Wednesday Keynote


My Thoughts on ILTACON and the Quickening Decade Keynote

by Michelle Spencer, Product Marketing Manager, NetDocuments

Seemingly Opposing Themes

ILTA asked me to summarize the ILTACON Wednesday, “Quickening Decade,” Keynote put together by our NetDocuments executive team from the viewpoint of an ILTAN, technologist, ILTACON attendee, and serial live-tweeter, not as a NetDocuments employee. As I listened, I noticed several themes emerging in the sessions and group chats that I attended during ILTACON.

Dan Hauck, NetDocuments Chief Product Officer, mentioned the Hybrid Paradox - positive and negative feelings around remote work. I have noticed an even higher-level paradox in the themes that emerged during the week of ILTACON. The content was balanced between Digital Acceleration and Our Humanity. As a long-time legal technologist and ILTA member, I have never heard as much talk about the people’s side of providing legal services, and I am shook – in a good way. ILTACON is a legal industry technology conference, after all. Below are the themes I have observed this week.

Digital Acceleration Our Humanity
Cloud Resiliency Uncertainty re: RTW
Law Firm Innovation Hybrid Paradox of Remote Work
New and Different Toolsets Stress, Exhaustion & Mental Health
Continued Globalization Employee Retention

Our Humanity

I have worked in law firms and legal technology companies since I was 17, and that is many decades. For my colleagues in legal IT and attorney friends, I am so happy to hear the complete 180-degree shift in the conversations about people and their humanity. People are often seen as expendable commodities in law firms.

Dan showed statistics indicating that people want flexible remote work options, but they also want more in-person collaboration. Some people love working from home, and some still cling to the hope of going back to the office and see working remotely as a threat to the legal profession. This is the Hybrid Paradox. As Dan said, “What are the things that each of us can be doing to manage this dichotomy of stress and opportunity?”

From what has been discussed and what we’ve all observed over the last year and a half, the genie is way out of the bottle. It is universally accepted that productivity numbers are good when people work from home and most enjoy the added flexibility and time added back to their days without lengthy commutes.

To be honest, as a former paralegal and legal secretary, I always thought it was ridiculous that those groups were not trusted enough to be granted remote access. I can’t tell you how many calls I had to field from attorneys on nights and weekends. Slowly walking them through how to do something versus being able to hop online and get it done quickly was a huge productivity killer for them and a constant reminder of how the firm viewed staff, neither of which was good for morale. Therefore many of your staff didn’t have the tools or skills they needed when COVID hit. Law firms handicapped staff’s knowledge of what was needed and how to work remotely. This was a huge burden for IT training and support staff last spring, as well as the infrastructure and hardware teams, and they rose to the challenge, most exceeding the expectations of their firms. It’s a relief to see that the discussions are much more practical and human-focused now because it never had to be this way.

"I think it's important that we not lose the great lessons that have come from the last 15-18 months that have made us better not only from a business perspective but have made us better from a human perspective."

- Josh Baxter, Chief Executive Officer, NetDocuments

Digital Acceleration

The success of their responses to the almost overnight transition to remote work has brought IT teams a lot of added goodwill and capital within their firms, which gets at my second observed theme of Digital Acceleration. In ILTACON Wednesday’s keynote, Justin Hectus, Chief Information Officer, Keesal, Young & Logan, called it “the golden moment for digital transformation.”

It became obvious very quickly that firms and companies that had previously made moves to the cloud had a much easier time of things as COVID hit and their physical offices began closing. The experiences early on were vastly different, depending on the organization’s technology stack. As Dan said, "Companies in the cloud before COVID could pivot faster, better, and safer than their counterpoints." This gets at part of the increased legal innovation conversations that were in the keynote and have been common this week, but there has also been another shift within law firms.

In the last few years, innovation has become cool, if not a bit of a buzzword, in the legal industry. Forward-thinking firms have fully embraced innovation and Big Law has established entire Innovation teams with C-Suite leadership like the folks that spoke during the keynote. Technology initiatives used to have to pass the “Has a client requested that?” and “What are other firms doing?” tests first. Now, with two people in the C-Suite focused on innovation and technology and organizations seeing the value of technological innovation to provide competitive advantages and greater value to clients, these conversations are no longer the first ones.

As Matthew Coatney, Chief Information Officer of Thompson Hine LLP, said during the keynote, "Digital transformation has been a slow, steady drumbeat." We kept waiting for an event. We thought the financial downturn of 2008 was it, but that just caused firms to tighten their belts and lockdown spending on innovation and technology even tighter in the aftermath. The pandemic has ripped off the belt and snapped open all those locks on spending. As Matt further explained, the nice to have has now become the must-have. Michele Gossmeyer, Global Director, Information Governance, Risk & Compliance at Dentons, confirmed in chat, “COVID expedited our vision of 2030 to 2021.” Truer words were never spoken.

"There are things that we have been talking about as an industry for the past decade that we have seen some fits and starts. It's things like project management, resource management, assigning work; the nuts and bolts of accomplishing a task whether it be an IT project or a matter."

- Matthew Coatney, Chief Information Officer, Thompson Hine LLP

Business Relationship Shifts

Justin explained the changing relationship between lawyers and clients, "I believe we've entered into a phase where Legal is seen as a partner that cannot just keep you out of trouble but can find ways to integrate those compliance and legal-focused activities into the business activities so that you're actually streamlining the work that the company does while building those controls into the process." As Gina Buser, Chief Executive Officer of Traveling Coaches, added in chat, “Your objective is to reduce the ‘nos.’ Desiree made the same point in yesterday’s keynote.” The message keeps repeating. When you take legal expertise and use it across siloes, you can make a difference in the company.

"If you think about it, all critical business activities either start in legal, they flow through legal, or they end up in legal."

Looking Toward the Future

What has been made abundantly clear to everyone, technologists, lawyers, and other legal professionals alike is that the same approaches and tools will not be effective going forward. For example, Justin said that the people who miss post-its on the wall and whiteboards should try using Mural. As he put it, we have to “cross-train our collaboration muscles in new ways,” and that means looking at whole new ways of doing things from top to bottom. As you can imagine, the innovation folks that were part of the keynote had a lot to say about that.

Dan observed two of the participants having a debate about a New York Times article that discussed whether you need to be in the same physical space to create those spontaneous interactions that allow for innovation and collaboration. As David Wang, Chief Innovation Officer at Wilson Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, explained, we agreed that there have been fewer ideas but debated whether that was because there was less ideation. Some of the causes for fewer ideas being shared posited were the global pandemic stress, WFH newness, and the boom in the tech space where everyone is even busier than ever. Ali Shahidi, Chief Innovation & Client Solutions Officer of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP, explained that while the number of ideas has gone down, the quality and way they’re flushed out has improved. The requirements are now very specific and presented end-to-end at the outset.

This requires innovation teams to be on their toes with not only what the market is doing and what technology is available but also handling the human element. It is critical that they understand how attorneys work and the nuances of that. Ali explained that they must create process maps for how the lawyers think, how they create the work product, and how they deliver it and then deliver potential solutions to remove that one single pain point for the lawyer or their client.

"Ideas are cheap, right? A lot of people have ideas - very easy to have ideas. Execution is hard, especially when you are executing when you are also carrying a full boat workload as a Big Law associate or paralegal or partner."

- David Wang, Chief Innovation Officer at Wilson Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati

It’s all about execution

I’ve been involved in numerous projects within Big Law that required me and my teams to map extensive workflows and processes to understand and improve them. I agree with David that this is the biggest reason more innovation doesn’t happen. Execution is the hard part that no one either wants to or has time to sit down to do. Furthermore, it’s a skill that not all subject matter experts have, which gets to another point that David mentioned – the decision to build, partner, or buy a solution. Working with subject matter experts can be like pulling teeth. If you don’t have a keen eye, curious nature, and understanding of their work, you’re not going to be able to identify the steps they will inevitably leave out. Of course, it’s great if a company like NetDocuments can deliver the innovation that lawyers need already packaged and ready to go, and we’re certainly trying to meet the needs of our law firm and corporate customers, but those needs are diverse, so we all must pick and choose where to focus our efforts.

"Start small. Start anywhere, and don't worry about where so much as just getting it going."

- Katherine Lowry, Director of Practice Services at Baker & Hostetler LLP

Sometimes there are niche projects that net big wins like helping the firm’s digital assets and data management team with cookie compliance audits which Katherine Lowry, Director of Practice Services at Baker & Hostetler LLP, detailed. She was quick to explain that they didn’t start there. That was an offshoot of a much simpler, behind-the-scenes project. They just realized they could use the same tools from the smaller project in a different way when they dug deeper into the firm’s processes. As Ali explained, “If you give them a quick win, they will come knocking on your door.” Find those quick wins.

Several of the innovation panelists mentioned not being afraid to fail and being willing to scrap ideas or iterate as mission-critical for innovation teams. It seems that we may have finally gotten away from the age-old law firm curse of having to provide the 100% perfect solution at the outset that used to drive technologists crazy. At least some working within the legal industry have become okay with creating something and then iterating to get to the ideal solution. Progress may seem slow, but it’s moving at a much quicker clip due to the monumental mindset shifts because of the last couple of years.

Innovation is a Team Sport

Don’t be afraid to get out there and build relationships with your lawyers to generate opportunities to partner in fostering innovation within your firm or organization, because it starts with single conversations. One session I attended yesterday discussed a firm-wide initiative to identify problems. They then formed cross-functional teams to work on some chosen problems. It wasn’t attorneys versus IT versus management because everyone on the teams was working together to develop solutions. Brilliant!

Ali mentioned three keys to the innovation team approach:

  • Ideas can’t be created in a silo.
  • You will need clients, lawyers, and tech team members fully participating.
  • Involve as many people as you can that are stakeholders, but definitely all those who will benefit from the solutions.

People + Technology + Innovation

We started out talking about humanity and that is where many discussions have ended for now, but it doesn’t have to stop your innovation. We’re all still in a state of flux with things continuing to change.

Certainty is no longer as much of a guarantee as it once seemed. We continue to experience higher levels of stress as the pandemic continues to affect many aspects of our lives. As Dan said so perfectly, "While this sort of Tesla-like acceleration is exhilarating, it's also exhausting."

As the debates about the return to work and how to do so safely and efficiently rise in your firms and companies, don’t forget the discussions you have had this week. Take them back to your firms and help them to remember the human element in all of this, but stay positive, because if we work together, it is 100% guaranteed that we will all rise further and faster together than if we continue to work in siloes without cohesion.

Remember this important reminder that someone posted in chat:

"Productivity is about purpose and process, not place. It's driven by why and how we work—not where we work." ~unknown

Be safe as you return home, be kind to one another, and I hope to see all of you in person at ILTACON next year to discuss what innovations we have achieved!