SCL Meeting Report: Effective Ways of Using New Technology in Delivering Legal Services

September 19, 2012

The speakers at the meeting of the SCL Knowledge Management Group on ‘Effective ways of using new technology in delivering legal services’ were:

·        Duncan Ogilvy, Consultant, Mills & Reeve

·        Andrew Dey, Director, Technology Strategy, Group Centre Legal, Barclays Bank PLC

·        Melanie Farquharson, Consultant, 3Kites Consulting.

Duncan Ogilvy explained that the genesis of the session was the increasingly apparent conundrum: how is it that we hear of so many developments in technology and we use technology so much in our lives and yet the regular practice of law is still very traditional, with little take up of technical advances? In that context, the topics for the meeting were:

·        technology platforms for working collaboratively with clients

·        document assembly/automated precedents and expert systems

·        can software replace human knowledge?

·        why are new ways of working not more widespread?

At several points during the session the speakers asked members of the audience to indicate their own organisations’ experiences of using technology. Whilst the size of the audience was not sufficient to enable conclusions to be drawn about the legal sector as a whole, nevertheless some of the answers were interesting. Duncan had trailed this session in the SCL newsletter inviting comments from members. Feedback was received from Charles Drayson, Alex Hamilton and representatives of LexisNexis, all of whom contributed from the floor.

Technology platforms for working collaboratively with clients

Andrew Dey started with a look at deal rooms and data rooms, acknowledging that these were quite ‘old technology’ now but are the platforms on which he most often sees clients and lawyers working together. That said, their efficacy is more likely on large projects with numerous parties or advisers; on smaller matters a drift back to simply using e-mail is all too common. Deal room usage is hindered by there being no common platform, so multiple logins have to be remembered and multiple user interfaces encountered.

His own views were that we are starting to move on from using the traditional pure ‘deal rooms’ to using this type of technology for greater collaboration and social networking -using blogs and wikis for example. Andrew described a Barclays Legal site created to support collaboration for some 200 conference delegates, noting that while initial enthusiasm was high, after six weeks only 28% of delegates had contributed to the site. Initially despondent, Andrew soon found that such usage is impressive given the ‘collaborative norm’ of 90/9/1 where 90% of users are spectators or lurk in the background, 9% contribute a little and only 1% are active contributors. This is also apparent on sites such as Wikipedia where, whilst millions of people are users of the technology, only a very limited number contribute.

Heartened by Barclays internal collaboration, Andrew then asked whether online collaboration between law firm and client on document drafting really works? While increasingly available, Andrew has seen attempts in the legal industry to use real time editing tools such as those in SharePoint 2010 falter on the law firm side for reasons such as the drafting needing to be approved by a senior lawyer before being available to the client, and caution in exposing the client to how long – or not – it really takes to draft a document.

What about in other industries? Andrew cited an uptake in direct transfers of data between some large clients and their law firms (not necessarily in the banking industry), where, for example, large volumes of case management information can be shared to facilitate and perhaps replace manual data processing. Again however, such data transfer is made harder by the lack of common standards and common platforms on which it can be conducted.

The audience was asked whether their firms used deal rooms. Over half the audience replied ‘very occasionally’ with a significant number saying ‘most of the time’. None of the respondents said that, based on their experience, the use of deal rooms replaced the use of e-mail in the context of a project either always or most of the time. Over three quarters said deal rooms very occasionally were able to replace e-mail, the remaining quarter saying ‘not at all’. However, a considerable majority of those with personal experience of using deal rooms did indicate that this made projects more efficient most of the time.

When asked whether their firms used online drafting with their clients over 90% said they did not do so at all, with a few saying they did so very occasionally. Although the audience envisaged that this might be different in three years’ time, it was still not felt that online drafting would be used most of the time.

Some of those present said that their firms were producing automated feeds of data directly into their clients’ systems, although in many cases these feeds were only of billing data. More than half of those present thought that in three years’ time they would ‘frequently’ be feeding data into clients’ systems.

Document assembly/automated precedents and expert systems

Melanie Farquharson explained what she meant by document assembly and expert systems:

·        document assembly applies logic to a standard template to create an output of a tailored document

·        expert systems similarly apply logic but the output is a piece of advice or an answer to a specific question.

Melanie noted that in law firms document assembly is generally used more than expert systems; there is also a distinction between resources of either type developed for internal use only and those which are intended for direct client use.

On document assembly, Andrew referred to the benefits of quicker and more consistent document drafting but also to the long time it can take to create the automated form in the first place. Are lawyers seeking to automate too much and trying to create the perfect draft?

On expert systems, Melanie noted the progression from providing an easily understood summary of the law, advancing then to an explicit decision tree and then onto a logic-based expert system where the logic is ‘hidden’ from the user. Melanie gave the online self-assessment tax return as an example of the latter and also referred to some law firm client-facing tools in the area of financial products; both provide an online ‘answer’ to questions which otherwise a human would calculate or explain.

Melanie noted that there were a lot of academic projects for expert systems but very few evident to date in the legal profession. Suggested reasons for this are that expert systems cannot exercise the judgment which is so often needed in legal advice (for example, what is ‘reasonable’) and such systems generally cover only a tightly defined area of law, whereas in life extraneous factors may be relevant and human input may be needed to identify these.

Melanie had found that in current practice expert systems were most effective in areas where users are willing to take a risk. This applies at both ends of the spectrum: in financial products systems, for example, users are in-house counsel who will make a cost-benefit decision to use the systems; at the consumer end, systems can support users who might otherwise not seek legal guidance at all.

A question from the floor as to whether the capabilities of expert systems have improved in recent years brought some interesting comments. It was suggested that the technical functions have not improved but computing speed has, perhaps bringing an impression of ‘improvement’. Melanie explained that tools have recently become available which claim to facilitate the creation of expert systems, so this is an advance in itself.

Just over half of the audience said that their organisations were using document automation in only one or in none of their practice areas, with a further 40% saying they were using it in two to four practice areas. However, 25% said that five or more clients were being given access to their document automation systems. Most thought that in three years’ time they would be using document automation ‘frequently’.

85% of the audience believed there was potential for the use of expert systems in one or more practice areas in their firms and almost as many took the view that in three years their organisations would be using expert systems a little more. However, few said that by that stage they would be using expert systems frequently.

Can software replace human knowledge?

Melanie described some tools in use which demonstrate steps to where computers are doing the ‘thinking’ rather than simply doing what we have directed them to do. In search technologies, especially in the litigation discovery space, systems can trawl vast amounts of data to identify themes and issues. Likewise, some client relationship management systems can record not only who knows whom but can analyse e-mail threads to identify relationships.

When asked how long it would be before technology will be able to replace the need for human legal analysis in some areas of law, most of the audience predicted ‘five to nine’ or ‘more than ten’ years, with a small minority answering ‘never’.

The Lawyer Challenge

Duncan Ogilvy led the discussion on the final topic, noting that -for all the technical opportunities apparently available and with a few notable exceptions – a lot of firms are still not exploiting technology to its full potential. The meeting broke out for a few minutes to discuss why this might be. Suggested impediments to embracing technology, and Duncan’s suggested strategies to overcome these, are:


Strategy to overcome

Getting sign off for the spend

  • ROI business case with realistic project plan
  • Imaginative pricing deals

Too complex


  • Aim lower – good first draft of a document for instance
  • Accept that some work is best left to human lawyers!

Securing client engagement and commitment

  • Talk to the clients and incentivise their participation

New skills required 

  • Clarity as to what’s required.
  • Reward those skills.
  • Be flexible about roles

Many of those in the audience felt that the need for new skills was the biggest impediment, with a large number also believing that complexity (especially the need to keep systems up to date) and the need for financial investment were significant inhibitors. Lawyers’ natural tendency to focus on what can go wrong was also a problem. Others felt that there was a degree of ignorance amongst lawyers and law firms about what was possible. It was hoped that the session might in a small way help to get firms thinking about the possibilities.

Thanks go to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for hosting the event, to the speakers for their presentations and to the delegates for their contribution and participation.

Claire Andrews is Knowledge Management Director – Europe and Asia at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.