Executive Roundtable: Disruption Collides with the Legal Ecosystem

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NEW YORK — Big Data, AI, cybersecurity, #MeToo and many other seismic shifts have put tremendous stress on the legal community. Today’s in-house legal and compliance professionals are contending with faster and furious challenges that are really stretching resources, while simultaneously being asked to do more with less.

I was honored to facilitate a closed-door conversation on this topic on February 27 at the Harvard Club. We gathered senior in-house and law firm counsel, together with legal technologists and industry experts, for a frank and productive discussion about the many challenges as well as pragmatic solutions. This roll-up-your sleeves 2+ hours discussion tackled a variety of questions, including:

  •        How to educate, hire and retain lawyers and compliance professionals that can handle modern-day practice and business issues;
  •        How the definition and parameters of the “legal” community has evolved, and what practitioners need to do to keep up with these changes, including leveraging Big Data and analytical tools;
  •        How in-house groups are leveraging LegalTech, AI and alternative legal service providers to balance people, process, and technology in order to streamline work and reduce costs;
  •        How different generations in the workplace, e.g., Baby Boomers, Millennials, etc., impact how lawyers work, including around issues of social media, whistleblowers, and aggressive regulators; and
  •        How in-house executives can get a more prominent role “at the table” to be more impactful and better position themselves for budget investment and more positive attention within their organizations.

The Challenge of Big Data

Weaving thematically through all these concerns was Big Data, which touches on every aspect of the modern legal practice and is changing the way we can assess, measure and demonstrate the performance of our legal teams. Big Data is also being used by law firms and corporate law departments to improve efficiency, refine processes and greatly enhance effectiveness.

While fully leveraging data and analytics is still a ways off for everyone at the table, many of the participants are using these tools in aspects of their practices.  In fact, much of what is being done by corporate law departments and GCs involves an inward analysis and a data-driven desire to work more efficiently and effectively.

One legal technologist in attendance summed it up nicely by saying: “Data is an asset — it’s crucial that legal teams look at it as such and think about how it should best be used.”

Another roundtable attendee, a GC at a large financial firm, discussed how her department is now using metrics to better demonstrate its value to the company. “We could see that like every other department in the company, the legal department was expected to toe the line on expenses and cost,” she said. “So, it became vital for us to show our value in a way that the company’s financial team could understand.”

Lawyers & Social Media

Another key concern voiced by this very senior group was how their lawyers — especially their younger, Millennial-aged lawyers — were using social media and whether that practice could cause legal problems for the law firm or the company.

“With email, we’ve learned that the ‘e’ stands for evidence,” said the legal technologist, noting how many times emails — sent with the mistaken assumption of privacy and privilege within the company — were used as evidence in lawsuits against the company. “But now, with texting and social media posting, it’s much harder to control that outflow.” The solution, he explained, involves collaboration among seasoned in-house counsel and outside counsel to teach younger lawyers about the risks involved with off-the-cuff electronic communication. “If they’re not comfortable seeing it on the front page of The New York Times or the Huffington Post they should think about whether they should write and send it.”

The Collision Between Law, Culture and Ethics

            The conversation naturally flowed into a broader conversation of ethics, business culture, compliance and risk management. The intersection of law and compliance is a prominent theme in all of our roundtables, especially as compliance roles have surpassed those of lawyers in many regulated industries.

Big Data plays a significant role here, too. As one attendee, a specialist in corporate and legal ethics, explained, there are assessment tools that can help legal teams understand the role of ethical culture and the importance of compliance within their organization. Which, of course, begs one of the key questions that attendees were told they should be asking: What impact does Big Data play in our organization’s culture?

“Will people be open if they know their responses are being collected? Will people shy away from documenting issues that should be documented, if that documentation will be collected and analyzed?” she asked. “These are the type of questions that will continue to shape compliance and ethical culture within organizations.”

Making Incremental, But Positive Changes

A key theme at the table was that you have to do something.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the legal ecosystem fully transform itself.  Risk averse lawyers often want to thoroughly evaluate all potential outcomes before moving forward – I often call this behavior lawyer “beard pulling”.  That’s no longer feasible in today’s fast and furious environment.  Many participants offered up suggestions on how you can make change, even in small bites, today.  For example, law firm lawyers spending time – without charging – with their clients to better understand their business – a “Day in the Life” exercise – would help improve the relationship and reduce tension.  Another example is for lawyers to better understand the needs of technologists, finance and other functions so that those relationships can be more efficient and better focused.

We exchanged a number of suggested tips, techniques and “better practices”, and everyone underscored the need to do something now.  The status quo isn’t working and the legal ecosystem needs to better track business counterparts and wider society.  Small changes can produce breakthroughs if sustained.  We need to make these changes, even simple or small ones, to bring back balance and resiliency to the legal ecosystem, attendees agreed. At this moment in the history of the legal profession, the stakes could not be higher.

Open and Frank Conversation is Critical

We have held almost a dozen of these senior level roundtables in the last year and a half in New York, London, Seattle, Boston and Chicago.  It’s clear that lawyers need to have an off-the-record forum to air their views, share ideas, learn from technology and process experts and overall to discuss the challenges and stresses of their jobs.  The conversations are facilitated but not steered and the group gathers its own energy and momentum.  A rare opportunity for busy, harried professionals to relax among peers and probe issues more deeply than you can in the typical day-to-day.

For additional insights, please see our white paper Managing the Pace and Mitigating the Pain of Regulatory Change and Financial Services Compliance