Balancing the tensions of legal technology

Kate Simpson
Is it just me or have the last couple of years heralded ever-increasing pressures on legal technology in our firms, whether large or small? And they don’t seem to be any cute, simple pressures either — they’re a bunch of competing tensions that constantly threaten to throw us off-track.

Imagine them as being two ends of a spectrum, like the political spectrum, for example — there are few of us who would place ourselves way out on the extremes. More like, “somewhere in the middle,” or “just left of centre,” etc. I’ve seen three such tensions in recent legal technology publications, all of which seem to be keeping the business of law professionals up at night as we try to maintain some kind of magical balance. They have been borne of changes in technology: going mobile, advances in consumer IT, big data — and the resulting market/user expectations (UX, flexibility, privacy, and security).

It seems to me this is legal IT’s new normal as the changes in technology continue apace. We’ll need better strategic tools if we’re to find the balance between these competing pressures and resolve the tensions in our firms.

Susskind's Grid - modified with ILTA's 4 core themes plus the circles of tension in Legal IT.

Tension 1: Security v. ease-of-use and efficiency

Where do we find the balance on this spectrum?

Encryption and full security audits force changes to our systems that often impact ease-of-use and efficiency of workflow particularly in e-mail and document management. Changes like this then force lawyers and assistants to follow protracted journeys in order to simply send or file an e-mail or document.

Dropbox is an interesting example of where a solution arises that offers something that should be really simple to do — send, save, or share a large document or set of documents quickly and easily. The fact this particular app was always fully integrated into the iPhone, iPad, and desktop made it the most obvious tool of choice. But then the deep and worrying security concerns with the service were revealed that required IT teams to find alternatives and train lawyers on the more secure options. When it takes just a right-click to save a document to Dropbox, any alternative system just seems slower and not as simple. And it has taken some time for these more secure, enterprise-robust alternatives to deliver the ease-of-use and simplicity that are the primary features of the consumer file-transfer systems.

Humans like to make stuff easier, follow the path of least resistance, and abide by the principle of least effort. When trying to balance security and ease-of-use we need to be conscious that we make our lives harder by just focusing on one end of this spectrum. The requirements for security and ease-of-use become of equal importance when meeting standards and managing the change and adoption of our systems.

Tension 2: Governance standards v. flexibility and freedom of choice

This scale of two contrasting requirements is currently being played out in our firms in the BYOD/MDM space. Firms somewhere along this spectrum need to not only maintain robust security and governance standards, but also allow lawyers the flexibility to choose the best tools for their practices. A big part of this tension is about cost control and efficiency for IT. If IT supports one way of doing things it keeps costs down and means they can deliver on requirements and promises. If, however, everyone is doing their own thing on BYOD, the ability to numerate risks and meet compliance standards is seriously threatened.

The old abbreviation “PDA” always struck me as a perfect definition — these devices have become very personal indeed. It’s not just that they are highly customizable in covers, wallpapers, layout, and ringtones. It comes down to very real differences between people — technology, like politics and sports, seems to polarize people into tribal identities of one camp or another. The Windows v. Apple debate has turned into Android v. iPhone — as well as those still fiercely committed to their BlackBerry. On top of that, there are the very personal choices about the apps we use to get stuff done. It’s no wonder this issue is so polarizing in our firms.

If we sit too far on the flexibility side we have to reduce expectations of support, and perhaps with added personal accountability. Too far on the security side with not enough freedom to choose built in and we risk affecting work efficiencies for certain practices, which in turn has an impact on adoption of these tools. We also risk creating a guerrilla system of tactics that avoid IT security altogether. Knowing the trade-offs we’re making allows us to have these conversations in our firms.

Tension 3: Operational management v. transformational  programs

Getting the balance right on budget allocation between keeping-the-lights-on versus future firm vision programs is not a new challenge for those in legal IT and other support functions. As an ex-consultant there was always some safety in dragging out a 2x2 matrix during those strategic planning phases to help figure out the prioritization of budgets and activities. There are hundreds returned in a Google search for strategic planning, as well as some legal-specific ones that sit in the International Legal Technology Association’s vast knowledge repository online.

In May 2012, the Harvard Business Review gave us another grid on which to plot and find the balance for managing IT projects — one that included not just keeping-the-lights-on. Larry Page revealed that Google spent 10 per cent of its resources on true transformational projects. The “golden ratio” the HBR discusses is a 70-20-10 split of resources to ensure, while the vast majority of resources should be spent on building and supporting the core business,  there is investment of a portion of resources on innovative ideas.

As we know, innovation in legal is not quite the same as it is out there — or not yet anyway. However, ILTA’s “Legal Technology Future Horizons” report, and in particular the summer 2014 edition of its Peer to Peer magazine, gets us thinking about this 10 per cent. It’s not all jetpacks and robots either. Four core themes emerged that nicely categorize the advancing legal technologies that are to change the way lawyers practise, and the way technology will support them.

Imagine my glee when these four core themes cleanly mapped onto the Richard Susskind Technology Grid (from Transforming the Law). When looking to balance these competing pressures, priorities, and interests, we need to look at these trade-offs holistically and figure out where we want to roughly sit. By plotting our projects onto the x- and y-axis of grids like the illustration, we can see where we might be leaning too far one way or the other. If we can plot where it is we’re spending our time, money, and resources, we can define our risk appetite with the firm; and we can ensure we maintain a fair balance between these competing tensions.

Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP, and is responsible for developing the firm’s KM strategy and initiatives. The opinions expressed in this article are her own. {nomultithumb}

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