Even with Advanced Technology, You Still Need the Soft Skills of eDiscovery

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[author: Jim Gill, Legal Technology Writer]

The rise of electronic evidence -- and the advent of the legal technology needed to handle that data -- has certainly changed the way attorneys practice.

While initial adoption was slow, the continued growth of legaltech can’t be ignored, particularly when it comes to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and analytics, which enable legal teams to search and better handle previously unmanageable volumes of data.

But often when technology makes one part of life easier, it tends to make us grow lax in other areas. Sometimes this doesn’t cause a major issue (e.g. not memorizing phone numbers anymore because they’re all saved in our phones), but when compounded, they can certainly add up.

This is why developing and practicing the processes that complement legal technology -- we’ll call these the “soft skills of eDiscovery” -- is more important than ever.

Here are 5 eDiscovery Soft Skills which can help your legal team increase effectiveness:

Interdepartmental / Intradepartmental Communication

This is something that humans will need to work on for the rest of time. Any good therapist will tell you communication issues are at the heart of any relationship problem, and this seems to hold true with professional relationships, both within a team and between departments.

Often, managers will just create task forces or throw more technology at the problem without getting to the root causes. Once, I was on a sub-committee created to figure out why people weren’t using the comms platform the organization had invested in. After the first meeting, it was suggested the committee invest in another comms platform, so we could more easily talk about why no one used the old one.

Often, it helps to have dedicated personnel in place to develop protocols and manage such issues. Which takes us to the next soft skill….

Legal Operations

Legal Operations (or Legal Ops) has been a growing profession in the past several years, particularly on corporate legal teams, but also within large law firms. According to a white paper published by the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), Legal Operations is defined as, “a set of business processes, activities, and the professionals which enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services. Legal Operations provides strategic planning, financial management, project management, and technology portfolio investment expertise that allows legal professionals to focus on providing legal advice.”

This notion of allowing attorneys the time and focus to practice law and leave the management up to other professionals makes a lot of sense, particularly with the increase of data and technology required to do so. Legal Ops professionals can also come up with strategies which leverage processes, analytics, and technology to turn legal department activities which were traditionally cost centers into profit centers.

Legal Project Management

If Legal Ops covers the big picture, then Legal Project Management handles the day to day. Project Management is nothing new in business, but it’s still gaining its footing in the legal world. Doug Austin, editor of eDiscovery Today, wrote a great two-part blog covering 20 eDiscovery Project Management Tips (which you can read here and here).

One standout from Doug’s list is understanding the Triple Constraint of Project Management, which he describes in this way:

“All projects are carried out under three specific constraints – time, cost and scope. These three factors (commonly called ‘the triple constraint’) are represented as a triangle, with the idea being that: projects must be delivered within cost, projects must be delivered on time and projects must meet the agreed scope – no more, no less. I’ve been involved with eDiscovery projects where the scope has grown – sometimes considerably – for a variety of reasons and when it does, the time or the cost, or both, to complete the project will have to be greater. The typical saying for a project manager to set client expectations is to say “you can have it fast, cheap or good – pick two”. Make sure your clients understand that too.”

Templatized Workflows / ESI Protocols

I recently read an analogy from a legal professional comparing the current legal technology industry to the early automotive industry. Adoption is growing, the benefits are clear, and there are lots of players trying to get in the game.

But the 100 years ago, the real game changer wasn’t some breakthrough automotive technology, but Henry Ford’s revolutionary process around the moving assembly line.

Repeatable, templatized workflows are the key to streamlining any process, and eDiscovery is no different. Having established workflows for common scenarios and set protocols around handling common forms of Electronically Stored Information (ESI) seems like a no brainer, but there are still many legal teams who handle things on a case-by-case basis.

I remember a question once on a webinar where we were discussing this very topic and an attendee asked the clarifying question, “What’s a workflow?” (which we gave a nod to in this month’s eDiscovery Blues cartoon). It’s not a jab at that person’s intelligence; on the contrary, it highlights a very real challenge in the legal place: people are often so busy and overwhelmed staying afloat in their current process, they don’t have time to consider anything else.

Which leads us to our final eDiscovery Soft Skill….

Training

It’s no secret that eDiscovery and other legal technology related areas are not taught in law school or paralegal training. This is why so many organizations within the industry provide learning opportunities for practitioners, both experienced and new. Technology changes at a rapid pace, so what worked well five years ago may need updating today. And as technology becomes easier and more intuitive (which is a good thing), the skills needed to effectively use that technology grow as well.

A great example of this is good old boring run-of-the-mill Microsoft Excel. We all say we know how to use it. Some of us maybe even put it down as a special skill on our resumes at some point.

But have you ever seen someone who really knows how to tap into that software? It’s a pretty remarkable tool for something all of us have been taking for granted since the early 90s.

Now imagine a highly specialized eDiscovery platform with high end data processors, AI, analytics, and more. Sure, someone who has been working in eDiscovery for a while could probably jump in and start using it right away. But chances are, they won’t be able to use it to its full potential without dedicated training.

The same holds true for the processes around eDiscovery, including the soft skills listed in this article, which are often overlooked. Continuing to train and understand your team’s weak spots can really make a difference on how your corporate legal team, law firm, service provider, or government agency operates.

So, while you’re working on sharpening those technology chops, don’t forget to hone those soft skills as well!

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