Technology brings new opportunities for law departments

Technology brings new opportunities for law departments
The democratization of knowledge and the commoditization of legal services will bring changes to in-house law departments. Some will see them as disruptive. However, these changes are really opportunities for in-house lawyers to move to a more efficient way of practising, perhaps concentrating on more value-added legal work, as well as collaborating on more important issues affecting their companies. This is an opportunity for in-house lawyers to pivot and transition to a more comprehensive role of strategic advisers.

In 2008, Richard Susskind wrote about commoditization of legal work in his book The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services. Susskind wrote that, through standardization and systemization, some types of legal work are outsourced to the lowest cost provider.

According to Kent Walker, vice president and general counsel of Google Inc., the amount of future change will be staggering, especially to lawyers. That’s because lawyers are not particularly adept at changes as they are steeped in tradition and prefer to work with precedents. Walker spoke in the fall at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, along with Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel of Microsoft Corp.

Walker and Smith provided their views about how evolving technologies have changed the way we interact as a society, and what the future may hold for in-house lawyers. The main theme of their discussion centred on collaboration and access to information in a global marketplace.

What’s in store for future law departments? According to Walker, the trends are very clear. Lawyers are used to looking at the laws of contract or tort.

However, to predict the future, they need to look at Metcalfe’s and Moore’s laws. These rules explain long-term trends related to technology, and they predict exponential improvements in memory, processing power, power of networks, and bandwidth.

Walker asks us to imagine a world in which all of those things are asymptotically becoming free. What does this mean to all of us? We can have information, knowledge, and ability to connect almost anywhere we want. We are moving to ubiquitous ways of being able to access people and knowledge bases and a combination of the two. Walker predicts this will transform the way we work.

Microsoft’s Smith sees three foundational trends. Today we are interacting with multiple screens — the computer on our desk, in our pockets (mobile phone), on the wall (television), and the emerging pad or slate device. These four screens are all hooked up to the Internet and are becoming smarter. Secondly, he argues, there is a ubiquitous connectivity which allows for the seamless ability to connect from device to device. Thirdly, there is the emergence of the natural user interface (NUI).

Smith says the first screens allowed us to type. They were followed by the graphical user interface, which allowed us to point and click with a mouse. With the evolution of the NUI, computers will interact with humans in a more natural way. Screens will recognize who you are and will recognize your gestures. This will open up opportunities to a new level.

Smith then considered the business implications of these changes. He predicted better collaboration with people and better access and use of information. Videoconferencing will be the norm. The pixels in the screen will be the embedded camera in the future. Over the next five to 10 years, you will be able to interact with people and work on documents together.

Moreover, we will have real-time translation. You will be able look at someone in France and speak English and they will hear French coming out of your mouth (and vice versa). Collaboration will be integrated with communications technology.

What we think of as a document will also change. Smith recalled the story of an internal meeting at Microsoft he attended along with its CEO Steve Ballmer, its CFO, and its head of human resources. Ballmer wanted one of the officers in the room to create a document, but couldn’t figure out which one. He thought if he wanted the document to be in Word, he would ask the lawyer, if he wanted it in Excel he would ask the CFO, and if he wanted in PowerPoint he would ask the head of HR. Smith predicted these three categories of documents will probably merge in the future, perhaps facilitating better collaboration.

To improve access to information, Smith believes internal company search capabilities for information must be improved. With ubiquitous access to the web, Smith noted it’s probably easier today to find information on the web rather than inside a company. While this seems bizarre, Smith believes this will change so internal information search capabilities will become just as fast as those on the web.

As lawyers, we know how important access to information is. Walker spoke about how, increasingly, knowledge is democratized. Business departments are looking to information sites on the web like Wikipedia to get guidance on the law for themselves. Everyone now has access to legal knowledge to some degree.

Walker argued even if this knowledge is outsourced, lawyers will still need to synthesize, to add judgment, insight, and wisdom, and figure out what the right thing to do is, and how we move forward. He talked about the need to collaborate among our different teams because “everyone is smarter than anyone.” Barriers to communication and collaboration that kept ideas segregated within the company are breaking down so that legal, finance, and HR can work together on a document and collectively distil the right answers.

With the collaboration and sharing of information as discussed by Smith and Walker, and the commoditization of routine legal services, in-house practitioners have new opportunities. In-house lawyers have an opportunity to transition their services to be more than just legal advisers by adding more value. In-house lawyers can transition to becoming strategic advisers to their enterprise. The access to information and collaboration tools will be there. Will the in-house lawyer be up to the challenge?

Sanjeev Dhawan is senior counsel at Hydro One Networks Inc. and? president of the Association of Corporate Counsel's Ontario chapter.? His column explores the latest issues affecting Canada's in-house ?lawyers and will appear every month on

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