GCRC Interview: Charles Christian from Legal IT Insider – Whole Interview

Our latest interview on GC Research Club is with Charles Christian, the editor and founder of Legal IT Insider (www.legaltechnology.com). Charles has been writing about legal technologies for over 30 years and has become one of the leading voices in the area. He has spoken and taught on legal and IT as well as running this most informative of newsletters. The Legal IT Insider website attracts an average of 44,000 readers a month around the world while the newsletter, on various formats, attracts 26,000. It has become one of the most respected resources for anyone interested in legal technology and the recent LawTech Futures conference boasted many high-profile speakers including Google’s Ray Kurzweil. Next year’s rendition of the event has confirmed Tim Berners-Lee as the keynote speaker.

As one of the leading voices in legal technology, how much interest is there from the legal profession towards technology?

I don’t think there’s as much as there should be. I think the issue is, and continues to be, that technology is seen by most law firms as a back-of-office issue and as a result they tend to look at how to reduce or minimize their IT budgets. They don’t really grasp the strategic value in the delivery services but if or when they do, this could be the way law firms transform.

It tends to be the partners who don’t engage in IT as they’ll instead go to their IT director who then has to engage in a partnership to get the buy-ins. There are exceptions but most of them are anti-IT.

Is it law firms in particular or are in-house lawyers culpable too? Is it a more general aspect of the profession?

It’s more the case with law firms. In-house lawyers are slightly different because they are often left to do their own thing. Typically the IT department of a corporation are dealing with the core business and the requirements of the in-house legal team are a bit at a tangent to the rest of the business. Consequently that makes it a bit of an uphill battle in getting the IT resources needed for the legal team. Its only a handful of organisations that has a legal team with somebody who has a specific IT responsibility for supporting their activities. The one that comes to mind is Andrew Day at Barclays in the UK.

Will this change? It is often written that IT and legal have to work together more on issues like cybersecurity and risk in certain technologies…

Yes, you’re starting to see more GCs, particularly in continental Europe, taking an interest in eDiscovery software because they’re realising that it makes a lot of commercial sense to do things that way because running a system is much cheaper than either outsourcing it to law firms or the big consultancies. There is interest on that level at least.

There are obvious tools they require, particularly in document production, so that they can collaborate with their external legal advisors on documents visibly crafted. There is that element of it too.

But I’d say its still quite slow in happening. Typically most in-house legal teams are under-resourced on IT. They are pushing law firms to make sure their systems can deliver the information they want such as supporting collaborative working. Or they’ve got various types of portals supplying them with information of how their matters are progressing.

Interesting that you’re talking about resources as the main reason for slowness in adoption. We often hear about scepticism/risk aversion as being a reason for this slowness…

I don’t think its so much risk-aversion as the fact that most in-house lawyers will have worked in law firms at some stage and they would have picked up this slightly anti-technology vibe. Others are coming along with different approaches and I’m certainly hearing that in the US the newer recruits to in-house teams are bringing new ideas because they’ve already been using collaborative working and so on. They’ve got a slightly more proactive approach which I think will filter its way up the generations.

The other thing is that in-house legal teams have, as with all corporate departments, budgets and they’ve got restraints on how much they can spend, particularly when law firms continue to overrun on their costs.

Considering how in-house lawyers have managed external counsel in the past, due to the demands of the client now, are in-house lawyer having to now use bill tracking technologies far more than they used to?

I think they certainly will have to. What you’re seeing with some areas and some corporations is that they are pushing external counsel a lot more and are insisting that there’s a lot more transparency. They need to know where they are and have a clear idea where the costs are. It’s quite acceptable that if the bills are running up to such a level, it might be simpler to settle a matter then to keep fighting it and running up ever increasing legal bills.

They do want these technologies, but it does seem to really come down to the individuals involved. If you’ve got a tough GC who will push the law firm, you will get that; if you’ve got a GC who doesn’t really feel they can push their external advisors then they won’t. Certainly the more aggressive GCs will say that law firms won’t push for this technologies, but we will demand them to and eventually we will get them to, and it works. But its an uphill battle.

The recession is continuing, in-house legal teams are under pressure on their expenses and their costs and they are starting to be more aggressive in their commands in general.

Yet the law firms are not willing to do the same…

Lawyers are not so willing because typically the lawyers you’re dealing with do not understand the technologies involved and will just default to doing it the way they’ve always done it. It does come down to the GCs, who’ve got to push for it, they can’t just expect it to happen. Some law firms – independent law firms – are trying to differentiate themselves by being more proactive with technology support but most aren’t. It’s really down to the in-house legal team to demand these things rather than wait for the law firm to deliver them.

In essence, in-house lawyers are being pushed by their employees to become more business-minded and these technologies allow this. Does the current legal training situation obstruct the use of such technologies in this way?

That’s probably a fair assessment. There used to be no IT element in legal training at all and it mainly tended to be concerned with things like legal research – Lexis or Westlaw or something. You tend to have specialist researchers doing that and most lawyers aren’t doing that all the time. The whole raft of other technologies that are available, they have a danger of being out of the loop on them. They’ve got e-billing and that’s starting to be much more widely used but that’s really an admin type thing rather than a product that helps with the actual lawyering.

So the education should be instead be trying to bring them into the loop, particularly because, unlike law firms where there is an IT department dedicated to looking at the latest legal technology, the in-house legal team don’t have that because their IT department are concerned with what the core business is. There are people coming in who might say “why aren’t we doing it this way?” But today its a matter of resources some organisations are more proactive than others.

In terms of more general work-office technologies, GCs aren’t quick to use these either. Are lawyers in general just slightly behind?

Yes. There’s an element of conservatism and I know some vendors who try to offer open-source alternatives – things like Google Docs as an alternative to Microsoft Office because its cheaper and does the same things. But everyone prefers to go for the more expensive Microsoft product – they don’t tend to experiment much. You do find people who are more dynamic and looking at ways of doing things, but most don’t.

Most of what they need is to do with document production style – red-lining, document comparisons, etc. – because typically lawyers spend, in the corporate environment and in-house, a lot of time dealing with enormous documents that need amending and redrafting. Tools there are useful and there’s interest for them. The process involved is still the same as it was before – now you’re looking at a document on the screen and you can highlight where the changes are etc.

In essence, they’re using technology to increase the speed of the traditional ways of working rather than looking at an entirely different way of doing things. It always comes back to them not being as dynamic as they should be but their discipline, as lawyers, is not that of technology people.

You recently hosted your Legal Tech Futures conference. What kind of things were bought up? What are the big developments in legal technology right now?

One of the biggest changes is the move towards mobility and the breakdown of the traditional office. It wasn’t that long ago that lawyers did most of their work between the hours of nine to five in one office. Now that they’re increasingly moving around seeing clients, they need to work on the hoof, they need to work between offices, working from home and so on.

There’s a lot more of an interest in life quality balance – if I can work from home, that tends to avoid commuting but I need the IT resources to be able to support me. There’s a shift from desk-space, to mobile working and all the tools that come with it, so things like cloud become a lot more relevant, and the ways of accessing the documents then bring up security issues and so on.

So we’re in a transitional way of working. One of the interesting things, which some firms are already looking at, is the fact is that the traditional office may well go into decline – do you need these huge big offices in the centre that have to have desk space for everybody? Are we going to go the same way as accountants where they work out of the office and they go back occasionally?

In terms of the next big thing, really its all just about making things easier. Training remains a big issue – there’s all these great tools out there but lawyers don’t know how to use them or don’t go on the training they need to do to learn how to use them.

The speed of technology is great of course – i.e. the rise of apps and tablets in the last couple of years. How will the legal profession adjust to these changes?

It’s coming quite quickly as it is. It’s like a lot of things, you think its a great solution but then it grows up a whole set of new problems that previously didn’t exist. For example, mobile device management software, so that you can remotely control an iPad if its lost. The concept didn’t exist two years ago but now its a major item on everybody’s purchasing list. Solving one problem creates another set of problems. In terms of getting lawyers up to speed using software, using the technology they already have is one of the big concerns and then the IT investments aren’t being used to their fullest either.

It will be interesting to see what the legal profession will like in a few years time when there are a new set of problems being sorted out with new technologies…

Exactly. There’s talk, and its probably still early days, that we can start moving to a far more intelligent artificial intelligence that will do jobs for you a lot quicker. For example scannable documents will immediately have scanned within the documents the highlights and changes made to them and then bring any relevant links up to other documents – statutory references etc. There’s still quite a lot that can be done that can be done on that and lawyers are a bit bad for thinking that what they do can only be done by a lawyer in a tradition way.

The suggestion is that we don’t have to work in this traditional way and there are alternatives to working this way, such as a blend of face-to-face lawyers with outsourced services, automated services, online services – all these different ways of doing it. I know one law firm experimented a few years back, but didn’t get a very great take up, with self-service documents. If you were a brewery and you needed a landlord tenancy agreement they would keep a central stack of them, keeping the law up to date, and you would simply find one at a time when your required them. They didn’t get the take-up they thought they would from the industry, which preferred to do it the old way. They were finding that there could be a lot of different versions of those tenancy agreements, and some would be up-to-date, some would be out-of-date.

Also, I think the explosion of documents and paperwork is almost overwhelming a lot of law firms and their clients and in-house legal offices. So much time is spent trying to find documents and pin them down, and work out which version you want, its almost a distraction from getting on with the lawyering.

Apparently, a company can get rid of 60% of stored information without risk. Managing information is therefore a huge priority for companies?

Definitely. Also corporations and law firms are both worried about actually dumping data because of not wanting to be caught up at some stage accused of shredding the vital document so the safe option is to hang onto everything. But do you need to hang onto everything? I think there’s a statistic that 80% of documents that one’s archived are never used again. You then need to be in a defensible position whereby you have a strategy for keeping and/or disposing documents when required. If you don’t do it then you have more and more of these documents and simply managing them becomes a big issue and expense. Then things like freedom of information searches becomes a huge chore because there’s so much stuff to get through. Everyone talks about Big Data but actually what is it? It’s the same thing we’ve always had but we’ve just got lots and lots of copies of it now.

You’re in legal technology writing. We could describe this as an alternative way of using a legal qualification. How important is it to know how to use the legal qualification in different ways especially in the difficult current market?

I originally trained for the bar, a long time ago. Then I went into legal journalism and then eventually set up my own publication.

It’s hard to say. There’s always been a lot of people who move into law and then move out of law, because they find that the legal practice environment simply isn’t for them. There’s always going to be that. I certainly found that the legal training I did was very useful for giving you an analytical approach to problem solving. The tools you’ve got can be used in other businesses other than law. In terms of having a qualification, a law degree is going to open the doors to other careers even if you don’t practice or stay in practice.

As for legal journalism it’s quite underpaid, you don’t earn much pay. It’s all very well if you run your own business, but I know that if you look around at the free-lance journalism rates, they are very low.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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