Added24th June 2014 by Riverview LawRiverview Law

Legal IT: lions led by donkeys ?

Almost a year ago I wrote about my reflections as a guest speaker at LegalWeek’s annual Strategic Technology Forum, held in the hills of rural Italy, around an hour from Rome. A tough job, but somebody had to do it, so I gathered my postage stamp’s worth of technical IT knowledge and off I went, hoping not to be found out. I had an enjoyable and extremely informative couple of days in the company of a close-knit group of professionals who were saddled with the task of delivering IT solutions to more disparate groups of another kind of profession- lawyers. What an eye-opener that was. I had always marvelled at the ability of lawyers to look down on “nons” (whether non-lawyers, non-fee earners or non-partners) but to spend time in the company of people with in-depth knowledge of complex systems whose time was spent ensuring that the partners of their firms were able to bring in whatever new IT-trinket they had acquired and use it on the firms’ networks immediately was not only extraordinary, it was confirmation that the time had come for a radically different approach to teamwork in the professional services environment. I left refreshed and invigorated, with the knowledge that there was a lot to play for in this market. I was flattered and somewhat surprised to be invited back to this year’s event. My IT expertise had not developed in the intervening period and I had already shared my full and frank views of the legal market with my new friends in the legal IT community, but apparently they were keen for more and had lined up a panel of law firm Partners for me to spar with on Day 1 of the conference- I couldn’t resist the challenge (or another couple of days in the Italian sun). Given the tremendous developments in legal technology- driven, as ever, by VC-fuelled startups on the West Coast of the US, I was expecting a shift in the focus of the event, with the participants starting to flex their technical muscle and demonstrate the value of their skills to their lawyer colleagues (or should I say masters ?). Last year we saw tantalising glimpses of real innovation- smart e-disclosure, document automation, predictive litigation outcomes being examples- so how would things look one year on ? In a word ? Unchanged. The overwhelming impression given by the participants yet again was of a group of people who not only have the will to grasp new opportunities and help their firms to innovate, they have the skills, contacts and knowledge to deliver technology-driven change. And what do they face ? Well, perhaps the question asked in one session on legal project management- “have any firms here brought in non-lawyer project managers ?”- says it all (I don’t believe that any hands were raised, by the way). Time and time again the story was of technology-driven initiatives being stymied by a combination of a lack of basic IT capability on the part of lawyers and refusal to invest for the long-term. From a selfish point of view, of course, this was music to my ears, made sweeter by the opening statement of one of my fellow panelists, the former Senior Partner of a large international firm, that they were focussed on “crushing Riverview at birth”. Validation indeed ! Last year I had spent most of my time explaining who we were and what we did. This year everybody knew. So what are my main reflections after another lovely few days of sun, pasta and a few glasses of Grappa ? I continue to be impressed with the quality of the people delivering IT solutions to lawyers, both on a professional and a personal level. They are a great bunch, and I feel honoured to have been accepted as a semi-official hanger-on. But they deserve so much more from their lawyer colleagues. They are ground down by their operating environment, delivering innovation focussed on their bosses rather than their customers. Improving billing systems, navigating the regulatory minefield of cloud-based document collaboration and servicing the ever-increasing “Bring your own” demands of lawyers are not going to achieve the sort of radical change that their firms’ customers demand. Meanwhile, emerging technologies and market disrupters (never was a market so open to disruption) loom large on the horizon, reminding us all of earlier residents of this part of Italy, those whose skills on the violin outweighed their ability to fight fires.