SCL Meeting Report: Up Close and Personal

October 9, 2011

The night was designed to spark a debate into whether personalised technology was the future for law firms or whether it was posing a risk to the greater understanding of concepts and law. 

The event started with reference to the film Minority Report, in which the main character is walking through a shopping centre and gets bombarded by advertisements personalised via retina recognition. This in 2002, when the film was produced, was a revolutionary concept. However, with advertising companies at the forefront of personalisation and with the development of sophisticated technology, the Minority Report’s vision of future of advertising is becoming more and more likely to come true. 

Doug Marshall (PSL at The FA Group) kick started the personalisation debate off by explaining why he feels that personalisation is the future for the legal sector. Doug identified Pareto’s law outlining that only 20% effort would result in 80% output, meaning that streamlining or personalising the information coming in would not make a substantial difference to the lawyers ultimate understanding. 

Doug then went on to highlight the pressure on lawyers and the demand that information needed to be focused, quick and relevant. 

Lucy Dillon (Director of Knowledge Management, BLP) played devil’s advocate to highlight the risks of the personalised approach. The three main points by Lucy were firstly the ‘lack of serendipity’, highlighting that most people don’t actually know what they are looking for until they have found it. Reliance on technology like RSS takes away the opportunity to stumble across other relevant material that may not come from an RSS feed.  

Secondly, technology was identified as a potential issue as there is now a dependence on technical algorithms, which have become so advanced even programmers are starting to struggle to understand them. Lucy gave an example of a recent incident on Amazon’s web site where a book’s sale price was in excess of $23.6m, this occurred where two of Amazon’s price fixing algorithms starting competing against each other (click here to view an internet article from Discovery News – 26 Apr 2011). With such instances occurring, the question was whether we can really rely on the computer algorithms to produce the information we are after? 

Also search engines such as Google learn your searching behaviour, and then publish the results accordingly.  This could start to cause issues where two people use the same search terms and yet receive different results meaning there could be missed information. 

Thirdly, it was identified in the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr that the way in which we use the Internet is altering the way in which our mind/memory works/processes things. The book identifies that the Internet has allowed us to become expert scanners and multi-taskers but has dumbed down our ability to read and interpret text. 

In one experiment two people were given the same text but one of the texts was hyperlinked to the next part of the story. The person who was given the hyperlinked text struggled to focus and remember the whole story whereas the person that read the whole document found that they could remember and explain the meaning of the story. From this the question was raised: do we really need to understand/remember what we have read as it is all stored on the Internet for us to refresh our memories at a later date? 

A possible solution, taking account of the two points of view, is for information professionals to encourage and aid lawyers into a culture of ‘personal knowledge management’ so that people can collect, filter, file and use information from multiple sources. Although it was highlighted that personal knowledge management could put knowledge sharing at risk. 

Doug and Lucy then shared some of the methods used by some firms/individuals to deliver knowhow to their lawyers. Examples were given of a law firm publishing Twitter posts giving legal highlights that lawyers could subscribe to and then follow. One law firm was even producing 10-minute podcasts designed for lawyers offering analysis/commentary on recent court rulings.  Although these delivery methods were very innovative it was established that one size didn’t fit all, and that these distribution methods might not be feasible or work at every firm. 

The floor was then opened up for general discussion and comments.  

One comment questioned whether people can really be bothered with customisation? It was felt that sometimes customisation is just designed to meet the technology available and that the need for such technology wasn’t actually required by the lawyers. An example was given of a law firm having created the ability for lawyers to personalise their own dashboards on the intranet. After a significant time frame a review was conducted and the results were that a high proportion of users had not added any RSS feeds to their dashboard. 

It was also argued that intranets/web pages that allow customisation are often not required for general work purposes but are used to support working practices. Until there is a fundamental requirement for an intranet to do a job, e-mail will not be replaced. 

It was also mentioned that, with partner culture trending towards the use of iPads, maybe the evolution towards personalisation will come from Generation X rather than Generation Y, who are still more used to Blackberry devices. 

James Holyday is an Information Advisor at Linklaters LLP.