Bloomberg Law
Dec. 1, 2015, 6:46 PM

Another Law Firm Adopts Automation Technology

Nora Macaluso

In the latest sign that more and more legal services are being automated, Akerman has announced it will operate a data center that allows corporate clients to quickly look up data privacy and security regulations without having to consult a human lawyer.

Called the Akerman Data Law Center, it will be powered by Neota Logic, a software that has already helped a half-dozen law firms launch apps and other platforms that provide clients with quick automated answers on basic compliance questions.

Neota markets its software as a way to “create a living, breathing” survey of the regulations related to a specific area of law, Matt Gillis, the company’s president, told Big Law Business. The software uses “decision trees” to pose a series of questions to a user, leading ultimately to an answer to a specific question. Gillis compared the software to Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax software, which draws up individual tax forms based on responses to plain-English questions. The technology can be applied to “anything that’s rules-based,” he said.

“The future of the legal practice is going to be to do more and more strategic partnerships between law firms and non-legal service providers, and also more automation,” said co-chair Martin Tully, co-chair of Akerman’s data law practice and located in Chicago. “It’s both wise and necessary for innovative law firms to be ahead of the curve in embracing those realities,” he said.

The data center is a web-based platform that allows clients to obtain answers to questions like whether a company is obligated to notify regulators about a data loss, and, if so, which authorities to contact, Akerman said in a press release in November , announcing the new service.

Jeffrey Sharer, an Akerman partner who co-chairs the data law practice, said the client sees the same decision tree that the client would work through with him over the phone if they were to call. “Where we want them calling us is where the answer isn’t clear, where there are gray areas,” he said. “This is a way of helping them identify those.”

Akerman is far from the first law firm to invest in Neota Logic’s software: Foley & Lardner is using Neota software to help its international clients comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and Norton Rose Fulbright is working with the company on document and process automation in its London and South Africa offices. Another law firm uses the software to track Clery Act reporting requirements for campus security, and another firm is using it as a way of determining what types of work visas individual job candidates might need, said Gillis, who didn’t disclose the names of the two firms.

Littler Mendelson — which in August announced the hiring of a director of data analytics — is also using Neota’s software to provide clients with guidance on questions about employment law. ComplianceHR, a joint venture between Littler and Neota announced in May , aims to provide in-house counsel and human resource professionals with the ability to make workplace-related decisions based on state and federal employment laws, such as determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor.

In its press release, Akerman said its data law center provides a way for corporate compliance officers to access U.S. state and federal data privacy and security regulations at a price that is 80 percent lower than traditional hourly rates. Thomson Reuters is providing the information on the state law, and is a competitor of Bloomberg LP, which owns Big Law Business.

Akerman and Neota declined to disclose financial terms of the deal.

Gillis said the company has non-disclosure agreements with its clients — but terms are generally structured in two parts: A subscription consisting of a monthly fee for the platform, an additional fee based on the exact features selected, and a per-hour charge for professional services such as training of staff.

Law firms benefit by investing in such technological platforms, even if they automate work, he said, because it strengthens their relationships with clients.

“They actually end up generating more billable hours,” he said, “because they’ve created better relationships with their clients,” and are providing services — such as looking up regulations state by state — that they normally wouldn’t get, or would have to write off, he said.

Jie Zhang, research director with Gartner Inc, said the legal industry has long considered a laggard as far as the adoption of technology, but that is beginning to change.

“It’s a very risk-averse industry, so they tend to be more conservative in adopting new technologies,” Zhang said in an interview with Big Law Business. “But their clients — especially the financial industry, pharmaceuticals, health care, oil and gas — all these companies are leveraging technology to transform into a new, more digitized business.”

The rise of cloud and mobile computing is contributing to the shift, said Zhang, a view echoed by Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half International’s legal division.

Concerns about cybersecurity and compliance are getting more attention with the growing reliance on electronic data and cloud computing, Volkert told Big Law Business. “That’s where we’re seeing a lot of proactive work being done,” he said.

“As the landscape becomes more competitive, certainly coming out of the downturn, law firms are continuing to look for ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace,” Volkert said. “One of those ways is having a very sound technology infrastructure, utilizing cloud computing and other innovative tools to support their clients.”

Akerman plans to expand its use of the technology to areas including records retention, said Tully and Sharer. The model is one that’s easily adaptable to other areas with regulatory requirements, they said.

Neota’s platform “gives us the building blocks” to design a product without knowing the coding behind it, Sharer said. “We can have a much greater role in the design of the interface” than would be possible with traditional software, he said.

“It’s been just a couple weeks since we launched, and the response has typically been along the lines of, ‘Not only is this a good idea in the application you’re making of it, but have you thought of these two or three or four other areas where a similar model would work?’” Sharer said.