Recently, I had the opportunity to (virtually) attend the first three days of Legalweek, the premier conference for those in the legal tech industry. Obviously, this year’s event looked much different than past years, both in structure and in content. But as I listened to legal and technology experts talk about the current state of the industry, I was happily surprised that the message conveyed was not one of doom and gloom, as you might expect to hear during a pandemic year. Instead, a more inspiring theme has emerged for our industry - one of hope through innovation.
Just as we, as individuals, have learned hard lessons during this unprecedented year and are now looking towards a brighter spring, the legal industry has learned valuable lessons about how to leverage technology and harness innovation to overcome the challenges this year has brought. From working remotely in scenarios that previously would have never seemed possible, to recognizing the vital role diversity plays in the future of our industry – this year has forced legal professionals to adapt quickly, utilize new technology, and listen more to some of our most innovative leaders.
Below, I have highlighted the key takeaways from the first three days of Legalweek, as well as how to leverage the lessons learned throught this year to bring about a brighter future for your organization or law firm.
“Human + Machine” not “Human vs. Machine”
Almost as soon as artificial intelligence (AI) technology started playing a role within the legal industry, people began debating whether machines could (or should) eventually replace lawyers. This debate often devolves into a simple “which is better: humans or machines” argument. However, if the last year has taught us anything, it is that the answers to social debates often require nuance and introspection, rather than a “hot take.” The truth is that AI can no longer be viewed as some futuristic option that is only utilized in certain types of ediscovery matters; nor should it be fearfully viewed as having the potential to replace lawyers in some dystopian future. Rather, AI has become essential to the work of attorneys and ultimately will be necessary to help lawyers serve their clients effectively and efficiently.1
Data volumes are exponentially growing year after year, so much so that soon, even the smallest internal investigation will involve too much data to be effectively reviewed by human eyes alone. AI and analytics tools are now necessary to prioritize, cull, and categorize data in most litigations for attorneys to efficiently find and review the information they need. Moreover, advancements in AI technology now enable attorneys to quickly identify categories of information that previously required expensive linear review (for example, leveraging AI to identify privilege, protected health information (PHI), or trade secret data).
Aside from finding the needle in the haystack (or simply reducing the haystack), these tools can also help attorneys make better, more strategic counseling and business decisions. For example, AI can now be utilized to understand an organization’s entire legal portfolio better, which in turn, allows attorneys to make better scoping and burden arguments as well as craft more informed litigation and compliance strategies.
Thus, the age-old debate of which is better (human or machine learning) is actually an outdated one. Instead, the future of the legal industry is one where attorneys and legal professionals harness advanced technology to serve their clients proficiently and effectively.
Remote Working and Cloud-Based Tools Are Here to Stay
Of course, one of the biggest lessons the legal industry learned over the past year is how to effectively work remotely. Almost every organization and law firm across the world was forced to quickly pivot to a more remote workforce – and most have done so successfully, albeit while facing a host of new data challenges related to the move. However, as we approach the second year of the pandemic, it has become clear that many of these changes will not be temporary. In fact, the pandemic appears to have just been an accelerator for trends that were already underway prior to 2020. For example, many organizations were already taking steps to move to a more cloud-based data architecture. The pandemic just forced that transition to happen over a much shorter time frame to facilitate the move to a remote workforce.
This means that organizations and law firms must utilize the lessons learned over the last year to remain successful in the future, as well as to overcome the new challenges raised by a more remote, cloud-based work environment. For example, many organizations implemented cloud-based collaboration tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Workspace to help employees collaborate remotely. However, legal and IT professionals quickly learned that while these types of tools are great for collaboration, many of them are not built with data security, information governance, or legal discovery in mind. The data generated by these tools is much different than traditional e-mail – both in content and in structure. For example, audible conversations that used to happen around the water cooler or in an impromptu in-person meeting are now happening over Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and thus may be potentially discoverable during an investigation or legal dispute. Moreover, the data that is generated by these tools is structured significantly differently than data coming from traditional e-mail (think of chat data, video data, and the dynamic “attachments” created by Teams). Thus, organizations must learn to put rules in place to help govern and manage these data sources from a compliance, data security, and legal perspective, while law firms must continue to learn how to collect, review, and produce this new type of data.
It will also be of growing importance in the future to have legal and IT stakeholder collaboration within organizations, so that new tools can be properly vetted and data workflows can be put in place early. Additionally, organizations will need a plan in place to stay ahead of technology changes, especially if moving to a cloud-based environment where updates and changes can roll out weekly. Attorneys should also consider technology training to stay up-to-date and educated on the various technology platforms and tools their company or client uses, so that they may continue to provide effective representation.
Information Governance is Essential to a Healthy Data Strategy
Related to the above, another key theme that emerged over the last year is that good information governance is now essential to a healthy company, and that it is equally important for attorneys representing organizations to understand how data is managed within that organization.
The explosion of data volumes and sources, as well as the unlimited data storage capacity of the Cloud means that it is essential to have a strong and dynamic information governance strategy in place. In-house counsel should ensure that they know how to manage and protect their company’s data, including understanding what data is being created, where that data resides, and how to preserve and collect that data when required. This is important not only from an ediscovery and compliance perspective but also from a data security and privacy perspective. As more jurisdictions across the world enact competing data privacy legislation, it is imperative for organizations to understand what personal data they may be storing and processing, as well as how to collect it and effectively purge it in the event of a request by a data subject.
Also, as noted above, the burden to understand an organization’s data storage and preservation strategy does not fall solely on in-house counsel. Outside counsel must also ensure they understand their client’s organizational data to make effective burden, scoping, and strategy decisions during litigation.
A Diverse Organization is a Stronger Organization
Finally, another key theme that has emerged is around recognizing the increasing significance that diversity plays within the legal industry. This year has reinforced the importance of representation and diversity across every industry, as well as provided increased opportunities for education about how diversity within a workforce leads to a stronger, more innovative company. Organizational leaders are increasingly vocalizing the key role diversity plays when seeking services from law firms and legal technology providers. Specifically, many companies have implemented internal diversity initiatives like women leadership programs and employee-led diversity groups and are actively seeking out law firms and service providers that provide similar opportunities to their own employees. The key takeaway here is that organizations and law firms should continue to look for ways to weave diverse representation into the fabric of their businesses.
While this year was plagued by unprecedented challenges and obstacles, the lessons we learned about technology and innovation over the year will help organizations and law firms survive and thrive in the future.
1 In fact, attorneys already have an ethical duty (imposed by the Rules of Professional Conduct) to understand and utilize existing technology in order to competently represent their clients.