine the causes – causes that go well beyond who made the mistake. Was sufficient time allocated to review and check work-product before submission? Was something missed because research tools were inadequate or users were improperly trained? Were responsibilities miscommunicated? All of these questions can help formulate processes that prevent mistakes in the future.

Lesson Four: Hourly Billing Is Okay – If You Are Efficient

The debate over the billable hour is unending. Yes, it can reward inefficiency and create cost uncertainty. But here is an interesting fact: most software developers also charge for their time, in one-hour increments or by the day or week. If developers are so smart, why can’t they figure out a better way to price?

The answer goes back to the core idea of knowledge work as solving non-routine problems. When the problem and solution are familiar, the appropriate cost also is familiar. Certain types of legal work – for instance, creating an entity or filing immigration applications – can be easily packaged into a simple fee, and more and more lawyers are taking this approach for these types of matters. These tasks are also well-suited for automation, meaning the lawyer can focus on generating higher volume.

On the other hand, if you face a non-routine problem, the issues that arise are difficult to anticipate in advance. The time it takes to address those issues is likewise difficult to calculate. For a software developer, the only hedge against a problem is the charge for his or her time. On the flip side, the client’s protection is that the software developer excels at planning and has access to the best tools and people to complete the task efficiently.

The same is true for lawyers. While some tasks can be automated, many still require original effort to develop a solution for the client. Any number of things can arise to complicate that process. Charging for time makes sense. But that also means assuring your client that you have the best tools, people and processes to complete the work.

Lawyers and software developers certainly could exchange many more lessons. The key is recognizing that despite the differences between the two professions, the end goal of client satisfaction is exactly the same.