How lawyers are adapting to a shifting professional landscape

Issue July/August 2017 By John O. Cunningham

Revolutionary changes are reshaping legal practice and legal service delivery, largely driven by client preferences and technological innovation.

That was the message from Professor Gabriel Teninbaum, the director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation at Suffolk University Law School, when he spoke to the Legal Sales and Service Organization's international audience in May.

The ABA Journal, Bloomberg Law and numerous other press outlets have also documented the accelerating pace of change in the legal profession, giving practitioners much to think about in shaping their business development and legal service strategies.

It is impossible to summarize the dizzying array of important trending changes in legal practice and legal service delivery, but here are 10 examples to consider:

Reportedly, more than half of law firms with at least 50 lawyers are now systemically experimenting with new approaches to legal service. For example, one global firm, Reed Smith, has hired an innovation officer who is leading collaborative efforts at two innovation hubs, developing ideas for better and faster delivery of legal services and products, as well as initiatives to get in front of futuristic practices (such as regulatory work on drones and self-driving cars).

Numerous firms have undertaken training in process improvement and "LEAN" management techniques long utilized by corporate clients to speed up commodity work. Firms are applying these techniques in areas such as asset-based lending, contract reviews and routine commercial litigation, improving speed, quality and internal cost.

So-called "alternative legal service providers" and "legal process outsourcers" are mushrooming. According to a recent publication in the ABA Journal online, over half of corporations and law firms are utilizing these alternative providers, many of them technology-based, to reduce costs. A growing number of consumer clients are even choosing alternative providers, such as LegalZoom and Hot Docs, to do entire legal tasks, such as drafting wills, making basic corporate filings and effecting online dispute resolution. The growth in this area is geometrically progressing, according to multiple authorities.

Law firms are beta-testing futuristic products to get ahead of the curve. For example, Bryan Cave has launched TechX, a program in which providers give free technology product trials and training to firm lawyers and their clients in exchange for valuable feedback.

Some firms have developed their own tech-related systems to win over clients. An international labor and employment firm, Littler Mendelson, developed a CaseSmart system to track the status of all litigation matters in real time while gathering data that enables managers to spot trends in workplace complaints by manager, subject matter or other variables. One of the world's largest firms, Reed Smith, similarly developed its Periscope system to track and analyze data related to discovery costs, discovery management and the efficiency of certain discovery professionals, resulting in better discovery management. A small litigation boutique in Houston even developed CS Disco, the fastest growing e-discovery technology, now used by more than 400 firms and 50 of the AmLaw 200.

Both consumer and corporate clients are utilizing social media exchanges to rate lawyer performances and make referrals. Consumers increasingly use Avvo and similar services while in-house lawyers are using their own networks. One Fortune 100 company, General Electric, even developed a kind of internal "Yelp" for in-house lawyers who hire outside counsel and legal experts.

Law firms are hiring specialists, such as pricing directors and data directors, who are using historical data, both inside and outside of the firm, to forecast profits for fixed price or alternative fee work, or to predict outcomes in cases, as well as speed, costs and other variables.

A few firms are investing in artificial intelligence systems, such as adaptations of IBM's Watson. A Texas-based firm, Baker Hostetler, is using one such adaptation to sift through thousands of legal documents and public records to pluck out information pertinent to every aspect of any bankruptcy litigation matter. This system can understand human questions, and it can learn from context and analysis, picking up accuracy and speed as it gathers more input, providing rapid reference citations, analysis and predictions based on fact patterns, venues and judges.

Some corporate clients, such as Fidelity Investments and Liberty Mutual, are applying so-called "design thinking" to their law departments. They are developing systems and processes for legal application that will be easier and faster to use while tracking more relevant data.

Some corporate clients, such as Microsoft and Kia, are helping outside lawyers to ratchet up their tech savvy and performance. Kia, for example, now tests the tech-related skills of outside legal professionals on certain systems it regularly utilizes, and then helps to "up-train" those in need of a performance boost, resulting in greater efficiency and lower legal costs for Kia.

John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as General Counsel to a publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company. For more information about his work in the fields of legal service, marketing, communications, and management, check out his website and blog at: johnocunningham.wordpress.com.