Law Firm Technology
One thing about coming from the tech industry into law: it becomes shocking the decade--if not the century--in which we do most of our work. Just discussing with friends, it seems common for all of us to work on projects with hundreds of documents, dozens of attorneys from multiple firms, and even tens of clients, all the while communicating with nothing more than email. I would have imagined at least a single client extranet laden with useful tools, if not multiple client extranets from different firms linking together intelligently.
Three things lead me to think that there's a lot of money on the table for someone who can build a good legal software package in a manner that actually saves firms money. First, law firms pay their staff a lot of money, and at present a huge amount of staff time is not particularly value-added.  Second, a more competitive legal industry is allowing many larger clients to insist upon fee caps or even fixed fees, which change the dynamic of any project: you can lose your shirt on a deal, but a deal planned well right from the start has the potential for vast profitability, since the firm keeps any gains. And lastly, a lot of the technology useful for allowing highly-skilled knowledge workers to collaborate in the creation of knowledge (and its artifacts) has lost its bleeding edge and moved into the realm of the proven.
As I've worked this summer, the structure of some of these tools has taken root in my mind: how they should work, how they should integrate seamlessly with the processes that lawyers already use, and how those processes might evolve. But I also realize that I can't be the first person to think these ideas. While I don't want any of my readers to reveal any confidential or proprietary information, if anyone has answers to the following questions, I'd be very interested:
- Does anyone know of a firm that employs (or a software company that provides) a well-regarded client-extranet to manage documents, workflow, and timelines? Something like the Sharepoint of law firms?
- In a similar vein, I've been thinking about my ideal Microsoft Word add-ins for legal work. (Because firms are usually wedded to their existing word processors, I think talking of ground-up ideas for new software is a tough sell.) I was thinking particularly of an add-on that would quickly and easily remember where the data in a document came from. For instance, if I had cut and pasted data from a company's online annual report into a prospectus, the document would remember that some of its contents came from another source (either webpage or document)?
- Finally, does anyone know of a firm that actually employs dedicated project managers? I know that this is often considered a partner's role, but it seems like partners wear multiple and often inconsistent hats: project manager, relationship manager, resource manager, programme manager, etc. On the other hand, project management is its own discreet skill, there are trained project managers widely available in the marketplace, and (trust me, I used to be one) for what you pay a first year associate you can get quite a few talent project managers. Does anyone know of a firm that's considered changing its work processes to take advantage of such creatures?
If you know someone who might know the answer to these questions, please feel free to email them the link to this post.
: Don't get me wrong--much of what lawyers do is a tremendous value-add, even when the work is merely checking detail: there's virtue in the level of care that goes into legal work. But the process to get to added value is often far more difficult than it really needs to be.