The 2020 dilemma – to hire a legal technology specialist or not

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] January 29, 2020

Innovation, new technology adoption, security, continuous improvement, automation, AI, the robot lawyer – and so the list goes on. Does your law firm have the skills it needs to thrive, or do you need to bring in some expertise? What better time to consider this than the start of a new decade, writes Mark Andrews.

The start of a new year and a new decade represents a great time to reflect on what will make your firm or in-house team successful in the next three, five and 10 years.

While we live in a technological era, having the right skills remains the key to business success and you may be well served by bringing in a legal technology specialist. Let’s consider this in a few stages, though; firstly in terms of auditing the skills you have, secondly by considering what skills you might be able to build internally and, finally, what talent you might look for externally.

Auditing your skills

At a basic level, you should consider the skills you have in your firm or in-house team at the moment. For people skills and capacity, do you have individuals on the lawyer side of the business who are:

  • prepared to spend additional time experimenting with alternative technology solutions;
  • open minded when it comes to trying new technology;
  • connected and credible within the organisation so that their opinions are valued;
  • aware of the impact of technology on the future practice of law; and
  • cognisant of security imperatives and restrictions.

In addition, do you have individuals on the technology side of the business who are:

  • able to converse in a business-focused way with lawyers;
  • interested in and possess an understanding of the practice of law;
  • familiar with more current technologies such as AI; and
  • happy and able to invest time in exploring alternative technologies.

And at a more general level, do you have:

  • project/program management skills;
  • knowledge of stage/gate processes and the ability to apply them (stage/gate being a typical R&D process where ideas must pass through various gates or checkpoints as they progress through stages of maturity and require more investment);
  • communication skills to help you capture and share success stories; and
  • knowledge of benefits realisation and how to identify and measure benefits.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we can group these points into six broad categories:

1. Mindset – openness, interest, time investment

2. Persuasion – connected, credible, communication skills

3. Security – risks, imperatives, restrictions

4. Management – project, program, change

5. Business – technology impact, practice of law

6. Process – stage/gate, benefits realisation.

To complete a basic audit, give your organisation a score from 1 to 10 for the quality of skills in each of the six areas. This can be plotted graphically using a spider chart, or simply with bar graphs.

Building skills internally

Mindset, persuasion and security need to be thought of as table stakes – if you are not scoring above 5 in each of these areas you need to address your internal skills gap before considering anything else. If your scores are 6-7, then some attention is still required in these areas. Scores of 8 and above mean that skills deficiencies in these areas are unlikely to hold you back or derail your plans.

To address skills gaps with mindset is not easy; it takes a strong leader or strong leaders, but these need not be the leaders of your firm or in-house team. Look broadly across your organisation because you may well find that some of the more junior people in your firm are well positioned to take on leadership roles in terms of coaching and guiding around more open mindsets.

Persuasion skills can be trained, and for private practice some of the best trainers will no doubt be your clients – if you can talk pragmatically in business terms, you are on the right path in terms of persuasion skills. Don’t underestimate more traditional training around presentation, plain English writing, negotiation and communication skills.

Security skills can, to a degree, be brought in from outside, but some level of internal skill is still essential. For even the smallest firm or in-house team, you need at least someone tasked with responsibility for oversight of IT security.

Management skills, in the context of this article, can be trained or brought in, but they should not be underestimated – they are critical and too often lacking. With business and process skills, you may decide to go external.

I would argue that while you can supplement your internal skills, you need to make sure that at least mindset, persuasion and security skills are present internally. To bring in a legal technology specialist without these skills is not an effective investment.

Looking externally

In thinking about engaging an external legal technology specialist, you need to consider what sort of specialist you need. We can classify them in three broad types:

  • Evangelist;
  • Technologist; and
  • Improvers.

Evangelists are the specialists who inspire, who talk about the future potential, who encourage you to explore and test, who paint a bold picture of the future, and who are unrelenting in their drive for you to adopt technology and innovate the way you do business. They are able to push your mindset skills, strengthen your business skills and act as role models for persuasion skills. Be aware, however, that the lower you score for mindset skills, the more risky an evangelist is as they will create cynicism.

Technologists are just that – specialists in technology who can supplement any gaps in your technology team and who are able to bring a broad market knowledge to the problems you are facing. They may have minimal process/business knowledge and will rely on you to translate technology to application. They can add considerable value, but think carefully as it is easy to engage a technologist when you may, in fact, really need an evangelist or improver.

Improvers are the process-focused specialists who will ensure that you have both the right enabling processes in place (such as stage/gate) and that your existing business processes are reviewed and improved. They may or may not be specialists in legal process.

When thinking about engaging external specialists, put a percentage against the three types depending on the importance to you. This will help you shortlist potential specialists. When shortlisting, probe the specialist for evidence of how they go about things, from where they draw their knowledge, what success means to them, what they have done for other organisations and how they would self-assess across evangelising, ‘technologising’ and improving.

In conclusion

You can benefit greatly from engaging the right external legal technology specialists, but before you do so make sure your house is in order – assess your current mix of skills, focus on improving key internal skills and, in particular, the table stakes of mindset, persuasion and security.

When going external, determine what skills you most need and therefore what sort of specialist you might need. Above all, look at the experience the specialist has and how they define success as this will be the best indicator of how they might work with you.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.