Hi everyone!  I’m very excited to join Blacklines and Billables as a guest writer for Legalweek. This was my first time there, and it was such an incredible experience to get to speak with so many brilliant technologists, lawyers, and innovation champions in such a short time. If you’ve not been, I highly recommend it. For those of you who didn’t go or who want another perspective, I’ve put together three of my biggest takeaways. I wrote these with a major theme in mind: how do we deliver more value at a lower cost with legal services? My experience at Legalweek suggests that part of the answer is that we need buy-in from all parts of the value chain, be it clients, firms, vendors, etc., so it’s my hope that the following lessons will be of interest to you no matter where you sit in that chain.

Lesson One: Understand the Problem Before Choosing a Solution

Whoever you are, you need to understand that software can’t automagically solve problems.  In fact, it likely can’t solve your problems at all unless you understand their root cause(s), have identified a very specific way software can help, and deploy it in a thoughtful way. This lesson can literally save you millions.

An example?  Consider this story from a legal operations expert at a healthcare services company. One day, one of the Company’s assistant GCs came to him singing the praises of a new technology solution. He’d just seen a flashy demo of a combination billing system, document-management system, and practice platform with a great dashboard distilling key information. The GC had to have it. 

Our legal ops colleague asked him “why?”  They had just spent three million dollars overhauling the Company’s knowledge-management infrastructure, including the same sorts of billing, DM, and practice-management solutions.  But that system lacked a dashboard—exactly what assistant GC now wanted.

The next morning, the assistant GC had an excel spreadsheet in his inbox with all the bar charts and graphics he liked in the demo. “That’s what I need!”  he responded.  A completely unnecessary $3 million boondoggle avoided.  There’s a key lesson here, and one we saw the need for all over Legalweek18. 

No technology can solve your workflow and process problems, for example, if you don’t understand the real, specific sources of those problems. You need to get the right feedback from the lawyers in the trenches.  Ask the right questions. If, like the assistant GC, you’re distracted by flash and preoccupied with (apparent) functionality, you may find yourself predetermined to buy expensive and unnecessary new software. But if you instead drill down to truly understand the underlying need – in the case above, the ability to visualize a quick, graphical summary of key Company data across existing systems – then you’re more likely to effectively (and cost-effectively) address it. It can mean the difference between replacing a brand new, $3 million software system or making an excel spreadsheet!

Lesson Two: Technology Isn’t Necessary

Not all innovation is technology-driven. In fact, I think one of the biggest innovations I saw at Legalweek was purely organizational:  the invention of the “productive hour.”

One progressive firm wanted to implement a document-automation platform, but quickly realized that the traditional billable hour model was preventing their innovation champions from dedicating enough time to effectively implement the new technology. Although the entire firm would benefit from their non-billable efforts, the traditional billable hour model disincentivized the work.

In response, the firm decided to give its lawyers billable credit for hours spent on critical firm initiatives such as the document-automation project –  replacing the traditional “billable hour” concept with the “productive hour.” What a simple change! But one that can overcome a powerful barrier to tech adoption and change management in law firms. How many times have we all heard stories of firms or practice groups that wanted to improve their processes to free up more productive time, yet they just couldn’t find the time to do it? The productive hour might just be the best way to solve this problem… if your firm dares.

Lesson Three: Walk First, then Run

When many people hear “legal technology,” I’d venture to guess that they think of AI, machine learning, and other cutting-edge technologies. Those solutions certainly dominated the tradeshow floor at Legalweek18! But that’s not all there is to legal technology.  Not by a long shot.

Don’t forget that most lawyers practice in small and midsize firms.  And in those firms, often as not, the conversations about legal technology are less about deploying machine learning capabilities and more about implementing a basic, functional technological structure that will help them run their practices more efficiently and cost-effectively.  But, based on what I heard at Legalweek18, overwhelmingly, these lawyers feel that the existing menu of technological tools fails to meet their needs and solve their biggest pain points.  Without large budgets to spend on experimentation or failed solutions, these small and midsize firm lawyers feel hamstrung and remain skeptical that they can find and implement cost-effective solutions that their attorneys will actually use. Fancy enterprise-grade document management systems, for example, might be best practice, but—in realty— Dropbox and Google Drive are too cheap, easy, and accessible to avoid. I heard repeatedly how hard it is to get people to switch to more complicated and less-approachable alternatives.

For this underserved majority of lawyers, AI is aspirational, but what they really need are basic, accessible operational tools.  A shocking percentage of the attendees at the small firm session spoke of their struggles to make e-mails searchable and easily archivable, manage documents, and offer e-billing. The software market is still not providing them with the right set of inexpensive, user-friendly, and secure tools to handle their basic workflow needs.

Let’s not get so distracted by next generation technologies. You don’t necessarily need to use AI or any other advanced technology to make a difference. There is a still a tremendous need to address the inefficiencies and problems of basic nuts-and-bolts tools actual lawyers use every day. Their demands are reasonable – easy-to-use, user-friendly tools like the ones they use in their personal lives everyday – but they are still not being met.

Time to get to work!