Law firms had to rethink processes and technology use at all levels when the COVID-19 Pandemic shuttered in-person activity in the state back in March 2020.
While firms scrambled to get employees set up with the technology to work remotely, another technological hurdle was looming close behind: security. Firms needed to address security concerns swiftly while keeping work-from-home tech in place during the first few months of the pandemic.
Later on though, the drive for new tech started coming in from the client end, as client billing systems started using AI to scan through invoices and bills for keywords and trends to identify issues. Clients also started pushing for threat detection with greater levels of sophistication from law firms to address the possibility of cybersecurity breaches.
In our final roundtable this year, we talked to Jason Adaska at Holland & Hart, Stephanie Loughner at Moye White and Chad Ergun at Davis Graham & Stubbs about how their firms have implemented new tech over the last year to address security, compliance or other client needs during the remote work of the Pandemic.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.
ERGUN: On our side, what we’re seeing is that I think more and more clients are getting anxious about their data, and how are we protecting them as a part of [our] ethical obligation. And as practicing attorney[s], we are obligated to protect client data with utmost attention and importance. So I think we’re seeing a lot of clients getting anxious about the work-from-home/hybrid environment — “it’s 10 p.m., do you know where your data [is]?” Now, going to the next phase, [clients are] hiring their own auditors. It’s [the pandemic], in a way, that forced us to prove our investment in technology.
ADASKA: On the authentication threat detection, I think lots of clients are pushing for greater sophistication. And, internally, the attorneys and the practitioners want to be able to provide that security but also be able to minimize the friction. Now [that] they’re working remotely, how do you secure that environment in a way that’s not extremely onerous for the end-users? And then to be more proactive — actual threat detection.
LOUGHNER: We’ve invested so that our accounting can run more efficiently and we can then designate more resources to our clients who have specific billing needs. Again, that’s always been around — certain big clients have certain billing requirements, but now it’s automated. So they’re using AI to go through our bills, which means we need to train our attorneys on how to correctly bill and describe so that things don’t get caught up. And again, even though it’s meant to be AI on our end, it takes a lot of manpower to work through those issues, to train up [and to] spot issue[s] and then to make sure that we’re not backtracking on bills.
ADASKA: Yeah, we’ve been seeing some similar things — software that clients are adopting that we’re having to react to. I think that’s kind of an interesting dynamic. We’ve heard a lot of stories like the one that you had, which is AI being used for analyzing billing narratives and what that’s driving for behavior internally.
LOUGHNER: Typically, you have a client that doesn’t necessarily go through your seven-page, or one-page bill or whatever it is, but now you’ve got the robot looking at it, and it’s a different response and it’s a different request from the clients than we’re used to. We have to be ready and prepared for those, and the more we train our timekeepers in terms of what those AI bots are looking for, we can be more efficient and just get the client what they want in their bills. So we’re seeing that and it’s not a direct A to B, by any means.
ERGUN: We’ve gone through similar stuff — [a] couple of years ago, we switch[ed] our financial systems. And what we came to realize is that billing guidelines come in different formats. So that when [an] associate enter[s] time for [a] 30-minute conference call, he or she knows that it’s going to get rejected by the other side. Because they’re not only looking for those exact keyword matches, like the old technology. They’re looking for the concept behind the conference call — instead of “conference call,” if you put “Zoom call,” they still catch it. And people still think that, hey, I’m going to go around the system by saying “online meeting.” I think clients are getting really advanced in some of those areas. And unfortunately, [at] law firms, it’s been [a] really dirty word — innovation. I think you learn from experience that clients will be ahead of us in some areas, that law firms ha[ve] to catch up using innovation, AI, machine learning, and I think we need to adapt to the new environment.
ADASKA: It doesn’t seem like there’s been a big shift in the mechanisms for billing [for us], but I have seen a number of groups that are far more interested in doing predictions. [And] we’d like to give an estimate to the client that we think is competitive, so predictive analytics [goes] in the direction of more price certainty [and] has [grown to be] more of a need during the pandemic.
ERGUN: Well, I think especially on litigation — e-discovery. I think clients want to know how much it’s going to cost them to litigate on a specific case. If we can give them heads up, give them a budget, how long — we do that all the time. We depend on ROI. Every time we try to bring [in] technology, we look at what’s the return on investment, but I’ve been taking a different approach for the last several years. I use CONI, cost of not investing, instead of return — how much it’s going to cost us if we don’t invest in technology in this area.
LOUGHNER: That’s why it’s important to invest in some of the financial software. As our clients get more sophisticated with their data and their wants and needs for financial data, we don’t have to send somebody to manually review it. It’s something our upgraded software should be able to calculate faster, quicker, better and allow us to then make decisions based upon that financial model.
ERGUN: I think what this included value, like you said, is to tie [the technology] not just [to] the financial system, but tie it into your CRM, tie it into your document management, identity records management, tie it into legal research so that you have a full lifecycle of a matter.
ADASKA: One of the things that we’ve been seeing that I think is exciting [is] the ability for search systems to find relevant data within a document not just using keywords, but using semantic or similarity search. There’s been a lot of technology advancements for algorithms that can search out not just keyword data, but semantically meaningful data.
ERGUN: And I think for me, the real game-changer will be switch[ing] the reactive approach to [a proactive approach] — meaning, don’t let an associate or partner be in the middle of drafting a credit agreement and remember, “Oh, maybe I should look into my knowledge management library.”
LOUGHNER: I would definitely use that AI. If we can all get out of the office earlier and get that kind of work done faster, I think we would all welcome it. So you know, to me, it just seems like a wholly beneficial research and development project.
ADASKA: Are you finding practitioners embracing that? I mean, do they like it?
ERGUN: I think, unfortunately, what’s happening right now is that we’re being judged based on those kinds of technologies or adoption of those technologies being used and how we can show the value to clients, [through delivering the] best work that we can produce or [reducing] billable hours. I think there’s a lot of room and I think there’s a lot of interest coming from first-, second-, third-year associates and we keep feeding them with that kind of technology and they’re like [a] sponge. But we also have other generation[s of] partners [who] are very intrigued and excited. We have a lot of adopters of those kinds of technolog[ies] because they want to be at the cutting edge and they see the value.
LOUGHNER: We’re just going to need a more hybrid approach to practicing law when we don’t have those teachers or trainers constantly checking in on us and being right there and available to ask the quick questions.
ADASKA: Are you finding people are using video conferencing much more often than previously? I think we definitely are.
ERGUN: Yeah, we rolled out Teams with video six months before the pandemic. We are probably 20% adoption because we didn’t want to push. I shared with the executive committee last year that like in one day, it [was] triple, quadruple the usage. It was just unbelievable. I think [the] pandemic, in many ways, forced us to accelerate those kinds of adoption[s], otherwise, it will take us probably nine to 12 months to get to that point.
LOUGHNER: I mean, even though I’ve been in the office — or some days, I’m not — I’m still going to put on the calendar a Teams meeting because oftentimes we want to share documents. It’s a great tool [and it’s] why it was pre-pandemic [technology], but it’s just forced us to use it more and understand its power.
ERGUN: And we actually end[ed] up doing lunch and learn sessions [with video conferencing technology]. We [t]ry to replicate that kind of in-person interaction.
ADASKA: Enough time has passed now that there’s an increasing question about new people that have come on — how to get those folks trained? We get asked to do custom software solutions. So I hear a lot of what people’s core problems are.
LOUGHNER: Yeah, we onboarded many during the pandemic and I would say it’s a challenge, and there has to be extra effort. We’re realizing that the hybrid really needs to be a choice. It is the time — stress the time [taken to] onboard those employees.
ERGUN: A lot of studies about improper onboarding, causing employee turno[ver]. I think people remember that — not-so-great onboarding experience.
LOUGHNER: Yeah. It’s a different onboarding experience.
ADASKA: So, one of the questions here I was really curious to get both your perspectives on was, as we’re implementing new technology, has that changed either the ease or the difficulty with which new technology gets applied to legal practitioners? And my perspective on that is I think it’s been a mixed bag. So I think that maybe [there] are barriers to [the] adoption of legal technology. [And] one is just openness, right? I think without a doubt that has changed dramatically since the pandemic hit. People are a lot more open, not just to things like collaboration, but to technology solving real substantive problems in legal practice. The other thing that I’ve seen as a barrier to adoption is just busyness. It’s really hard [for] somebody that’s operating at 125% load to go ahead and adopt some new technology — that has gotten worse. In my perspective, there are far more people that are overloaded. So it’s almost a wash.
ERGUN: I think I feel like I am using the technology more often. [The attorneys] can pick the applications they want to use. They can implement and learn and adopt and improve themselves. But you’re right. I see also the other part of it where there is kind of more knee-jerk reaction [to] technology. I call it technology fatigue.
LOUGHNER: I do think it’s a customized approach for each attorney. So it is technology fatigue because we’re rolling out new technology probably [on] a bi-monthly basis and you see another request for training coming in. it really has to be a customized approach for practice groups [or for the] type of work you’re doing so that you’re not overloaded with those requests or thoughts of “I should be doing it this way.”