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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. [1] 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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)?
  3. 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.

[1]: 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.

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I find it extremely difficult to believe that there is no such software out there. When I entered grad school for my master's in management information systems, a number of the faculty and fellow students in my program thought that that was the kind of work that I'd point myself towards after graduation, so it's pretty obvious (even to legal laypersons) that the profession needs those kind of tools. I wonder if what software *is* out there is proprietary or developed by law firms in-house, and that's the reason it seems to be flying under the radar. Wish I could point you to the information you want, but I got into this line of work specifically so I would never have to deal with lawyers professionally ever again (and save for the necessity of one divorce since then, I've been quite successful at that), so I have no reason to keep up with those kind of developments. :-)
Len, Thanks for the comments. I'm sure there is such technology out there: I just don't know much about what it is.
1. Cooley, MoFo, Bingham McCutchen, Fenwick, Orrick. Okay, so I'm a Bay Area based legal tech consultant and my references are regional, but most AMLAW 100 and many AMLAW 200 firms have extranets serving the purpose you describe. The exchange of documents between parties (including opposing counsel, corporate counsel, clients, etc.) should not be a Sharepoint function. That is not document management. Document management used to be only about exerting control and maintaining the integrity of documents, managing versions and making search and retrieval painless. Now, that list includes organizing the storage structure of the document management system so that it more accurately reflects how legal professionals work, eliminating the need for a profile screen and managing e-mail when e-mail contains substantive legal information. 2. EEK! That's called "bad metadata". Actually Word does that now - although you can't really exploit it. There are huge risk management issues relating to leaving this sort of information in a document which is why most law firms and all lawyers should use some sort of metadata scrubbing tool on outgoing Word documents. (All sorts of utilities from free to ridiculously expensive for this sort of thing). It would be great to hook-up research to the document in which it appears but do you WANT the client to know you re-used another agreement and just used Copy/Paste to change the client-related text? 3. Most I.T. project management in firms of any size (25 attys on up) is handled through the I.T. department. Many AMLAW 100 firms are creating P.M. positions and some have gone as far as creating Program Management departments to manage ALL firm projects. Regards, Nancy.
Nancy: a) Thanks for the helpful comments. b) I'm aware of the need to scrub documents before they leave the firm. Nevertheless, that's only "bad" metadata if you don't scrub it before it leaves. It's pretty dumb to foresake something that is going to allow a firm to use a resource more efficiently if the only thing the firm has to do in order to reap the profit is to maintain an "internal" and "external" version--which as you point out, they often do already. Furthermore, your last rhetorical question actually isn't so rhetorical. First of all, when I worked in businesses, before law school, that's what we laymen--you know, clients--always figured that lawyers did anyway. And why not? It made sense that they'd reuse their knowhow, after all, it was what we were doing. Secondly, supposing the horrible happened and the client got hold of a document where I'd reused another agreement and "just" copied/pasted. (I don't know many agreements where that's all that would show as being done, but let's use that hypo.) Why hide the ball? Why not say, "sure, that's what we did, and it saved you a ton of money over us reinventing the wheel: that's why it's down on the timesheet as an hour-long task." Now, the problem comes in if it's not down on the timesheet as an hour-long task, and the client can justifiably wonder why he's paying for a lot of work for what's obviously not. But in my pre-law existence, the idea that the main processes of creating simple IP were some kind of hidden mystery that shouldn't be revealed to our clients would have seemed... well, a bit fraudulent, really. Your question actually becomes: (a) is the quick modification you suggest actually what your client needed, and (b) if it was, are you charging that client more than you should be if he knew what you'd done. Otherwise, I very well might want my client to know what I'd done. After all, honesty and openness for what he knows I do already may mean he chooses me over another law firm that hands him a PDF and a bigger bill. c) I was actually referring to project management of client cases, not IT project management. I guess I've seen a lot of PM in cases where there are non-law related projects, but very few in which there's an actual project manager for legal matters. If you know of any, I'd be very interested.
You ever heard of AMS-Legal? Law firms with 2 attorneys and law firms with 3000 use it.

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