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Fin (Legal) Tech: A Recap & Evidence This Ride is Speeding Up

As someone who has spent my career on the business side of law, I often reflect on my experience as similar to a being on a roller coaster ride. Some days, you're at the top of the hill, arms in the air, and exhilarated as you see modern techniques & tools updating a traditional  practice in real time. Other days, you're stuck at the bottom, with a steep uphill climb in front of you, challenged by chronic resistance to change and a business model that doesn’t support innovation.

Fin (Legal) Tech, hosted by Dan Katz and the Chicago-Kent School of Law, felt like an entire day at the top of the roller coaster, but more importantly, gave the audience hope that this ride is about to start moving faster. Consistently.

We heard from David Cambria that, while many lawyers are too busy chopping wood to sharpen their axes, increasing regulatory activity and complexity will soon require us all to find more efficient ways to work. He also suggests that those of us interested in solving the problems confronting the practice of law or legal service delivery would be well-served to crowd source ideas for solutions to those problems.

We heard a lot about the growing legal operations profession - that at its core, legal operations is the practice of “distilling processes down to their simplest form.” We heard from Vince Cordo about Shell’s Future Legal initiative, aimed at achieving operational excellence within the legal department in order to better serve the business. He highlighted the role of his Legal Services Global Operations Team, which has helped bring Shell’s primary list of outside counsel firms down to six, develop quarterly business reports to showcase efficiencies and savings gained on their “executive dashboard,” and provide AFA evaluations to their firms after each matter.

We heard from in-house lawyers like Wendy Rubas and Lucy Bassli about how corporate legal departments are utilizing data to make informed decisions, and the challenges this presents. Ms. Rubas (affectionately self-dubbed the “Oprah of Legal Tech”) said the effort, for her, started with the desire to have a good old-fashioned report card to understand how she and her team were doing - her use of data got more sophisticated from there. She warned that it takes a long time to come up with meaningful metrics for the business, and that even once you have uncovered insights about risk and have a story to tell, your audience might not be ready to hear it. Bottom line, she says, is that we should proactively be paying attention to legal risk “whispers” so we don’t end up in an earthquake - which starts with gathering data.

Law firms were highlighted from several different angles - we heard from Mr. Cordo that, generally, law firms are lacking creativity and don’t seem willing to try new things and fail quickly. On the other end of that spectrum, we heard from Eric Falkenberry, a partner at DLA Piper, about litigation financing - a new(ish) field, which allows investors to buy the rights to certain legal risk, and how his firm is using similar principles for modeling and guiding clients through litigation decisionmaking. Stephanie Corey of UpLevel Ops shared observations about what proactive law firms are doing to hold onto market share today (and tomorrow): eliminating the billable hour, engaging in two-way evaluations (getting and giving feedback), implementing Lean programs, appointing business professionals to leadership positions, partnering with alternative service providers, and learning project management.

After all this big business talk, it was refreshing to hear about how legal technology, data analytics, and risk evaluation are being put to use in the social justice arena. We heard from Kristen Sonday about the pro bono software platform her organization, Paladin, has launched to match legal needs around the globe with the skills of lawyers who want to give back. Javad Khazaeli, Founder of Road to Status, walked us through the work his organization is doing to help immigrants navigate the complicated immigration process, and leverage technology to quickly process DACA renewals.

And, as though the conference really were a roller coaster ride, the organizers saved the greatest thrills for last: we heard from technologist and professor Wulf Kaal about how blockchain, smart contracts, and cryptocurrency are going to completely transform the way we do business, and enter into agreements of all valuations, changing the role that lawyers will ultimately play down the line. Mr. Kaal made clear that these innovations are not developments coming in the future, but are already very much a part of the economy today. While hearing all of this was invigorating, and had the audience mouthing to one another “mind blown,” Maura Grossman, a clinical psychologist-turned-attorney, was there to bring us all back to reality and remind us about the studies showing that lawyers tend to have “algorithm aversion,” which will make the adoption of machine learning in the practice of law difficult.

Applause to Dan Katz and the Chicago-Kent Law School for bringing together the thoughts and ideas of those on the cutting edge of our evolving legal services economy. Things are not slowing down - cheers to those who refuse to sit or keep their hands inside the ride.

Kate White