Since I do not purport to be a journalist, I have the luxury of letting things float around in my head until an angle evolves. Odd strands – things I read or see or which come up in discussions – sit around like ingredients for an as yet unplanned recipe until a context appears.
The context in this case is something which I mentioned in my long omnibus article of a few days ago called Turning e-discovery news and views into a community of interest. I said I would come back to an interview with Professor Richard Susskind in which he discussed the transition of legal technology providers from being mere suppliers to being trusted advisers to law firms or companies.
The transition has parallels in other areas. The supply of computer hardware began as a bespoke personalised thing – my first PC was delivered by a man who unpacked it, set it up and showed me how to use it. As competition tightened the margins, suppliers could not make money like that, so they switched to volume box-shifting. Now that everyone can shift boxes cheaply, they need other ways both of attracting attention and adding value. Litigation support services have followed the same path from individual attention to ever-thinner margins on coding and hosting through to co-operative work with clients to make best use, for example, of new culling tools and review accelerators. The next phase moves beyond such transactional co-operation and towards longer-term working.
When I talk to lawyers, I encourage them to form relationships with technology providers. You will not get price lists from them (and for good reason) but you need to know enough about them to compare their technology, their rates and their method of working. You can also get to know their people and find out if you like working with them. The aim here is quite simple – you cannot afford to go from a standing start when you have to leap into a new document-heavy job; you cannot afford it in the sense that failure awaits the unprepared, and you cannot afford the time-costs of treating each such job as if it were a fresh journey of exploration. You need someone who thinks like you or, at least, who complements your own thinking.
The corollary to this, in the collaborative, trusted adviser scheme of things which Richard Susskind envisages, is that the provider must think like a buyer. That, as it happens, is exactly the expression used by Larry Briggi of FTI Technology when I was talking to him recently about the human side of this provider-client relationship. That was not, in fact, the subject-matter which I had in mind when I arranged to see Larry at ILTA; he had been the source of some of my information when I wrote about SharePoint recently (see SharePoint 2010 is the next dumping ground for lawyers to understand, and wanted to follow that up and also to ask about the integration of Attenex into Ringtail Legal. We got side-tracked early on in the conversation, however, when Larry used this expression “learning to think like a buyer”.
That sounds as if we were talking about selling techniques or marketing. The context was in fact career development, and refers to an additional range of skills which people need to acquire on top of the technical and project-management skills which comprise their formal training. There is an obvious conjunction of motives here: big companies like FTI clearly have an interest in training their people to a high level in their core skills, and the employees have equally clear reasons for working for a company which offers such training. This continues as people move through their careers – some people will progress faster than others and the company wants to keep its best people. What can be offered beyond pay and working conditions plus the aspiration to one of the relatively few senior positions?
I did not ask Larry to define what he meant by “learning to think like a buyer”; I do not think he was referring to a course of formal study but rather to the opportunities which arise in large consulting organisations to be involved with clients over a period and to build a consistent rapport with them. Because you work with several of them (as you could not do if you worked full-time for any one of them), you have opportunities to broaden your own skills and experience which informs and refines what you bring to the next client or project.
You will see how this ties back to my opening theme, the idea that technology providers must aim to be long-term trusted advisers to their clients, not mere providers of technology solutions. Richard Susskind’s primary subject in the passage quoted below (which comes from this interview) is the relationship between law firms and technology suppliers, but what he said applies equally to companies. They, increasingly, are looking to the technology providers for long-term relationships, potentially at the expense of lawyers. Susskind said this:
The biggest challenge I see is for the suppliers essentially to change their image. I think for too long they have not been seen as part of the legal sector, as part of the legal industry, they have been seen as external to the sector. But I see them as providing key changes, I see them as being central players in the transformation of the profession. And so somehow it seems to me they have got to position themselves as trusted parts of the legal sector rather than suppliers to it. And that is I think for some firms a subtle change and for other companies a transformation. But they’ve got to become closer to the customer. They’ve got to become more respected, they’ve got to speak the same language as law firms. Technologists really do suffer, as lawyers do, from having their own jargon, their own ways of talking, and until, it seems to me, there’s the ability from systems and software suppliers to go in and speak to lawyers in the language of lawyers and the language of the market to which they’re supplying, I think there’s going to be — there’s obviously going to be difficulties.”
“So the tail wags the dog often as we say, that people come in with technology solutions looking for problems. And I think the sector has got to shift perspective, try and understand the business problems that the market’s facing and show how it can actually, let’s see how the supply side can actually help meet the kinds of — or solve the kinds of business challenges and difficulties that pressurised law firms are facing on a daily basis.
That requires continuity of staff on the part of the technology provider which, amongst other things, makes the clients less vulnerable to staff changes. It is great to provide a one-off solution to a problem; it is better to provide a series of one-off solutions to a sequence of problems. Best of all though is to be an all-but integral component of the client’s processes. The word “process” really means “this is how we do things here”. The use of technology solutions is an integral part of that, but there is more to “this is how we do things here” than the selection of one technology over another. In the UK case Earles v Barclays Bank, the judge, HHJ Simon Brown QC said this:
The abundance of this ESI in cyberspace means that potential litigants, in particular organisations such as Banks at the current time, need to anticipate having to give disclosure of specifically relevant electronic documentation and the means of doing so efficiently and effectively.
He did not just mean “buy some software”, and what he said takes us beyond mere reaction to events and into long-term planning and the development of a strategy.
It is no accident, perhaps, that my conversation with FTI’s Larry Briggi, which I had envisaged as being just about some software, should have moved imperceptibly to the wider subject of long-term relationships between clients (companies or law firms) and technology providers. The last line of my scribbled notes of that conversation reads “Build consistent rapport/process with client without alienating law firms”. Cast your eye back to my article London litigation support party coincides with eDisclosure Practice Direction launch of a few days ago and to the section which reads:
The traditional approach to managing litigation is that the client instructs the solicitors who instruct the technology provider. That is evolving into a model in which the client separately instructs their preferred technology provider and their lawyers, often in that order. At parties like this I hear enough to know that is moving from a prediction to reality. It is almost superfluous to say that my slides give as their third stage the model in which the lawyer has become merely a bit player in someone else’s show.
It is clearly preferable for companies like FTI to try and avoid alienating law firms as they market their services to the law firm’s clients; the ideal is to develop teams involving all three players. My description above of the changing relationship between them, however, reflects in part the increasing importance (and expense) of handling electronic data but also (sorry about this, lawyers) the fact that they increasingly appear the grit in the machine, their hourly rates a superfluous handling charge on top of the cost of managing electronic documents. The technology providers (and not just FTI) have made a better job than the lawyers have of aligning what they offer with what the clients need. Run your eye again over the quotation above from the Richard Susskind interview about the language of lawyers and the language of the market to which they’re supplying.
I don’t actually plan things like this you know. I said in opening that things “sit around like ingredients for an as yet unplanned recipe until a context appears”, and that is what has happened here – notes from a meeting in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, a new interview with Richard Susskind, something I picked up at a party recently, all fall together to make what is, I hope, a coherent argument to the effect that the relationship between clients, lawyers and technology providers is changing. That is not writerly artifice, although it helps to have a reasonable facility for holding multiple threads in your head and the leisure to assemble them. The fact is that this is the way the wind is blowing; it is not just a Susskind prediction becoming self-fulfilling nor just a successful outcome of one of FTI’s strategies, but an obvious development. Lawyers can ride it or be left behind.