What Lawyers Need From Technology Right Now

Feb 15, 2021

Originally published in Legaltech News on February 12, 2021

I just zoomed through 3 days of Legalweek, one of the pre-eminent Legal Tech conferences in the country. The speakers were insightful. The sessions had depth. The topics were diverse. But for a major tech conference held during a pandemic, the most important questions about remote work were largely absent from the event.

What have we fundamentally lost in our shift to remote work? A lack of spontaneous interactions? Creating a cohesive firm culture? Difficulty integrating new associates? All true, as attorneys certainly lose out on opportunities enabled by proximity. The accelerated adoption and embracing of remote-work will continue even after the coronavirus pandemic finally ends. As a result, legal technology must meet the unique challenge of this moment, and answer the question – how can we harness technology to bring people together?

As the pandemic rages on, it’s become clear that tech enablement is only part of the equation.  Substitute plumbing only goes so far to facilitate a remote workforce, which needs new ways to connect and collaborate outside a physical office. As a result, this moment demands new, innovative ways to bring dispersed legal teams together, beyond the Zoom meeting.

The Case for Collaboration Tech  

In complex legal projects, value and quality are created by teams. When information flows freely and ideas build off one another, the work product improves. Processes that cultivate spontaneity turn good ideas into extraordinary ones. But without a physical office, these interactions need an alternative forum for real-time, organic exchanges. Emails are written in isolation and create endless siloed communications. Zoom meetings are an important communication tool, but are fundamentally one dimensional — static from a workflow perspective — and don’t advance attorneys toward the goal of optimized collaboration and output. 

As attorneys, we need workspaces that bring teams together and re-enable the spontaneous, collaborative moments missing from our current remote world.

We need digital workspaces. 

Utilizing new digital workspace technology rebuilds many of the benefits that were lost in the shift to remote work. Changing organizational norms from siloed email chains to open digital workspaces reduces friction in the exchange of information and ideas, and creates opportunities for more meaningful interactions and team cohesiveness. By utilizing this technology, we can create “water cooler” moments and derive collaborative benefits very much needed in the current environment.

Research shows that digital workspaces are a crucial element of distributed personnel, and enable organizations to create cultures that are team-oriented, rather than siloed. In her research, Michelle DeStefano, Professor of Law and Founder & Director of LawWithoutWalls, found that legal teams that connect in virtual “rooms” — both at pre-established times and at the spur of the moment — solidify as teams and are more efficient and effective. Her research found this is especially true for millennial attorneys, who are 71-percent more likely than their non-tech native peers to seize the opportunities that virtual, collaborative work presents.

With digital workspaces we enable fluid and complex interactions that can recreate the style and spirit of personal conversations. There’s an education component, as senior team members model efficient thought processes in full view of younger attorneys. There’s a personal satisfaction component by checking-off tasks and visualizing progress. There’s a reduction in rote tasks like circulating checklists and corralling stakeholders via email. By creating universal views of responsibilities and progress, team members are able to feel and see momentum as it gathers towards a culminating trial or completed transaction.

The result? Better work product and increased personal satisfaction. These are the most important priorities of legal technology today.

Ironically, many of these processes weren’t happening even before the pandemic in our firms’ physical offices. As our world became increasingly digitized, attorneys were essentially using their high-end offices as quasi-remote workspaces already. We now have an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of tech adoption and build systems to promote collaboration that increases team cohesion and satisfaction in our work.

Attorneys have long-needed spaces that fundamentally address the nature of modern workflow complexities — and the sheer volume of paper and files — that have been mounting for years. A byproduct of the digital era is there’s exponentially more of everything. Which presents the second pillar of what lawyers need from technology today. An answer to the question…

“Where’s my stuff?”

Lawyers spend their days understanding and analyzing fact patterns, researching the law, reviewing documents, conducting due diligence, conferring with clients and colleagues, negotiating, and writing and editing. Where are those tasks — the actual unique, strategic services law firms are being paid to deliver — being managed?

Think about it for a moment…

I bet you know the answer.

It’s your inbox.

Attorneys have long been addicted to email. In their minds, putting work anyplace else would add complexity instead of reducing it. Yet in this moment, new technology has presented an opportunity to simplify our workflows and manage increased complexity through the use of digital workspace technology.

Digital workspaces in some version or another have taken hold in the sales industry over the past decade. Salesforce, Basecamp, Atlassian and others found innovative methods to, in its broadest terms, organize teams and automate rote tasks. On a conceptual level, what these products do should sound familiar: they record what professionals do, then serve up that information in helpful ways, when they need it. Don’t we, as attorneys, need our technology to do the same thing? The benefits are obvious, yet these priorities are largely absent in the current state of legal technology.

The Irony…

of the term Legal Tech is that, up to now, its solutions have been applied to every aspect of law firms except for 99% of what lawyers actually do every day. Its focus has been on: (1) operations, the business-end of running a law firm, like client intake, billing, and document management, and (2) AI solutions like eDiscovery and contract AI, which help attorneys more efficiently analyze enormous amounts of data. These are important tasks. But their tech applications are not built to improve how we record and recall the daily complexities needed to do our jobs.

Why did almost every industry but ours migrate to a place where tech actually enhances the key professional’s daily work? Lawyers need intuitive systems that record all relevant conversations and information, from across all sources, and can serve them up with ease at any point in the process. The legal industry’s obsession with eDiscovery and contract AI fails to recognize the broader opportunities of the current technological revolution. We continue to chop down these trees without asking if we’re even in the right forest.

It worked in sales because their workforce is generally younger. They saw better ways to do their job and just started doing it.

In legal, it doesn’t work that way. But it can.

A New Way To Work

Ultimately, this shift is not just about freeing up attorneys’ time for higher value work. The goal is not to automate to go faster. The priority of these new collaboration solutions is to improve the quality of the legal work itself. Law firms ultimately create value by generating a better legal product for their clients, and a more satisfying experience for their attorneys. With a more automated and complex future ahead of us, the case for prioritizing these goals is clear and compelling.

New generational preferences and a pivot to remote work have created a critical need for greater sophistication — and intuitive simplicity — in how attorneys process and share information.

The most important legal technology of this decade will thus facilitate meaningful interactions that can be used to not just plan work collaboratively, but to actually do legal work collaboratively. Through the adoption of collaborative legal tech, law firms will have the power to advance how lawyers work in a manner as impactful as the change, decades ago, from hand-delivered mail to email. Collaborative technology will prompt new efficiencies, spontaneous idea-sharing, rich and rewarding teamwork, heightened personal satisfaction, and delivery of higher quality work product for clients.

Old-school partners who are regularly delivered everything they need so it’s top-of-inbox can keep working that way. For attorneys and law firms that want a better way, there’s opportunity in the coming years to lead.

About the Author

Mat Rotenberg
Founder and CEO @ Dashboard Legal
Licensed Attorney

Mat spent 7 years in NYC biglaw before launching Dashboard Legal. He is passionate about harnessing technology to make lawyers’ lives easier and their interactions more rewarding. Connecting with new people is the best part about this journey (aside from no longer tracking life in 6-minute increments). Feel free to reach out! Mat@dashboardlegal.com