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ILTACON 2021: The global pandemic greatly accelerated innovation across the legal industry, panel says

One main theme of last week’s annual ILTACON, which was held both online and in-person, was the great acceleration of legal tech innovation by an industry under siege from a global pandemic and eager to find new ways to work

LAS VEGAS — The legal industry is in a “golden moment” for digital transformation. Stresses from the global COVID-19 pandemic have spurred many law firms to urgently rethink technology’s role in operations and accelerate change that might otherwise have taken a decade, according to panelists at last week’s ILTACON conference, the annual legal tech event presented by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA).

In a keynote panel titled The Quickening Decade, Dan Hauck, Chief Product Officer of NetDocuments, described how the mindset of law firms has shifted over the past 12 months toward meeting the continued challenges of the pandemic, embracing progress over perfection, and prioritizing certain technology, such as the cloud, as core building blocks of firms’ go-forward technology strategy.

“Law firms experienced unprecedented disruption in their operations and were forced to adapt rapidly to dramatic market changes,” Hauck said, adding that firms’ response has included embracing technology innovation in ways the legal industry has been slow to do in the past.


You can find more of our coverage of the recent ILTACON event here.


Panelist Matthew Coatney, Chief Information Officer of Thompson Hine, agreed. “Digital transformation has been a slow, steady drumbeat,” Coatney said. “We’ve heard ‘It’s right around the corner! It’s right around the corner!’ — and that there will be some kind of major disruption that will accelerate that,” like the 2008 financial crisis.

However, the financial crisis didn’t do it, he noted, but “[the pandemic] will accelerate and really bring what we expected 2030 to look like” much sooner than expected.

Another panelist, Justin Hectus, Chief Information Officer of Keesal, Young & Logan, also agreed, adding that today “we’re given the opportunity to try new things, to abandon what doesn’t work to chase into what does work — those opportunities don’t come along very often.”

Importantly, explained Hectus, companies have started to think more about the legal function as a partner in streamlining their compliance, legal, and business processes. “All critical business activities either start in legal, they flow through legal, or they end up in legal,” he said. “If you can take that legal expertise and use it across silos, you can make a big difference in the company.”

Flashing signs

Some of the key indicators that signal the changing environment in legal services and the economy as a whole, and which have also underpinned this rapid change in mindset, according to Hauck, include:

      • TSA checkpoint trafficThis can be a reliable indicator of economic health and expansion. As of early August, the number of travelers processed at TSA checkpoints in U.S. airports was roughly three-quarters (77%) of the volume at the same pre-pandemic point in 2019.
      • Law firm revenue up — Profit per partner grew this year by 7% on a revenue basis and 13.4% in terms of equity growth, despite economic upheaval. “This growth trend is significant,” Hauck said, adding that among the reasons for the growth are better leverage on partners retiring or leaving early and aggressive cost control.
      • Higher firm occupancy rates — This trend signals firms’ return-to-office plans. The legal industry this year has outpaced business as a whole, suggesting its readiness to resume in-person operations while still being mindful of hybrid work models.
      • Balancing transformation with shifting employee priorities — While this acceleration of innovation brings new opportunity, it also brings challenges to employees’ work/life balance. Those companies and firms with cloud capabilities pre-pandemic have been better able to manage new pressures and drive change while meeting employees’ need for personal flexibility.

While the disruptive changes from the global pandemic have brought a new willingness among firms to innovate, panelists agreed that they were seeing fewer new ideas, although some said the ideas they were seeing were better researched. That has allowed firms to more quickly validate the work and make prioritization and resource decisions.

As always, it’s critical that innovation solve a real-world problem for customers. Innovation offices are playing a greater role in customer outreach and often play “matchmaker” among firms’ thought leaders, customers, and those delivering solutions. The strength of the match typically determines which ideas gain support, panelists said. From a technology standpoint, it’s now more important than ever to optimize for the cloud; and understanding solutions’ fit within a broader technology ecosystem is crucial to future-proofing, the panelists all agreed.

Panelist Ali Shahidi, Chief Innovation & Client Solutions Officer at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, suggested that legal organizations need to evaluate any new legal tech innovation on its integration potential and the ability for new solutions to integrate with other data sources and products already in place. “You have to be able to connect the dots as you go,” said Shahidi.

Katherine Lowry, another panelist and Director of Practice Services at Baker & Hostetler, said that ultimately, it’s important for firms to do the work. “Have you adequately struggled with the different forms of technology that are on the market today and know what they’re good for, and most probably important, what they’re not good for?” she asked.

In the end, the challenge is knowing when to build or buy, offered David Wang, Chief Innovation Officer of Wilson Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. “With technology companies, and often self-built corporate approaches to technology, there’s a lot of hubris in terms of what people think they can do themselves,” Wang explained, emphasizing the need to “play well” with outside vendors and identify and acknowledge others’ expertise.

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