Using Informatics to Drive Process Improvement

Law Practice Today introduces “New Law,” a column profiling innovators in the legal industry whose projects or ideas have already changed the way law is practiced and who continue to seek ways to improve the profession. These trailblazers will answer questions on topics that keep our readers awake at night as they plan how to develop their practices in a rapidly changing world. Our goal in spotlighting these thought leaders is to help our readers predict the future of law and become first adopters of visionary ideas and techniques that will set them apart from their competitors.

Dr. Roland Vogl is executive director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science, and Technology (LST) and a lecturer at Stanford Law School. He focuses his efforts on legal informatics work carried out in the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics (CodeX), which he co-founded and leads as executive director.

What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?

CodeX: The Stanford Center of Legal Informatics focuses on discovering and developing technology that can streamline and mechanize legal processes. Our main goal is to build a better legal system for all stakeholders. With regard to legal professionals, our goals are to help them deliver faster, better, cheaper, and accessible legal services to clients. We believe these tools can help all clients, whether they are leaders of the global business community or low income individuals who cannot afford even basic legal services.

We have been building a robust, international community of people who are passionate about bringing information technology to the legal system, including “lawntrepreneurs,” legal tech executives, scholars, and students. We’re bringing the community together at our annual CodeX FutureLaw conference and other live conferences, weekly meetings (live and online), and we have just launched our first “Open Innovation Challenge-Docket Analytics” in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?

  1. The billable hour needs to be retired. Lawyers need a better way to show that we’re providing value to the clients. This is, of course, not easy to do, but many lawyers are already adopting new, creative ways to better serve clients in their respective practice areas.
  1. We need to proactively look for processes and technologies that help lawyers better serve clients with legitimate legal needs/claims. Today, 80%of Americans cannot find or afford legal services for non-criminal crises, and most citizens (including lawyers) don’t realize that there is no right to counsel in a civil case, as James Sandman, the president of Legal Services Corp., said recently.

This also applies to contingency-fee-based legal representation. For example, individuals injured by a product, or malpractice or corporate malfeasance—who cannot get legal representation because their injuries were not completely debilitating and the lawyers wouldn’t risk investing time and costs for experts. Another example: the millions of mutual fund owners who regularly receive class action notices, where submitting a claim to join the class action is just too challenging—because they must prove every single trade with dates they occurred. These are very often, at their core, information problems, which can be solved by legal technologists. But they also need the various stakeholders (e.g., financial institutions) to provide the data in easy, accessible formats.

What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

The billable hour—it creates an incentive to drag out matters, rather than to quickly and efficiently resolve issues. It’s not surprising that many firms are going “boutique” and offering results-triggered alternate fee agreements and other options; taking a “concierge” approach where the goal is to create a long-term relationship with the client builds trust—and steady payments.

What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

A wave of innovation has built up over the last couple of years. It’s not only affecting the practice of law, but the entire legal system. For example, law firms serving startups are experimenting with making many documents accessible for free, and providing legal information online. Firms are joining legal marketplaces to connect with clients and seem more sensitized to becoming more efficient to meet their clients’ needs. The government is making legal information more accessible, providing legal data structured to be more accessible by computers—which will enable a new generation of legal applications. That can only help the user citizens.

Large information provider companies are teaming up with research centers, such as CodeX, to spur innovation in our field. Thomson Reuters, for example, has teamed up with CodeX to engage with innovators from around the world through an open innovation challenge. As part of that, they are opening vast amount of court docket data for participants. We believe that this will lead to many new and exciting applications in the docket analysis space.  (See “Open Innovation Challenge-Analystics”.)

What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?

There is much talk about Big Data Law, and bringing data scientists’ tools to the legal system. Law firms and corporate legal departments can leverage these tools to better evaluate litigation risks or their contract exposure, etc. An early player in this field is Lex Machina, which focuses on intellectual property litigation. But a number of other interesting companies are using data science and machine-learning in different legal contexts, from contract analysis to patent law, such as LitIQ, Beagle, Kira, and PatentVector.

These types of technologies will have a big impact on legal practice—certainly for Big Law. Then, new research tools will become more and more popular over the next couple of years, like Casetext, Ravel, or DocketAlarm. Finally, new online workflows and intake-forms, which are less high-tech, but nevertheless very useful, will also have an impact on lawyers’ efficiency in the near future.

In the long run, “computational law” technologies, which automate and mechanize legal processes and compliance, will have a significant impact on legal practice. Some of these technologies will be quite disruptive to traditional legal practice. But lawyers who know how to leverage these techniques to capture their knowledge and make it accessible to more clients at lower cost, will benefit from the advances of computational law.

On the business model side, I think that the alternative business structure (ABS), which has been spearheaded by Australian and British regulators of the legal profession, has the potential to accelerate change in the profession. The non-lawyer ownership of law firms, which ABS structures enable, could really become a driver for R&D investment of law firms in the UK and Australia.  This is certainly something to keep an eye on.

What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?

Not so recent, but quite persuasive to me, is the “SeyfarthLean” Six Sigma approach at Seyfarth Shaw. The basic idea is to adopt the core principles of Lean Six Sigma process improvement with project management and tailored technology to provide legal services. Another player leveraging Lean Six Sigma principles for process management and quality control is NovusLaw, which provides document review, management, and analysis services for litigation and transactional matters.

In addition, it seems that both lawyers and clients can only benefit from the efficiency gains that virtual law practice can provide. See the ABA TECHREPORT 2014’s Virtual Law Practice Report.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is the director of Infinite PR in San Francisco, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

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