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Guest post: Change is neither good nor bad: It is

‘Call it the Great Recession, the Great Reset, or whatever, the world palpably shook in September 2008 and the repercussions are still very much with us.’

Bruce MacEwen wrote the above in his 2013 book Growth is Dead, and while changes have been made, much of it still rings true today – including for law firm technology.

Many law firms have changed their business model, or have given the appearance of change – think Alternative Fee Arrangements. But much of what law firms do and how they do it has remained the same, along with the technology. We continue to rely on technology approaches and the underlying IT that firms used when law firms could easily bill hours, and individual and firm efficiencies were a lower priority for lawyers and clients. Law firm technology was, and mostly still is, complex, silo’d and structured to support ways that we worked before the Great Reset. And more importantly, it doesn’t position us for the future.

As a former AmLaw 50 CEO told me on more than one occasion, ‘Technology touches everything we do.’ But the law firm IT model has essentially remained the same, short on creativity and innovation, at a time when law firms need to work smarter and adapt to changing business and technology environments – and client expectations.

The IT world is changing – cloud, mobile, personalized experience, Big Data, predictive computing, and greater expectations embraced at home and assumed at work. Technology is increasingly pervasive, and in ways invasive, with multiplying mountains of data. Yet we as an industry have done virtually nothing to build this change into our strategy for the future—preferring to be lemmings marching toward a technology cliff.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and in a series of articles I’ll be publishing here on Adam Smith, Esq, I plan to lay out opportunities of what the 21st Century can hold for us in the legal industry. It’s a truism to state that the technology world continues to evolve, as does the legal market. We need to evolve both together, improving existing processes and using technology to develop new legal products and services.

Back in 1995 many lawyers didn’t want a computer on their desk They didn’t see a future in it and in the memorable phrase of one at the time, didn’t ‘want to be doing what a secretary should be doing.’ Thankfully, that attitude is dead and buried—for the most part. But what exactly should we replace that attitude, and that approach to the business and profession of law, with? This is the critical question I plan to address in this series of articles. I’ve highlighted some of the key areas I plan to delve into in greater detail in the remainder of this column.

In his latest book, A New Taxonomy, MacEwen wrote, ‘The way firms deploy technology will shift from an emphasis on increasing the efficiency with which lawyers can do what they’ve always done – “digitizing the quill and pen,” – to true innovation in areas including big data, pattern recognition systems, and predictive intelligence.’

There will always be a need for technology to support the day-to-day operations of the firm. But that’s not where the value resides and while automating the quill pen can help improve efficiency, it doesn’t drive innovation of legal services.

As we address the future, we need to simplify our existing IT so that we can focus on the future-state of our business and legal service delivery.

First we must simplify and reduce our reliance where appropriate on in-house infrastructure and the staff to maintain the constant barrage of updates and upgrades. We must also rethink the dependence upon complex specialty add-on software that was the domain of professional legal secretaries and word processors, and make technology easier to use. Systems should be simpler and more in line with how attorneys create and share documents on their own, and how technology works today, not as it was designed 15 years ago, before lawyers learned to type.

There are also new ways to provide IT services without the capital and maintenance investment of the past. Cloud computing and managed services continue to evolve providing greater opportunities to simplify the ‘structural’ internal technology, allowing technology teams to give more attention to working smarter. Streamlining the basics will allow us to focus on new opportunities and new outside challenges such as the burgeoning privacy and data-security regulatory environment.

We must also move beyond the false fear of change – and stop focusing on reasons why things ‘shouldn’t’ be done, verses finding ways to move ahead. The ‘status quo’ business strategy of pre-2008 no longer works, and a ‘status quo’ technology plan will prevent a firm from quickly adopting new ways to survive and succeed.

As we simplify basic IT, the world around us is growing more complex in areas that we need to pay attention, such as cyber security, privacy and information governance. In the US more and more states are enacting laws, and law firm clients are requiring greater attestation on the part of law firms as to the quality of their security efforts.

Leading firms are attaining ISO 27001 certification, the audited international security certification that more of our clients, especially in regulated industries, are preferring or demanding that law firms attain. Security is not just IT firewalls and other ‘tech.’ Information security and governance is just as much a people and culture responsibility as it is a tech ‘solution.’ In Europe, the EU is preparing to finalize its Data Protection Regulation in 2014 or early 2015 and will likely include: accountability, requirements for new policies, procedures, audit, and appointment of company Data Protection Officers with data breach notification duties – and substantial fines. A comprehensive approach to information security is something that we can no longer ignore.

To survive and prosper, we must rethink what we do, including how technology fits into the changing business model. This is not installing the latest upgrade, but a new approach to delivering IT as a service and a new examination of technology beyond the automated quill pen.

Changes have occurred since 2008, but many law firms and law firm leaders (technologists and lawyers) are resistant to the evolution of technology, just as we were resistant to technology and the ‘future’ in the closing years of the last century. Or they are unable to get from under the heavy burden of our historical IT model and its complex administration and capital investment.

Regardless of how your IT business model has existed, it’s time to change. The business environment and client demands placed on law firms and the consequent impact on law firm economics require all of us to think about technology differently, however different may be defined in your situation – regardless of firm size.

The world is no longer static and everyone is connected in their personal lives, as well as in business. It used to be that a lawyer would come into the office to get access to good technology and fast internet. Today it’s the opposite – what you carry in your pocket or purse is faster, cheaper, and sometimes better. How should firms deal with the ubiquity—and quality—of personal technology? Because, while a smart phone cannot do everything a laptop computer can do, it has a major advantage – it’s there, in your hand, always on and always available.

Regardless of the technical device and details, the big change is expectations. Our expectations, and those of our clients, have developed from our personal use of technology, and those expectations and experiences have crossed into our daily business lives. We experience technology constantly throughout our day. Even on the golf course, many use electronic range finders. Technology is pervasive and no longer just a ‘tool,’ it is an integral part of our daily life experience.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, in his July 10th All Employee email, talked about how changes were affecting Microsoft in what he described as their Bold Ambition & Core.

‘We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world. Computing is ubiquitous and experiences span devices and exhibit ambient intelligence. Billions of sensors, screens and devices – in conference rooms, living rooms, cities, cars, phones, PCs – are forming a vast network and streams of data that simply disappear into the background of our lives. This computing power will digitize nearly everything around us and will derive insights from all of the data being generated by interactions among people and between people and machines. We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.’

Whether you agree or disagree, love or hate Microsoft, the world is changing and how we use technology at home and in business is rapidly shifting and boundaries eroding.

So where does that leave law firms? We are moving into a technology era of personalization where technology delivers what you want to see, requiring less human attention to seek out and deliver relevant information. This already occurs in our personal use of technology – shopping online where ‘apps’ suggest and predict the information you will next want to see. This predictive computing is rapidly expanding beyond shopping at home, and entering business applications, focusing human attention where it is needed, and not on the chaff.

In his book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, attorney and advisor Richard Susskind asks, ‘Are you comforted by other firms’ lack of progress?’

‘…most law firms, even the finest, tend to be driven more by a fear of lagging behind their competition than by a hunger for forging ahead of their rivals. Law firms, in other words, are motivated more by the need to avoid competitive disadvantage rather than a thirst for the attainment of competitive advantage.’

This could hardly be more opposite most other industries and with the current state of Big Law, I might take this further and suggest that it is now beyond a ‘thirst for attainment of competitive advantage.’ Technology is in everything we do, and as clients become increasingly discerning, seeking technology that “makes a difference” should be part of every firm’s survival reflex.

In a summary of the state of BigLaw, Thomson Reuters recently wrote, ‘Now is a time of cautious optimism for the legal marketplace compared to early recession years. However, a return to “business as usual” is an ill-advised strategy for firms amidst this resurgence of growth.’

As growth is revived, we need to continue to scrutinize how we operate and examine new ways to improve, both with respect to our business model and our supportive – and yes, technology can be leading – technology model. The IT methods of a decade ago are not what we need to survive and thrive in our new competitive environment. We need to simplify where we can and focus on gaining greater value from our IT investment, while effectively protecting ourselves in an increasingly regulated data environment, and using technology to help define and deliver future-state innovative legal services.

Written by Doug Caddell for Adam Smith, Esq. Adam Smith, Esq provides consulting services to the legal profession. You can read its blog here.