A Brief Guide for Law Firms about the Real Meaning Behind 11 Legal Tech Buzzwords

tech buzzwords

A Brief Guide for Law Firms about the Real Meaning Behind 11 Legal Tech Buzzwords

by Stephanie Erbesfield, Marketing Content and Research Manager

Most buzzwords start as a way to describe a novel idea. Over time, these words get overused and misinterpreted, which as Psychology Today points out, dilutes the original meaning.

The dilution of the original meaning is an important point because it suggests buzzwords previously had real meaning. That meaning can help people understand a concept which plays an obvious role in change management.

The legal technology community certainly has its fair share of buzzwords. We recently conducted a literature survey of sorts to identify the most common. We looked through legal trade publications, blogs, and even our writings here on the Think Tank, in Legal Business Reports, and our primary research.

The process produced a long list of buzzwords which we then narrowed down to the ten listed below that we think are most relevant to legal tech or the business of law. In the spirit of resurfacing the original meaning, we’ve detailed what each one means from our perspective, and where appropriate, have provided links to additional suggested reading.

1) Agile

Agile or agility is the ability to move quickly. Think of a fast-moving athlete who is suddenly able to change direction without losing momentum. In business, agile grew out of a software development process that guides technologists to better adapt to evolving customer needs.

More recently, law firms have embraced the concept as market conditions have changed. We’d add one qualification to the definition of agility in legal: it’s not just about a firm’s ability to adapt to conditions quickly, but the ability to adapt without overtaxing its existing systems.

Suggested reading:

2) Artificial intelligence (AI)

“I don’t think the term ‘artificial intelligence’ is reflective of the technology they’re referring to,” according to Richard Timbol, CISO at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, as quoted by Ian Lopez, in a story for an ALM publication. “To me, AI is something you see in ‘I Robot.’ What we have is advanced programming that learns through systematic adjustments of the inputs and comes out with a smarter result.”

Indeed, during a recent webinar we hosted with Dr. Jason Adaska, Director of Software Engineering and Innovation Lab at Holland & Hart LLP, he broke the concept of AI down to an even more basic level.  He noted that AI means computers can “crunch language” the same way it does numbers.

In the next ten years or so, he said, technology will be able to process natural language in a way that allows it to solve language problems the same advanced way it solves arithmetic equations now.

Suggested reading:

3) Analytics

Merriam-Webster defines analytics as a method of logical analysis. Amazingly, the publication says the first known use of the word was in the 1590s. Today it’s more commonly associated with the computational analysis of electronic data.

In an introduction to a course on legal analytics, professors Daniel Martin Katz and Michael J. Bommarito define legal analytics as the ability to derive “substantively meaningful insight from some sort of legal data.” To that end, analytics have a range of practical applications in law firms in knowledge management, legal pricing, billing, business intelligence, and litigation.

For example, “If you read 1,000 documents, you’re probably not going to notice that one case was cited 50 times. But that’s something that computers are really good at spotting,” according to a source in a story by Roy Strom for Legaltech News.

Suggested reading:

4) Big data

The term “big data” typically refers to large data set that requires sophisticated computing (like AI) to mine the sample for patterns or trends. The technology consultancy, Gartner Research first characterized big data as having significant volume and variety of data that is processed at high velocity.

Some legal industry observers argue that law firms don’t have big data, to which others will counter by pointing to the volume of cases, decisions, and filings in litigation. Firms also have sizeable collections of documents they’ve accumulated over decades – which is one of the reasons why knowledge management has become so important.

Historical billing is another source of data worth mining. It has potential in more effective legal pricing of matters and business intelligence, and it can be used to identify the most profitable clients, segments, and even evaluate the success of lateral hiring.

We can debate whether or not these sources constitute big data, but it’s pretty clear that it’s more than a lawyer or firm can analyze manually. We’re probably safe enough to refer to it as just “data,” which may eliminate the need to explain “big” and instead build a case for why we need to slice and dice it.

Suggested reading:

5) Blockchain

Blockchain had a wild hype ride in 2018. On our annual list of business of law predictions, technology consultant and lawyer Tom Rowe said he hoped the hype would return to a “level of sanity.”

“It is overused at every technology conference I’ve attended,” he wrote. “If a new application solves an actual problem, that’s good. If ‘blockchain’ is the best technology to use, that’s good, too. But the application will be good because it solves a problem needing to be solved, not because blockchain was used.”

The aforementioned article by Ian Lopez cites Khurram Gore, associate general counsel at Verizon, who “described blockchain as ‘a distributed ledger’ with ‘a bunch of transactions strung together into a record, and that record exists in a whole bunch of places at the same time.’”

The information is recorded by promulgating it to ledger nodes – and veracity is determined by “consensus model.” He says it’s useful when two parties don’t trust each other because “there’s a record out there being replicated across different places.”

The Kodak company has been working on the notion of using blockchain to protect copyrights, and there are some promising looking ideas in around contracts.

Suggested reading:

6) Collaboration

Collaboration generally means “to work jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.” In a law firm, we define collaboration as a shared understanding – the ability for a legal team to see everything that is going on with a particular case.

Technology can greatly enhance collaboration in law in several ways, such as:

  • instantly assigning tasks when a new case is opened;
  • automatically including standard information during document assembly; and
  • alerting and tracking who is next in line to review a pre-bill or document.

Inside law firms, collaboration is changing. A survey we conducted in 2017 found, for example, nearly half of all respondents (47%) said the people with whom they collaborate internally is different than it was five years ago.

Suggested reading:

7) Disruption

When Apple launched its iPod, people could put 1,000 songs (and more) in their pocket and carry that collection with them everywhere. It replaced handheld devices like the Walkman and Discman. It eliminated the need for shelves that once held personal libraries of CDs. New music singles were available for purchase at a cost of less than a dollar, where previously these were only available as a bundle on an album – and at a much higher cost. This new device completely upended the music industry. That’s a disruption.

We’ve seen a significant change in the legal community, but it may not measure up to that definition. Moreover, for those seeking to motivate lawyers to do things differently, might try for a modified approach. In the aforementioned webinar, Holland & Hart’s Dr. Adaska suggests trying to “disrupt without disrupting.”

He points out the adoption of the cloud as a good example – users don’t even notice the difference. This allows innovation to happen faster but in a way, that’s not disruptive to the lawyer. Rather than disrupt attorneys and their workflow, he suggests finding ways to “supercharge the things they use already.”

8) Innovation

By definition, innovation means a “new method, product, or idea.” Merriam-Webster explains innovation by contrasting it with the word invention:

“One might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone either an invention or an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.”

In legal, the term has become so ubiquitous; it’s becoming a “solution in search of a problem” that threatens to “pull lawyers away from the work that needs to be done,” according to Toby Brown, the Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie LLP.

Still, innovation is the essence of staying competitive. From our vantage point, the methodical progress firms are making in innovation gets confused with sluggishness, where firms are making real progress.

For example, the 2018 Aderant Business of Law and Legal Technology Survey found about one-third (30%) said their firm has someone dedicated to the responsibility of law firm innovation. To the extent those people are like Dr. Adaska, they are well-resourced with software developers, data scientists, and front-end designers – as he put it folks that can dig in and make innovation happen.

Suggested reading:

9) Mobility

By definition, mobility means “the quality or state of being mobile or movable.”  In a legal technology environment, we define mobility as the faculty for lawyers and allied professionals to get what they need – case, matter, practice or financial information – from a device that is form-factor significantly less than a laptop or desktop environment.

As mobile devices became more and more popular, many systems developers hastily created mobile solutions – and then bolted these onto legal technology systems. Mobility works best when it’s part of the initial product design as opposed to an afterthought.

10) Cloud

In a sentence, the cloud refers to someone else’s computers that are available for rent. Many firms rent those computers when they purchase a subscription to cloud-based practice management.

For a long time, security and privacy were rightfully the biggest barriers to adoption. Over the years, many of these concerns have been addressed, because cloud vendors often have access and resources to acquire better cybersecurity tools and talent, than a law firm.

The cloud is appealing because it often brings costs savings. This is because it transfers the high capital expenses of buying hardware like servers (and hiring the staff to maintain, patch or upgrade those systems) – to a predictable operating expense.

However, there are other benefits. For example, in the aforementioned 2018 Aderant Business of Law and Legal Technology Survey, we asked respondents to identify the primary benefits of cloud adoption, and the top five answers were as follows:

  • 51% said disaster recovery;
  • 39% said lower costs;
  • 29% said business continuity;
  • 28% said better cybersecurity; and
  • 25% said improving features and functionality in cloud products.

Suggested reading:

11) Workflow

Workflow is a sequence of steps taken to carry out a process – like the steps to a pre-bill process. For the sake of illustration, consider this simplified example; assuming the time entries have been made:

  • the billing department compiles a pre-bill;
  • sends the pre-bill to an attorney or teams of attorneys for review;
  • time entry narratives are edited, the invoice sum is marked down; and
  • the pre-bill is updated and sent out for final review.

When that process is digitized, you can track its progress as it flows through the process. For example, you can see who is currently reviewing the pre-bills and who is up next – and the workflow will automatically notify and route the pre-bill to the next step in the process.

With printed pre-bills and manila envelopes that sometimes still get carried around law firms, you may or may not know where in the process the pre-bill is at any given moment. You also have little insight into the effect those reviews will have on the business.

By contrast, when a digital bill is written down, it is linked to the financial system and can show the leadership the immediate impact on the firm’s income for the month.

Suggested reading:

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This list of buzzwords certainly isn’t comprehensive – there’s a new word every day and perhaps some old ones worth revisiting. However, we hope in some small way, it moves the needle, or so to speak for those buzzwords most relevant to the business of law.

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