Are You Enabling Technology Or Is It Enabling You?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 07:40

In our ongoing design collaboration with corporate law departments, the dialogue continues to shift from a focus on information to a wider investigation of how we might develop solutions to help them streamline and simplify their processes. Key trends driving this shift are the desire to increase efficiency and effectiveness, get better value from outside counsel and improve communication with business partners.

There is an increasing pool of enterprise tools and point solutions that the GC is being asked to adopt and align with existing workflows specific to the practice of law. It’s in this context we’ve discovered another trend that we call technology fatigue. More work is being done by the legal team, and there are growing pressures to adopt technology to achieve efficiencies without sacrificing quality.

Ironically the effect of this pressure, rather than efficiency and effectiveness, is fatigue, leading to an unintentional refusal and inability to adopt new technology. The solution too often doesn’t align with legal department workflows, and the learning curve is too steep alongside existing demands. What are the alternatives? What can you do to find solutions that align with the way your team works – solutions that are easy to learn and use? Here’s a checklist of five questions that might help:

1. Is the solution generic or designed for you and your support staff?

Your team is equipped with many tools and solutions that have been designed for everyone across the corporation, not specifically for in-house counsel and support staff: your laptop, smartphone, word processing software, email application. These generic productivity tools are essential for almost everything your team does. Other enterprise-wide tools might include your intranet and document management system.

These solutions are designed for general business applicability, not specific legal department workflows. Sometimes a vendor will present you with a custom solution positioned as better than your enterprise document management system or as a replacement for your off-the-shelf email application. Perhaps a better path, and one more aligned with your technology department goals, would be to look for solutions that can extend the usefulness of the generic technologies. For example, many legal departments use Microsoft Outlook to manage their litigation holds. An alternative way would be to find a tool that automates your process but still uses email to disseminate holds, reminders and acknowledgements between the hold owners and custodians.

2. Is the solution integrated with the tools you and your support staff already use?

A recent report by Hyperion Research, “e-Billing and Matter Management Systems for Corporations” (October 2011), suggests that most legal departments are moving to paperless or paper-light work environments. It’s likely that your team is using a shared drive, an enterprise document management system (DMS) or other repository for storing work product. Use of shared drives or a DMS will increase if that solution integrates with the other tools your team uses.

How easy is it to upload documents into the system?

  • Can you easily move relevant emails, attachments and content from your email application, tablet or desktop into the shared drive or DMS?

How easy is it to access material stored in the shared drive or DMS?

  • Is there a search tool that works across all the files so it’s easy to find work product that you know exists? Is the search technology generic, or has it been developed for attorney work product?
  • Is matter-related work product automatically accessible by all matter participants, including your outside counsel?

Partnering with your corporate technology team to find legal workflow tools that extend the lifespan and use of enterprise technology will provide efficiency gains, minus the technology fatigue.

3. Is the solution learnable?

Some solutions come with the requirement of weeks of training and months of implementation. That’s a heavy investment of time, particularly for the GC and line attorneys. It is definitely something that should be considered as you evaluate any proposed solution.

Does the solution align with how your team thinks about the work that they do? When attorneys create a matter today, do they still grab a manila folder from the desk drawer? Does your proposed matter management system align with this level of expected simplicity and speed? Or is it “metadata heavy” and time intensive, requiring a lot of data entry.

Is the system you use one that requires translation from technology terms and labels into the language of the legal department? Or is it organized and labeled in the way that your attorneys and support staff think and talk? The former will require more training on a regular basis as well as an extensive learning curve; the latter is more likely something your team can immediately begin to use.

It’s likely your line attorneys have hundreds of active matters – just take a look at how many manila and Redweld folders are stacked up in their offices. Attorneys use these folders because it is easy to grab one when a new issue comes up, easy to collect everything in one place, and it’s portable. Why should your technology be different? If your team has a system for organizing and collaborating on the matters they manage, take a look at how easy it is to add a new matter to the system or to edit the matter as you evaluate any new technology.

4. Where is the information you need now?

At Thomson Reuters, we embrace the design principle called “progressive disclosure.” The simple definition is “put the most important stuff first.” For the corporate attorney, this might translate to “help me focus on priorities, what needs to be done today, what needed to be done yesterday.”

We applied this design principle in developing our newest offering, Thomson Reuters Concourse, our integrated suite of solutions for corporate, government and outside counsel. Concourse combines a matter-centric focus with the approach of presenting the most important data first. It presents information in progressive stages with a holistic view that emphasizes the most critical information. It then yields increasingly detailed information as the user drills deeper into specific areas. 

For example, when a user first logs into the system, Concourse presents a dashboard that includes an overview of all open matters. From there, the user can easily go to the next level of detail, such as matters by area of law or average length of time matters have been active. This design approach places the minimum cognitive burden necessary on the user, only revealing information and choices as required for decision making and task completion.

5. Does the solution shift the burden from you and your support staff to the system?

Technology can address pain points through many different approaches. Thomson Reuters’ product-development design philosophy centers around the notion that solutions should shift burdens from the user to technology. Corporate attorneys certainly have enough to do already with legal work and department and team management. Their responsibilities revolve around providing counsel, managing risk and supporting the business. They should not revolve around spending time inputting information into a system or learning to use dozens of different and sometimes disparate tools.

Yet all too often, technology solves one problem but, in doing so, adds another. It requires the user to take extra steps to input, search, prioritize or share information. This is completely at odds with the notion that technology should increase efficiency and effectiveness.

In addition, ill-fitting technology solutions face a silent revolution. If attorneys, already overworked, are required to fill out a template for a document management system every time that they want to create or upload a new document, a likely outcome is that they will not use the system, or at least take shortcuts and not use it to its full potential. People are used to standard methods of moving documents around and expect this same ease of use when it comes to document management systems. Shouldn’t you be able to drag and drop a document from one location into your matter? Shouldn’t you be able to upload and securely share documents in a couple of clicks?

At Thomson Reuters, we strive to be very mindful of these factors to ensure that we design and build solutions that truly increase productivity. No matter how elegant or advanced the technology is, if it doesn’t help users become more efficient and effective in their daily work, we haven’t met our objectives. As we develop new technologies, we spend considerable time studying attorney workflows. We analyze the tasks that are important to those workflows and identify the points where attorneys currently do a lot of data entry. We are passionate about finding new ways to help attorneys do their work that make sense in light of the way they practice law and in light of the tools they currently use. 

One example is our ongoing commitment in developing search technology. You can experience this with the WestSearch algorithm, which is at the core of WestlawNext. Every time you run a search in WestlawNext, it automatically searches across thousands of databases leveraging more than 140 years of editorial work, including headnotes and Key Numbers, to return the most inclusive and relevant results available. Thomson Reuters Concourse has applied our proprietary legal search technology to search across all of your matter documents and content.

Connecting What Matters

In developing Thomson Reuters Concourse, we began by speaking with over a thousand attorneys. This confirmed our focus on the matter – the core of how many attorneys organize their work. As new matters arise, the traditional Redweld or manila folders are often the first place where information for a given matter is stored and organized. While daily workloads typically involve scores of various tasks or groups of tasks, these all revolve around matters on which attorneys are working. We wanted to take an attorney’s existing organizational framework – in this case, the matter – and make that workflow more efficient and effective.

While a point solution may contain the right answer to a single question, an integrated system enables simplicity and focus in design, together with seamless navigation between different product modules, depending on the task at hand. Integration enables data to be aggregated across the matters you manage and the people with whom you work, giving you a broad view at a glance. That’s where data turns into actionable information that can inform better and more efficient decision-making.

Technology should enable. Adopting technology should be easy, not exhausting. It should help you make better decisions, streamline processes and make workflows more efficient. It should make it easier for you to increase efficiency and effectiveness, get better value from your outside counsel and improve communication with your company’s business departments.

James Jarvis is Senior Director, New Product Development at Thomson Reuters.

Please email the author at james.jarvis@thomsonreuters.com with questions about this article.