“Innovation” seems to be a buzzword in every industry, but relatively few law firms have made innovation a full-time job.
Bloomberg Law reported last year that 57 of the top 200 law firms by revenue had added chief innovation officer roles as of 2019, but the publication noted that “firms don’t always agree” whether the positions should be held by partners who maintain legal practices or filled with non-lawyer professionals.
Law Week spoke to full-time innovation experts based in Colorado to find out what their roles entail, what law firms can gain by having a dedicated innovation team and the tech tools and trends they’ve been following.
INNOVATION FROM SCRATCH
Holland & Hart’s Innovation Lab is a team of tech wizards, but it isn’t the place to turn when the printer stops working.
“What I think is kind of interesting [and] effective about the group that we have at Holland & Hart is our Innovation Lab is actually a separate department from IT operations,” said Jason Adaska, director of software development and the firm’s Boulder-based Innovation Lab.
The separation allows Adaska’s team to focus on the future and the big picture while bringing together technologists with a different skill set than one might see in a typical IT department.
It includes developers as well as staff with expertise in areas such as design, data science and machine learning.
The lnnovation Lab officially launched in 2017, but unofficially sprouted within the firm’s IP practice in the years prior. Much of the group’s work involves developing tools and systems from scratch to improve efficiency across the firm, help certain practice groups automate routine tasks and address specific client needs and challenges.
Examples include tools to help the firm’s attorneys keep track of their time efficiently and an automation suite that uses machine learning techniques to help quickly generate correspondence related to patent applications.
The firm is using machine learning to develop a system that will let attorneys and staff train it to perform complex tasks. “You’ve got a law firm and a lot of people who are doing very specialized tasks,” Adaska said. “Imagine you had a system that was busy observing those people doing their tasks and over time learning how to augment those tasks and, in cases where it makes sense, to automate them.”
“That’s the kind of system that we’re able to build at this point. Because we have folks with expertise in data science and machine learning, we can build a very flexible system,” he said, adding the system will help with training new employees and those filling in when paralegals, attorneys or other staff members with specialized knowledge are away from the office.
While technical expertise allows the team to build sophisticated systems from scratch, communication is key when it comes to understanding attorneys’ needs and new opportunities. Adaska said getting technologists and attorneys to “speak the same language” is one of the biggest challenges in legal tech, but the firm has been good at bridging the communication gap.
“If you look at the things that people get excited about in the technology world right now, it’s stuff like artificial intelligence, learning things from data,” he said. “All of these are about technologies that essentially remove people from processes to scale better to make things more efficient.”
That enthusiasm for automation and taking people out of the picture can be hard to translate to professional services like the legal industry, where people and their expertise are the core product. But close relationships and communication within the firm help the Innovation Lab team explain the advantages of technology to attorneys and clients.
Adaska said recent trends in legal tech include a growing adoption of automation and “greater pressure from clients to not want to spend money on things that could be automated,” which have been driving adoption of tools for document generation and other tasks that machines can do.
And while Adaska says he and his team are still wrapping their heads around what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be on technology in the legal industry, he expects it to accelerate some of the existing trends like automation and using machine learning to capture institutional knowledge.
“The legal space is really interesting for technologists just because there’s so much opportunity,” Adaska said. “I think all of the workflow changes that are coming because of COVID are really highlighted. So while this is a rough time for a lot of people, it’s also a time of opportunity to rethink how technology can be used.”
This article appears in the Aug. 24 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read the complete article and other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.