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Erin Russell

Finding the Right People, Process, Technology, and Data for Digital Transformation in Law

By Erin Russell

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Advice on building an organization that can adapt to new challenges

Two popular sayings in the legal world are 1) people, process, technology, and data are what make a firm unique, and 2) change is constant. So how do those two elements work together? How can you ensure that you have the right people, processes, technology, and data for today’s constantly changing world?

Shearman & Sterling, a 150-year-old law firm, recently asked themselves this question as they undertook a massive data analytics project, as shared in a recent Ask the Experts session for CLOC. The firm had one billion documents, only 4% of which were in their document management system (DMS), that they needed to quickly get into ship shape to meet new compliance standards. By the end of the 18-month project, not only were all documents in an easily searchable cloud repository, but the firm was also able to roll out features that are beneficial to the client like partner dashboards, more accurate forecasting, and revenue models for value-based pricing.

Here’s a look at their pillars of people, process, technology, and data, that empowered their success as a data-driven firm.

People

“The people aspect cannot be underestimated,” said Meredith Williams-Range, Chief Knowledge and Client Value Officer at Shearman & Sterling. “You have to bring your people along in your [change] journey. Your processes won’t matter. People are your culture and culture will trump your strategy any day of the week.” In the Shearman & Sterling’s case, that meant truly making the initiative firm-wide, as opposed to the responsibility of a certain team, with top-down support from the C-level executives.

Part of the success of the people aspect can be attributed to hiring and involving the right people. Lawrence Baxter, Shearman & Sterling’s Chief Technology Officer, touts the strategy of balancing IQ, EQ, and AQ — that is, intelligence, emotional intelligence, and adaptability — in new hires. (A former marketing executive, he has seen his share of companies go under because they are unable to adapt). He also likes to create teams with equal proportions of, 1) veterans with strong institutional knowledge, 2) tenured employees who are willing to learn new skills, and 3) newer employees, especially those from other industries, who can bring in fresh new ideas.

The success of the project also depended on a fundamental understanding that this effort was not about replacing people with machines. As Williams-Range explained, “It’s simply about adapting the processes that we have and enhancing those processes because the amount of information and the amount of data coming at us as lawyers is growing each day. The technology holds the hand of the lawyer.”

Process

In terms of process, Williams-Range believes there’s no one right place to start — the important thing is to simply start. For Shearman & Sterling, the beginning point was understanding clients and regulations at a global scale. Baxter also recommended asking clients what’s working and what isn’t, and using those answers to drive internal change, since what the client wants carries weight. Of course, unforeseen circumstances can also drive change — Baxter said he has seen years of innovation in the past few months.

The team agreed there are no shortcuts when it comes to process improvement. As Glenn LaForce, Global Director of Knowledge & Research at Shearman & Sterling put it, “You can’t shortchange the pre-work that goes into getting to what we call the sexy stuff, all the cool analytics projects. You have to go through, you have to look at your data and be sure it’s clean and in order, make sure you have the right governance behind it and make sure you have the right policies behind it, and that takes time.”

A whole-firm initiative also meant involving the whole firm. The company created a multidisciplinary data steering committee to get an understanding of how each part of the organization was using data and the downstream effects of making any changes. How will a change to a process in HR affect the DMS in eDiscovery? How should workflows be adjusted for the unique needs of finance and the research team? How do you ensure there’s an audit trail?

For Jeff Saper, Global Director, Enterprise Architecture & Delivery Services at Shearman & Sterling, a lot of the process work comes down to reducing complexity. “We create complex environments and at the end of the day, they need to be simplified,” he said. However, this process of simplifying and streamlining cannot compromise compliance, regulatory processes, or confidence in your work.

Saper and LaForce also stressed that failure is an important part of the process and should not be viewed as a negative — if it happens within a development environment. Finding processes that do not deliver value is just as important as finding ones that do. The important thing, they agree, is learning how to adapt and move forward.

Technology and Data

Again, when evaluating which technology to use, the question ultimately comes back to what benefit will the client receive. For example, Shearman & Sterling decided to move their DMS to the cloud. However, as Saper pointed out, “It’s not about cloud. It’s the agility of what we can do to make things work faster or leaner and hopefully have a better return for our firm.” People wanted to be able to access data anywhere, on any device — a desire that was certainly fast-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the cloud enabled that.

Similarly, the firm found success in using established technology in new and different ways. For example, the firm used DISCO eDiscovery to sort through and classify emails. Using the platform’s artificial intelligence capabilities, the team was able to classify some 30 million emails in 12 days.

The team developed a clear strategy around who they would partner with to find the right technology. “We’re never going to be a firm that builds technology,” said Williams-Range. “We have talented lawyers and that’s our sweet spot, but we need to provide the right technology and the right system to our people to be as efficient as possible to deliver the best value to our clients. What we do is we look for those partnerships that are going to really work with us.” 

As someone who spent 16 years on the technology vendor side and has seen a lot of finger-pointing, LaForce emphasized the importance of looking for partners as invested in the success of the project as the internal team is, who have governance procedures and skin in the game. “Otherwise, they’re just selling us a product,” he said.

Baxter also noted that the legal landscape has become complicated. A service provider you are in a joint partnership with on one proposal could be a competitor pitching against you in another matter. Cultivating a friendly relationship throughout these complicated dynamics is an art form that will serve law firms well.

Parting Words of Advice

Ultimately, the work of digital transformation is never done, but with the right people, processes, technology, and data in place, the Shearman & Sterling team feel confident they can tackle new challenges that come their way. Their advice to others looking to make the leap? “Just start somewhere,” said Williams-Range. “It can be overwhelming, but just start.”

“Change is not the devil,” added Saper. “It’s ok to continue on a journey as long as you do it safely and securely within compliance. We’re in a different world and law firms have to adjust to it.”