Tech Law Roundtable

Technologists at Denver-based firms discuss how IT fits within an organization.

Despite a reputation for being slow-moving, the legal business is rolling along with the wheels of progress. As law firms look to adopt new technologies and stay on top of buzzwords, experts in IT and innovation discuss how their work intersects with the practice of law, how firms can identify helpful technology and how to catch up to the competition.


Participants in Law Week’s June 27 tech roundtable include Jason Adaska, director of software engineering at the Holland & Hart Innovation Lab; Warren Green, business intelligence strategy and product manager at Holland & Hart; and Scott Shadler, director of information services at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell. Tony Flesor, managing editor of Law Week Colorado moderated the discussion.

LAW WEEK: Thanks for joining us. Do you all mind introducing yourselves and saying what you do at your respective firms?

SHADLER: I’m the director of information services [at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell], which entails all of IT infrastructure, computer resources end points, training, litigation support and trial support.

ADASKA: I’m the director of software engineering at the innovation lab. I have a group of developers and data scientists that build technology specific for practitioners inside of a law firm.

GREEN: I’m the business intelligence strategy and product manager at Holland & Hart, and what that means is trying to figure out the best way to utilize all of the concepts of innovation that we have toward helping build a good relationship with the clients we have and helping gain new clients.

LAW WEEK: I’m going to follow up with you, Warren. “Innovation” sounds like it doesn’t just necessarily mean IT, is that right?

GREEN: Yeah, it’s not. Technology is a very important key component of it, but we look at innovation and how we’re relating to our clients, how we’re generating new clients, how we’re having interactions with our clients and making it easier from a service perspective and from a technology perspective. So it’s really both service and technology and then where we can find the space to be as flexible as we can and work with our clients at their level and what they need.

LAW WEEK: I hear a lot focused on AI — that AI is going to change the law. But in the meantime, we at Law Week pretty frequently cover cybersecurity, whenever it does come up, in terms of tech within law firms and those types of data security concerns. But it wasn’t that long ago that e-discovery was the big thing. 

I’m just curious in touching base on what might be the current realistic landscape for firms here in Denver and what types of things they should be thinking about and what types of things you’re thinking about. 

ADASKA: Innovation and even technology is not something you want to just put it in a box alone where you grab an AI widget of some sort from the outside world, bring that in, and it’s suddenly going to be the magic bullet. That’s not realistic in Denver; it’s not realistic anywhere. 

In fact, I think one of the major problems that technology solves with the legal environment is how you can hook those things up. There are a lot of interesting ideas out there — some which have a technology component and some which are new staffing models, some are ways of gaining compliance. How to put all of those pieces together into something coherent is actually where a lot of innovation opportunity is. 

At Holland & Hart, we have an Office of Innovation, which comprises not just the lab, which has the technology piece, but client services as well, which has sort of more focus on understanding what client needs are. All of those at Holland & Hart currently live under the single Office of Innovation, which lets us think strategically about all of these pieces together.

LAW WEEK: Is that something that’s usually client-driven, something that’s attorney-driven or driven by you on the IT side? Where do these new ideas come from?

GREEN: To me, it feels like there are a couple places it comes from. Certainly, the clients are asking for new ways to interact. But with the Office of Innovation as we have it set up — we have two Ph.D.s in the lab who are dedicated to solving those problems that we see come up within our firm. Where there’s something that’s really customizable, they can solve that problem.

ADASKA: I think it’s driven almost entirely by what is a need inside the firm. It grows from the practitioners or from the clients, not from our philosophizing. 

When I talk to my team about our function and why we provide value, it’s not so much that a Ph.D. can solve problems — there are lots of smart people in lots of places in the world — but I think the unique opportunity, like I said, is being able to look at the realm of what is possible and look at the real practical problems. 

You can have an attorney who can maybe grow their practice but to scale that out, in one case they have to hire a lot of attorneys, maybe there’s a technology solution that would let them scale differently. Maybe they’ve got a client and that client has certain requirements for how they want to be managed. 

Being able to have the people with the technology skill set to answer problems that are driven, either by an internal client or external client, we feel is the right way to approach it. It’s not from the outside deciding “the next solution for law is going to be AI doing X. It’s not doing it right now, but just wait six months from now, it’s going to do it perfectly.” That hasn’t been our approach. It’s been from the bottom-up, driven by business needs.

SHADLER: The drivers for innovation can come externally or internally, from a client or from just people doing their everyday job, so the spark of innovation comes from an opportunity or some kind of challenge that the organization is having, and finding the right technology or the right services to fit that need, to solve that problem. 

It’s about driving down the cost, providing better access, better creativity, better collaboration, better security for the organization as a whole.

LAW WEEK: From your experience, Scott, where you do a little bit of everything, how do you approach all of the things that you take on in terms of identifying what those needs are, and what might be the most pressing or the next thing to address.

Scott Shadler, director of information services at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, said innovation should be driven by solving business needs. /HANNAH BLATTER

SHADLER: First it comes from the business need: What is the driving overall governance of the business? What is the business there to solve? Is it there to find some profit, is it there to service the client, is it there to win cases? That business need drives the innovation of where you invest your money. 

From my perspective, it just comes down to what are the pain points that are inhibiting people — the attorneys or the paralegals or the staff  — to do their job, to do the job the best they can do at the lowest cost to the client to give that decisive win.

LAW WEEK: I think you all identified what role innovation plays in the law firm environment.  I’m just curious what, from the IT perspective, some of the most important technologies are for law firms to seriously think about adopting. 

GREEN: To me, it seems like any of the technologies you need to look at need to make a significant impact. 

When we think about what technologies we’re thinking about or that matter, it’s in the form of how we’re connecting with our clients. There are a number of ways that happens — it might come from someone on Jason’s team, it might come from somebody outside — but to us, it’s the idea that whatever the technology is, it’s about what’s going to make that connection better or more seamless and how are we going to meet our clients at their level? 

Our clients constantly have, and rightly have, a need that we meet them where they are. Whatever it’s going to be for that is what we feel our next hope is. It comes from outside, it comes from inside, and for us it’s just keeping our eyes wide open to any of those options.

SHADLER: I think for me, what I see as the biggest innovation going on is just how software is defining the infrastructure. 

In the past, you might have had your hardware-bound systems, software-bound systems to that hardware, but everything was coupled together. But what’s changing in the industry is this decoupling where software is now defining the infrastructure. 

Be it storage, be it applications, be it access, be it security, it’s all being defined through software and through open source … and basically through development you can do almost anything now, and it keeps getting better to where orchestration and development is driving down the cost and the overhead of having dedicated people to do repetitive jobs.

LAW WEEK: Can you give me an example of how software is shifting that — how it’s driving down overhead?

SHADLER: Software-defined networking. In the past, you used to always have to have a dedicated networking administrator there, but decoupling that from the dedicated network person and giving it more to DevOps people, to be able to modify the network as the firm needs it for the development of new services and new applications, but also that software allows them to innovate but also give visibility to what’s going on and how to improve things and not be so bound to the legacy or traditional purchased turn-key solutions.

ADASKA: That’s a really good point. I was actually going to answer that question by saying I don’t like that question. But I’m going to amend that after Scott’s response, which I think is spot on. 

I think from my perspective it’s a mistake to assume you’re going to have some silver-bullet technology, and the idea is hearing an AI buzzword or block chain or cybersecurity X, Y or Z kind of thing, it would be a mistake to chase that assuming that if we had that then somehow we’ve solved something. 

I think the right approach is to say we have some business need or some strategic need, and the pieces of the technology are tactical components to solving that whole thing. One firm might decide they’re going to solve a problem with technology and AI and another might decide they’re going to solve it with some new staffing model, and another might decide we’re not going to go over that business, we’re going to focus on this instead. So the idea is that’s what should drive it. 

Your point, Scott, I think is very good, because what meta-need you have to be able to look through different strategies and actually execute them is agility. If our folks decide we want to build something and build something on top of something else that exists, we need to be able to put all those Lego pieces together efficiently, in terms of man hours, and robustly, in terms of does it scale, and a lot of the technology pieces that Scott was talking about in terms of DevOps and infrastructure and whatnot are all techniques that, to my mind, are being driven by a desire to be very agile in changing your tactics. 

You may decide, for 2018 this is where the opportunity is, and in 2019, hey there might be some new market we want to go after or some clients and change what their needs are and being able to adapt to that is the key. 

LAW WEEK: Would you tell me a little about your process? Once you’ve identified your need, how do you identify the technology that fits it and try it out and roll it out wider through the firm?

ADASKA: We have to-date — specifically in the lab and the Office of Innovation — been relatively bottom-up. 

We’re fortunate in that our team is very closely embedded with the practitioners. We’re not in some different room where people have to throw things over the wall. We’re working directly with the practitioners. 

When I came in, I did some legal work, myself, in helping on a patent prosecution, so that close connection helped spark things informally and kind of organically. I think that’s been more effective than any top-down process. 

As you scale, you need that top-down process, because you can’t have personal relationships with everybody, but we try to have it be driven by relationships where you have people in our Office of Innovation who can be technologists, who can be in client services … or have relationships with practitioners where they can say not just, “give me your requirements” but “what are your problems?” 

GREEN: To that point, you can physically sit with them and spend the time that a sales person is just not going to have when they come in and say, “I don’t know what your problem is, but I have a great solution.” This is, “I have a problem, let’s talk about exactly what that solution is going to be,” and we can help them fix it. That physical connection to it all makes a huge difference.

SHADLER: To Jason’s point, when you have a problem or are presented with a problem, that’s an opportunity, right? You sit down and chat with the people who are related to it, all the stakeholders, and you basically find out the use case of what their problem is and what are the proposed solutions, and what I’ve done in my past is say, “OK, is it something that can be solved through an acquisition or turn-key solution or something that has to be developed internally?”

GREEN: And sometimes you have the solution already and you just don’t know it. That happens not infrequently.

SHADLER: Well it’s just a matter of resources, has that technology resource been communicated effectively in the organization as something that can be done to enhance their job or to solve that problem?

GREEN: I think that’s neat about your comment, Scott, about what’s happening in the legal marketplace in general. There is all this technology that’s available, and, realistically, not everybody can know about all of it. And certainly, the practitioners can’t take the time to learn about that, so what I see a lot of our role is — in my mind — is helping identify what those are going to be and how they can really impact the practitioners and then spend time with them and explain what’s going to be so valuable about it. And that’s going to continue more and more as it’s going to get harder to identify what the really good things are. Should we build it, should we buy it, whatever it is and what really makes sense for you guys and the folks who are practicing law. 

Jason Adaska (left), director of software engineering at the innovation lab, and Warren Green, business intelligence strategy and product manager at Holland & Hart, said they address innovation with a bottom-up approach. / HANNAH BLATTER

In the space that we get to focus on that, it creates a lot of opportunity for us to find the right thing, rather than for them to sift through 50 sales calls a day, which seem to be coming more and more frequently as well.

LAW WEEK: I have two questions that go together: One, I’m curious at what point you’d say a firm needs to think about their IT or the firm might need someone like you. And two, how might these IT resources or personnel be used to join in client pitches? Is that something you’d recommend using as a tool?

GREEN: To be blunt, if you’re not thinking about it right now, you’re late. 

The way technology is impacting all industries, but in particular ours, if you don’t have some focus on it right now, you’re already late to the game. It feels to me like the stuff we’re talking about right here is table stakes right now. This is what clients need, this is how we’re building our connections better and more thoroughly with our clients — through technology and innovation of how we provide services and, again, how we make those connections. I think if folks aren’t thinking about that, they’re pretty far behind the curve. 

For us, it feels like we started this whole process long ago now that we’re in a pretty established space. So thinking about somebody deciding out of the blue, “should we now have this?” feels like they’ve got some other building blocks they’ve got to think about. They’ve got to think about how their tech interacts with all of it, and I don’t know that everybody’s doing that yet. 

I think they all need somebody like me and somebody like Jason and somebody like Scott right now.

SHADLER: To Warren’s point, there is a growing chasm between the larger players and the smaller when it comes to law firms, and it has to do with the delivery of technology and innovation and delivering results at a lower cost but also securing that information, providing security, providing innovation, providing accessibility to their clients information and to the lawyers and to all the parties involved in litigation.

But as this chasm grows there are going to be law firms pushed out and not being able to compete in certain arenas for certain clients.

GREEN: Very true.

SHADLER: And innovation and having that forethought and investing in your infrastructure and your information technology and innovation services will be a deciding factor in the decades to come for law firms.

ADASKA: You hear, recently, a renewed focus on data security and privacy and all those questions. Which is probably table stakes for a lot of people at this point. Even if they don’t know anything about cybersecurity, in 2018, they hear about it a lot more than they ever would just looking at headlines. I think it is required more and more.

LAW WEEK: And if someone is really just looking at their data privacy and not much else, how would someone start incorporating things beyond that?

GREEN: One of the interesting things happening in the legal industry is not just what’s happening inside law firms but what’s happening in terms of how those services are being provided in different ways. 

There might be some players that don’t want to take that entire piece on. They could maybe outsource some work, there might be alternate legal service providers that will do some of those things. I think we’re still figuring out what that looks like.

LAW WEEK: Regarding some of those buzzwords out there like blockchain and AI that we keep hearing about, what are some of the realistic innovations making their way to the Denver market?

ADASKA: Many things are already happening in terms of automation. At least our approach has been that we do everything we can to focus the practitioners on what is their highest and best use, and everyone on what their highest and best use is. 

As it turns out, there’s a growing set of tasks that can be done very well through automation and technology and AI, and that’s going to continue to grow over time, and it’s going to shift where it makes sense for us to put those resources. 

But at least for us, it’s always driven by, “how do you give the highest quality product for the lowest price.” It’s not like we came up with that idea, but that’s what the market is asking for. So I would say there are going to be clients who are concerned about getting the expertise. They probably want an attorney not to be spending time sifting through email or dinking around with the document management system or some of the other things that take up time. I think people are expecting those to be the technology lowering the friction. 

In terms of things that are coming to the Denver market now, there are technology pieces that firms can buy or that firms can build right now that actually do really amazing things. I think it’s probably not going to be a Big Bang, it’s not going to be one point where everybody’s got AI lawyers. It’s going to be a growing push to focus the legal expertise on areas where it makes sense. 

SHADLER: For the Denver market in general, the law practitioners here want to compete on the East Coast and West Coast and provide the exact same kind of level of innovation and services that the big giant New York law firm or big giant Silicon Valley law firm would. In those areas, where they can improve innovation is going to be: Can they make their staff more technology astute and better at efficiency of doing everyday tasks? And can they also provide the security and compliance that these large clients need? 

In the past, for lawyers, it was all about relationships, but now, it’s all about: we have to take into account other considerations. You’re a great lawyer but you don’t have the technology or security or governance knowledge to handle a case this size. In the Denver market, it’s just providing that technology or innovation for us as an area to compete.

GREEN: To me, it feels like the coastal firms and the Big Four are coming into Denver constantly — even if it’s just one partner here, two partners there — and they’re bringing to bear all of that infrastructure and all the innovation they have into the Denver market, so they’re competing for similar work here just with that infrastructure somewhere else.

There are locals that just have fewer people and less infrastructure, but I don’t think that necessarily takes away from the influx of competition. For the folks that maybe feel that chasm, it’s not because there’s just a few of us in Denver saying, “hey, we should do something amazing,” it’s because we’re seeing competition from around the country come in, and we’re as good and better than they are across the board, so how do we compete with them on all the technological components? 

Yes, there’s a gap, but that gap, I think those folks functioning down there still need to figure out a way to compete because it’s not two or five big firms in the Denver area taking all the work, it’s everywhere and they’re all coming for us, so this is our time.

SHADLER: Denver is a growing market, both in population and technology and innovation and economic activity. There’s a lot going on here. And with a lot of activity, there’s a lot of opportunity for services that need to be represented in the legal space.

LAW WEEK:  What do you think is a key takeaway for a practitioner concerned about what might be incoming, be it in terms of new tech or existing tech that these outside firms are bringing with them to compete in Denver? What should they know?

GREEN: For a lot of those folks, one thing that I would hope would come across as we’ve talked about all of this is that, all of this technology is within reach. We’re doing really cool stuff in our shop because we can and we have the infrastructure to do so, but there are tons of different providers out there that provide access to doc review and other things that can provide innovation. So it’s not as though all this technology is this high-minded thing and only big firms can do it. It’s all very accessible. It’s really just about learning about it and educating themselves on what’s available. That’s a lot of what we do.

Warren Green

SHADLER: I think there are four areas they can look at: Look at creation, collaboration, presentation and security. 

So look at, are they creating content for their clients in the most efficient manner? Are they able to collaborate with their clients in the most efficient manner in being able to exchange information and receive information? Can they present their information in the most dynamic way to get their point across to their client and also to the jury? And also security: think about security when you’re looking at new services and new technology for your firm, look at security and how it should be an integral part of the decision process.

LAW WEEK: And if they answer “no” to any of those questions, where do they go?

SHADLER: They can look at their internal resources and see if they have internal resources to help them look at those four pillars. If they don’t have the internal resources, they might have to bring that in, either through consulting or bring in a technology person to help them. 

Consulting, external resources and development of internal resources because there’s probably someone on their staff who has an inkling for technology, but deep down they probably have that spark of innovation that just needs to be coaxed out.

GREEN: I think really to build off of that, it comes down to research. If they answer no to any of those four things, it’s available and they can find it, it’s just about finding what fits for them. For a firm our size, building a shop, an innovation office fits for us. If it’s a six-person office, it might be a consultant that comes in for a little while, it might be buying some stuff off the shelf, but if they find something that fits, they can quickly innovate and certainly to me it seems in this market there’s a lot of space to innovate. There’s a lot of opportunity still to do that. They just do a little research, they find something and they give it a shot.

ADASKA: IT and technology traditionally inside of law firms were thought of as a cost center. Maybe that is how it gets accounted, but maybe some of those efficiencies Scott’s talking about are things that pay for themselves. And kind of changing the mindset about, “we don’t have the money to have somebody that has technology expertise” may actually not be looking at the numbers correctly. It may be more that you can’t afford not to have a technologist who’s keeping a read on what’s possible. 

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