This article was originally published by Law360 on Jan. 10, 2018
Like most businesses, the talent and potential of a law firm’s workforce can be a significant determinant factor in its success and growth, which is a concept that certainly extends to a law firm’s ability to keep pace with the evolution occurring in our industry. In fact, as change in the industry increases, law firms must examine dedicating resources specifically to those areas that will contribute most to this transformation in order to compete amid changing market conditions.
In regard to legal tech specifically, advances in technology will not only drive but fortunately enable law firms to adapt. With that in mind, smart law firms are increasingly positioning professionals to proactively guide them as the legal landscape simultaneously reshapes itself.
In particular, law firms are harnessing six emerging roles within their organizational chart to embrace the new approaches, tools and systems that are the change agents in the industry.
Innovation has become an overused (and misunderstood) buzzword in the industry. A lot of what people think of as legal innovation really is just a long overdue upgrade of an antiquated profession, often using tools, technologies and processes that already have been successfully deployed in other industries. Yes, there are some genuine examples of innovation in law (and it should be a key objective for firms), but much of what we’re seeing is simply digital transformation.
Unfortunately, not all firms appear to be successfully innovating or transforming their legal practice and client service delivery methods. The 2017 Law Firms in Transition report by Altman Weil revealed that 56 percent of respondents felt that their firm was not doing more to transform the way it delivered legal services because of partners not being aware of what they could do differently, while 36 percent felt it was because of a lack of time and organizational capacity. This is where an innovation manager can assist — by acting as a transformation and innovation facilitator.
Innovation managers are responsible for monitoring legal transformation trends and opportunities, managing ideation processes, supporting lawyers with transformative product and service delivery initiatives, monitoring investment and ROI, and identifying new market opportunities. They are crucial in overcoming the hurdles to transformation and creating a change-friendly and truly innovative law firm.
Legal design — the application of design thinking to law — is emerging as an interesting and important discipline in the SmartLaw agenda. It involves taking a human-centered approach to solving problems and designing new legal products and solutions that deliver real value for lawyers, clients and other consumers of legal services. Using design thinking, legal designers can help law firms, lawyers and clients work collaboratively to design new legal products and services that users actually want, instead of developing solutions on instinct and in isolation.
It is always important to remember that technology is an enabler, not the solution. A new legal product or service will not be a success merely because it involves technology. Many heralded tech-driven solutions crash and burn. Nevertheless, technology often will have an important role to play, and law firms will need to focus on developing value-driven technology solutions. A legal designer will help law firms identify and deliver value by integrating the needs of lawyers and clients with the possibilities of technology.
The knowledge engineer has a very specific function: to engineer legal process and knowledge for use in new digital delivery solutions. If a firm wants to implement digital solutions to systematize legal service delivery or create new legal products or services, then it needs tech-comfortable experts in the relevant area of law to engineer the content for these systems. Whether it’s machine-learning training, an automated document, legal advice, best practice processes, legal playbook or risk and compliance checklists, legal-tech systems need quality legal content and input, and this is where the knowledge engineer delivers real value.
The role currently tends to be filled by lawyers or professional support lawyers (PSLs), often as an extension to their more traditional responsibilities. However, not all PSLs are comfortable with the tech-oriented nature of the role, and fee-earners often lack the time, especially when they are trying to hit chargeable hours targets. Some firms have begun internally seconding their change-hungry lawyers to nonchargeable transformation projects, or offering “innovation vouchers” that allow lawyers to earn chargeable hours for the time they spend on such projects. It’s only a matter of time before this role is formalized, and the knowledge engineer becomes an important legal support role that sits alongside, or within, the PSL team.
Legal Solutions Architect
True legal solutions architects are worth their weight in gold. They are technologists who have strong legal domain knowledge, are proficient in a range of platforms and technologies (and in many cases, programming languages), and can quickly and efficiently build new digital solutions, products and services to meet lawyer or client needs. A knowledge of lawyers and how law firms operate is an essential quality for a legal solutions architect. In many cases, they are former paralegals, trainees or lawyers with a passion for technology and a desire to disrupt the status quo. A legal solutions architect will use their tech toolbox to prototype digital solutions and then build and implement tech-powered legal products and services for the firm and its clients. Legal solutions architects often are multiskilled, tackling business analysis, requirements gathering, project management and process improvement, too. Thankfully, the role normally sits outside of the traditional IT function and is closely aligned with the innovation manager and knowledge engineer.
In 2009, Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, famously proclaimed, “The sexiest job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.” This prediction now appears to have been fairly spot on. Law firms that use data effectively can make better decisions and deliver valuable insights for clients, putting them ahead of their competitors.
But with law firms holding, or having access to, so much data, how do they identify what data to extract, how to extract it, and how to glean useful insights from that data? This is where data scientists come in. A number of large firms are already using, or are actively recruiting for, data scientists who are responsible for mining, structuring and interpreting data sets to drive better business results, strategic decision-making, client insight as well as new products and services.
In some cases, it might be premature to recruit for the role — and a data analyst or data engineer may suffice while the firm’s collation and use of data matures. Hiring a true data scientist may be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; but in due course, every law firm will employ the services of one.
Research and Development
This is less of a role and more of a function. The transformation of legal practice and service delivery are intertwined. Many law firms appear to be following trends (and buzz), rather than truly differentiating themselves — particularly where they are utilizing digital point solutions (for example, Kira is used by more than half of the U.K.’s top 10 law firms).
However, it’s important to remember that technology is the enabler and not the solution. Or to put it another way, it’s what you do with it that counts. Therefore, law firms need to continually look for new solutions to problems and identify new products, services and delivery models, as well as anticipate future issues and trends and design solutions ahead of time.
In other industries, this type of activity is well known as research and development, and law firms should be taking it seriously by building R&D functions (containing the roles outlined above, as well as others) to help them stay ahead of the curve and deliver the necessary transformation of legal practice and client service delivery.