Big Law Firms Are Going to School on How Innovation Works

May 13, 2021, 9:55 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at signs that Big Law’s demand for lawyers with technology skills is increasing. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox on Thursday mornings.

Last month on Zoom, Northwestern University computer science and law students gave a group of legal leaders a taste of their technological future.

Students working with McGuireWoods and a Chicago-area hospital showed off a tool designed to help standardize negotiations for clinical trials between the hospital and pharmaceutical companies.

Another group of students showed how they designed software that turns briefs filed at the U.S. Supreme Court into flash cards. The idea is to help Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s lawyers prepare for oral argument.

The projects the students had developed over the semester while working with law firms and legal departments were the latest culmination of a trend in legal education. Schools are preparing students to take a technology-first view of work that lawyers have long seen as a manual endeavor.

The involvement in the Northwestern program of firms like Orrick, McGuireWoods, Mayer Brown, Reed Smith, and Honigman shows that Big Law is placing value on those skills for future attorneys.

Furthering that trend, Dechert, one of the 50 largest U.S. law firms, announced this week it’s starting an innovation certification program that will be open to 40 people in its first year.

Dechert’s program, in partnership with design firm IDEO, requires lawyers or business professionals to take four classes over six months. The pupils finish by developing a solution to a real-life client or business challenge. The firm says it’ll view attorney participation positively when making promotion decisions.

“There are more and more signals from the marketplace for our students,” Dan Linna, director of law and technology initiatives at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said in an interview. “They need to hear from employers that this is valuable to them.”

Law schools have been adding courses designed to foster technological skills at least since the start of the last decade. Fifty schools offered programs on legal services delivery as of last year, according to an index of law school innovation Linna created.

The schools, though, have struggled with concerns that large firms, most of which remain heavily devoted to the billable hour, are uninterested in lawyers who might use technology to shave time off projects.

But applying that critique to the entirety of large firms is looking like an increasingly naïve analysis. Firms face a threat from tech-focused companies that help clients do legal work more efficiently. And a growing list of states, including California, are considering opening some legal services to non-lawyer ownership.

Wilson Sonsini’s technology subsidiary, SixFifty, is perhaps the most prominent example of a firm using technology to provide services clients want but are not as willing to buy. SixFifty in March released a fully automated, customizable handbook of labor and employment laws that regularly updates as changes are made across the U.S.

“For us to create a handbook for a particular client and then keep it updated when there is a change in specific jurisdictions, that’s expensive,” Marina Tsatalis, a Wilson Sonsini labor and employment partner, said in an interview. “This is a way to do it en masse and in a cost effective way.”

Ben Barnett, a Dechert partner who helped launch the firm’s innovation certification, said clients are increasingly demanding that work be handled efficiently. The way law firms quickly adjusted to remote work during the pandemic will be a catalyst for further change, he said.

“Whether the firms want to or not, by necessity, they are going to have to reimagine how they manage the legal services they provide,” Barnett said. “Clients are going to look for and reward outside counsel who are creative and find ways to meet them where they are. Legal budgets are not going up.”

Dechert’s innovation program will run from June to November and include four areas of training: creative problem-solving, client-centric service delivery, effective pricing and matter management techniques, and digital literacy. Each course will require 12 hours of structured learning and about 12 hours of research and investigation—making the program’s total commitment just shy of 100 hours. Time spent working on the projects outside of class will be counted toward billable requirements.

Completing the program, the firm said, will be included as “a central plank” in the professional development model the firm uses to recruit, train, evaluate, and promote lawyers. That model has traditionally rewarded four skills: leadership, management, communications, and client relations.

Lucia Elizalde Bulanti, Dechert’s legal innovation manager, said in an interview the program is a recognition that the skills required to service clients have changed, and that many lawyers were not trained for them.

“We believe that in order to do so we need to provide our people with an infrastructure—the time, the skills and the tools—to harness their inner creativity and boldness,” Bulanti said.

Worth Your Time

On Regulatory Reform: Sam Skolnik reports a California State Bar group is debating whether to limit a test of new legal service delivery models to organizations that serve low-income residents or broaden the experiment to a wide range of businesses. Excluding legal services delivered to corporations could set the test up for failure, one law professor said.

On Lawyers and Dementia: Holly Barker writes on how difficult it can be for colleagues and state bar associations to intervene when aging lawyers’ dementia interferes with their practices and their clients. Age-related illnesses are a major concern for the legal profession, considering in 2020 roughly 14% of American lawyers were over 65, compared with 7% of workers generally.

On State AG Practices: Ellen Gilmer reports on Big Law firms including DLA Piper, Jones Day, O’Melveny & Myers, and Crowell & Moring that are bulking up on practices focused on state attorneys general. The hires come as states target issues ranging from workers’ rights to Big Tech.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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