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3 Things Law Firms Could Learn from Software Engineers

March 20, 2018, 4:16 PM

In a short and insightful piece, Kabir Sehgal explains “Why You Should Have (at Least) Two Careers.” One sentence particularly resonates:

“When you work different jobs, you can identify where ideas interact – and more significantly, where they should interact”

Eight years ago, after a satisfying career practicing law, I was offered an amazing career change opportunity. Seizing the chance to combine my professional experience with a decades-long fascination with technology, I left the familiarity of the firm to join an engineering team developing a new entrant to the legal information market. Nearly a decade of working with high-performing engineering teams later, I have identified three constants in engineering that are readily applicable to the practice of law.

They Use the Best Tools

In the software business, as in law firms, talent is far and away the largest expense. Effective engineering teams don’t skimp on tools. Having a highly-productive engineer idle while a dated machine finishes a build is penny wise and pound foolish. The same can be said for development environments, training materials, and reference libraries.

The stereotypical engineer spends a considerable amount of their work time evaluating their current selection of tools, tweaking them so that they integrate better with their workflow, and maintaining and upgrading them with zeal. Encouraging a healthy awareness of new tooling within the job domain ensures that the team is always poised to make meaningful improvements to throughput and efficiency. Discovery and integration of better, more flexible tools provide an injection of fresh air into the more repetitive aspects of thought-work.

Law firms would be wise to take this cue seeking out tools that save professionals valuable time (often on non-billable activities). The market is bringing rapid innovation to legal information, and firms who embrace these tools will provide more effective, and cost-effective, services.

They Place a Premium on Collaboration

Most complex software development projects are not solo efforts, they require teamwork and collaboration. This, in turn, requires communication – not only among fellow engineers – but stakeholders, UX designers, QA, and others. Unfortunately, communication overhead does not grow linearly with the number of participants.

In his seminal software engineering tome, The Mythical Man Month, Frederick Brooks notes that the number of communication paths for n participants is n(n-1)/2. Quick math illustrates the challenge this presents: a team of twenty developers creates 190 discreet communication paths. With this in mind, effective engineering teams strive to minimize the friction and latency of those paths.

Effective teams sit in open workspaces, create means for frequent, informal communication, and, again, use the best available tools to boost collaboration. Rather than email, engineers prefer persistent chat tools like Slack or Hipchat that promote fluent open communication instead of siloed closed conversations. Similarly, free-form Wikis have replaced cumbersome structured document repositories with carefully planned (but poorly maintained in practice) folders as a way to share information. And, version control systems like Git manage multiple authors and changes to the codebase insuring each revision is precisely tracked, timestamped and attributed. “What is the most recent version of that module again? I think it the last one I emailed to you…” simply will not cut it.

To facilitate discovery of collaborators, companies like Bloomberg maintain a high-quality internal directory outlining the talents and connections of every member of the organization, eliminating the chatter of broadcasted “pardon the interruption” emails.

Apart from very simple matters, lawyers work in teams as well. Brooks’ formula is equally relevant. Unfortunately, many law firms rely too heavily on email as the lowest common denominator when communicating internally and with clients. In many cases, email also serves as hugely inefficient knowledge repositories. While email was state-of-the-art when introduced with ARPANET more than four decades ago, there are much better systems available today. Reducing communication overhead in law firms means rethinking ways to communicate effectively and share knowledge internally and externally. Obvious starting points are implementing tools like Slack for real-time communication, revisiting document collaboration tools, and providing a sophisticated means to locate expertise within the firm.

They Invest in Creating Repeatable Processes

Engineers look to create predictability in chaos. Establishing repeatable processes is an effective method of increasing the level of predictability in the quality and speed of software delivery. Computers are really good at iteratively executing the procedures that are dictated by software engineers. This ultimately shapes the thinking and planning involved with writing software. Every time an engineer sits down to write some code, it becomes an opportunity to create a solution that solves other similar problems.

Successful development teams establish frameworks, component libraries and other forms of reusable code to allow teams to develop new systems quickly without “reinventing the wheel” and solving the same problem multiple times. The focus is, appropriately, what is new about a particular problem rather than on the previously solved ones. This approach not only reduces costs, but it also eliminates risk as time-tested components are less likely to fail than brand new ones. Law firms that parallel this paradigm will have well established processes, documents, templates, checklists, and timelines to draw on for matters they frequently handle.

I want to be clear that I am by no means implying that law firms are technological luddites, or that software development teams do not have their own set of unique problems. I am suggesting that many law firms could see significant gains by focusing on tools, investing in their communications infrastructure, and defining repeatable processes in the delivery of services.

Joe Breda is the Executive Vice President, Product at Bloomberg BNA and has been involved in the development of Bloomberg Law since its infancy as a web-based legal information platform. Prior to joining Bloomberg, Breda was an equity partner in a boutique Syracuse, NY, law firm where he practiced for nearly 14 years. Breda has a B.S. from SUNY College at Brockport and a J.D. from Albany Law School of Union University.