The Inevitable Proliferation of Information Technology

Madhav Srinivasan, CFO, Hunton & Williams LLPIn the legal industry, the proliferation of Information Technology (IT) has become very evident in recent years. IT has now become an integral part of any law firm. For example, a finance function is highly dependent on IT to run the base ERP and billing/collection systems. IT also provides the foundation for the business intelligence framework which allows users to access financial and operating information on their desktops. Recently in our firm, we installed a new business intake framework, which involved IT to a very large extent. This initiative is changing the way we bring in new clients into the firm. It is much more workflow-, dashboard-, and communication-oriented system, and is resident on the intranet. This entirely different process replaces our earlier email-based procedures. Without a strong partnership between IT and Finance, this project would not have succeeded.

On the marketing side, there is also rapid spread of IT. New marketing systems used in law firms are entirely reliant on IT for installation and support. As a firm, we are embarking on a new way to categorize all internal client information. We have now an automated central system, from which one can find interested parties and client experience at the touch of a button. In this and other ways, we are ensuring that technology is being leveraged constructively in Marketing to make the firm smarter, nimbler, and more agile.

" If we can bring together the power of machine learning, the database of prior legal cases, and then train it with the native knowledge of lawyers, that combination could be unbeatable "

IT is also involved in the interface between the firm and its clients, for example in creating secure workrooms where parties can send and access information with role-based security for people involved in the process. Finally, IT has a very important role to play in cybersecurity. Firms are spending a lot of time and resources in securing their mission-critical information and ensuring that there is no inadvertent slip of information or leakage to a malicious third party.
One trend which is underlying these interesting changes is the shifting away of firms from developing IT systems in-house to using software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. What that means is that law firms are no longer buying software and depreciating it; but are expensing their monthly charges with different SaaS vendors.

Thus in today’s legal world, IT has become much more front facing, integral, and central to a law firm’s operations.

IT Trends of the Future

In the future, IT in the legal industry will likely be witnessing three major trends. The first one will be the spread of more transparent and holistic interfaces between clients and the firm. The second will be an integrated use of technology, data and analytics within the internal boundaries of law firms. The third big change will be the use of augmented intelligence. The way law is practiced today, it is highly suited for disruption and enhancement. If you think about it, a lawyer deals with complex, contextual, and precedence-driven situations -as the law is extremely vast and is highly personalized for each and every situation. If we can bring together the power of machine learning with the database of prior legal cases, and then train it with the native knowledge of lawyers, that combination could be unbeatable. The blend of lawyer’s knowledge and an AI machine’s technology-oriented analytics can result in a much smarter process when compared separately to the machine or the lawyer’s individual performance.

The Promise of Augmented Intelligence

What’s interesting is there is really no vast-scale commercial application of Augmented Intelligence available today. AI start-ups are doing something on the edges, for example with Alexa, face-matching, in traffic mapping or bots. Of course, this is very likely to change in the near future.

In the legal industry, the story is a little different. What we are finding is that vendors are trying to apply Artificial Intelligence solutions in a narrow scope but to large-scale problems. For example, the construction of contracts is laborious; there is a lot of review of involved clauses. But if AI can help organizations analyze or create contracts; or help them understand the impact of events on a large number of contracts, then the process could become more automated. AI is perfectly suited for such applications. At our firm for example, we are testing and piloting a number of initiatives that AI vendors are bringing forth to the legal industry. Some of our lawyers and teams are using that information to observe if the promise of AI can be put to real-world tests.

Crossing Financial Borders

Along with gaining familiarity with IT, CFOs should also “cross financial borders” by going outside the boundaries of finance and getting involved in organizational projects. Since every action does have financial consequences, these provide the use cases for CFOs to get involved in every management function. Such efforts will not only enhance the CFOs’ personal skills and abilities to engage in problem solving, it will also ensure their strong ties with senior management and consequently, help to improve financial performance. Indeed, legal CFOs and CIOs are being drawn closer as IT proliferates not only through finance but also through the entire fabric of a law firm.