ILTA 2014: Big Law begins to ride the technology wave

This is one of a set of posts about the content and the discussion at ILTA 2014 in Nashville. Originally intended as a single post, the result was too long for that and I decided to split them up. See also ILTA 2014 – the context and the logistics.

It has been fashionable in recent years to predict the end of the very large firms colloquially and collectively known as BigLaw. Whilst I have accepted the premises of this – that resistance to change, and particularly technology change, would pose serious challenges to BigLaw which not all its members would meet – I have not joined the general prediction that the end is nigh for these firms. There are a lot of lazy assumptions behind the conclusion that these firms are all alike just because they have common clients, size and areas of expertise.

The subject is one which matters (or should matter) to those who offer eDiscovery software and services, because BigLaw has traditionally been their primary market – the “low hanging fruit” in that hackneyed phrase which is so beloved of sales people and which has blinded so many of them to the potential importance of smaller players.  Big firms, along with many of their clients, have seemed like “a large, knotty, sprawling ball of legal, logistical and organisational complexity that hindered both supplier and buyer.”

This splendid phrase comes from a really interesting article by Bill Henderson on the Legal Whiteboard site called Ahead of the Curve: Three Big Innovators in BigLaw. The article covers in some detail the application of technology to the practices of the three finalists for the ILTA Most Innovative Law Firm Award – Bryan Cave, Seyfarth Shaw and Littler Mendelson.

The article’s focus is on broader practice management issues and on the evidence of a deep cultural change within these firms for which technology is an enabler. Some of the points in the article are specific to disputes, although not necessarily to electronic discovery. It matters to eDiscovery providers, however, that Bryan Cave has specifically addressed its lawyers’ lack of interest in numbers and metrics – arithmophobia, they call it. To an industry which has been trying to sell statistical validation to arithmophobics, it is good news to learn of firms which have addressed this in a wider context.

The article considers the specific initiatives within each of these firms. The sentence which I liked in particular is one which reads:

Legal education ought to take notice: a law degree plus these technical skills and some personal initiative equals a JD-advantaged job with an extremely bright future.

You can play this into a theme which I have shouted about ever since I have been writing on eDiscovery. The conventional marketing and selling message has historically been one of fear – “buy our product or you will be sanctioned” is the nearest some vendors get to a positive message. This extremely good report of initiatives at three firms might help encourage a rather different approach, one which stresses benefits not just to the firm, and not just to the client (important as both of these are) but also to the individual. It also indicates a new climate in which education has more value than the mere acquisition of CLE points.

And here’s a point which will recur in this extended summary from ILTA 2014: accepting that most firms cannot make the leap with their existing staff, where will they find the people with the skills described in Bill Henderson’s article? Recruitment consultants with a catchment across wider business and technical sectors will be at a premium.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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