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Legal technology: Where's the payoff?

Every time I see a commercial for the iRobot Roomba, I want one. It would be great for picking up dog hair around the house and make it so I can haul out my Dyson vacuum and Libman mop/broom hybrid a lot less often. A Roomba is just so awesome! It’s a huge star on YouTube when paired with pets, it embodies the promise of a future we’ve been waiting for since we landed on the Moon, and it would eliminate a few hours of housework from my life.

But every time I’m about to click the BUY button, I realize that for a fraction of the price, instead of just adding another tool to my cleaning-gadget collection, I could have my housekeeper come and clean the whole place from top to bottom – multiple times, in fact. She would use her knowledge and experience, along with her handpicked tools, to find the filth and clean it up the way she sees fit to get the job done as quickly and thoroughly as possible. How many gadgets would I actually need to buy in order replicate my housekeeper’s stellar results?

This distinction struck me as oddly apropos to the way law firms and corporations use legal technology for eDiscovery.

When it comes to collecting and minimizing data, identifying hot documents and reviewing documents generally, there are a lot of “gadgets” available. Some are standalone pieces of software, others are additions and plugins to already familiar interfaces, and most have fancy demos that are not unlike those Roomba commercials: they make the product appear easy to use and tempting to buy. But, is adding yet another piece to a collection of ad hoc tools really the best way to address the overall problem that needs to be solved? Clean house, or just clean floor?

Technology has been so glaringly absent from so much of the legal arena that I applaud any and all interest in legal technology, don’t get me wrong. Even a small step is still a step in the right direction. But I also recognize that technology alone means little if not used correctly, because it’s not the just the tool that determines the outcome. I once had a client say to me “We used an analytics tool for the first time on this document review. We screwed it up, but we believe that we still saved over a million dollars in costs.” Just imagine the savings if they’d known enough about the tool to use it well!

A user’s education and experience with the capabilities of any software tool has much more impact on the outcome than just the features of the tool itself. This is why any single gadget or amalgamation of advanced tools cannot be truly effective unless those who wield them thoroughly understand them. In fact, having non-experts wield any technology can introduce costs and risks that completely outweigh the desired advantages that were the reason for its implementation in the first place. This is why every new technology demonstrated at large does not immediately drive out its predecessor.

It’s not surprising that there is hesitation in embracing new technologies – there have been a lot of unfulfilled expectations over the last 20 years. The failure, though, is not with the lawyers enamored by how the gadget could improve their practice, nor is it with the developers touting miraculous software capabilities. Many of their capabilities are miraculous! The failure instead lies with those who purchase and deploy technology without first considering how it actually fits within the entire legal process, and, more importantly, the serious time and effort required to develop the requisite expertise to use it effectively. Honestly, who has time to become such an expert?

Which brings me to the entire point of this commentary.

If you are a lawyer reading this, you already understand that technology working on your behalf can help you deliver better results to your clients. And if you have made that big leap in understanding, then take the next logical step: instead of buying some technology or a whole suite of gadgets you have to learn and deploy yourself, hire an expert-driven solution. You’ll find the payoff you’ve been seeking since you embarked on your exploration of legal technology, and your house will be much better off for it.

If you still need the high that owning a new gadget can bring, go home and buy a few Roombas. I’ll be jealous.

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Graphic © Martin Kosíř


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