Law Firm Creates Internal ‘Skunkworks’ to Develop Tech

Nov. 14, 2017, 9:10 PM

Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP has long represented technology startups and companies, and now its leadership is hoping it can convince clients that some of that innovative spirit has rubbed off on its own lawyers.

The San Francisco-headquartered firm recently hired three developers to staff an internal technology ‘incubator,’ called Orrick Labs, that aims to turn lawyers’ ideas about how to achieve greater efficiency into reality.

By making a concerted, publicized effort to invest in technology, Orrick joins a growing number of law firms seeking to shake off the boilerplate reputation of law firms as stale organizations that cling to outmoded and inefficient work methods. Instead, the firm wants to be known as responsive to client demands for better value and efficiency. It has already unveiled or is developing tools such as a collaboration and workflow tool for lawyers to organize or draft documents.

“This is a small skunkworks operation,” said firm chairman Mitch Zuklie about Orrick Labs. “We’re not going to build [something] and see if they come. Everything will be thoughtfully designed.”

In the past few months, Zuklie recruited several former colleagues from earlier in his career in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he worked at the Venture Law Group. VLG was a Silicon Valley-based law firm that represented corporate startups and developed a reputation for embracing technology, which eventually merged into Heller Ehrman.

Jackson Ratcliffe, a recruit who had been consulting for the firm on several technology projects, joined as Orrick Lab’s technology architect in July. One of the lab’s first products is a dashboard system for the firm’s technology practice group that helps the lawyers organize client documents, and provide useful, if mundane, information like lists of directors and fax numbers designed to expedite service.

Ratcliffe had an epiphany while attending a Google Cloud conference in San Francisco last spring, he said. He could build an enterprise document collaboration tool for all the firm’s lawyers that took advantage of cloud-based tools such as translation and workflow checklists.

Other law firms experimenting with investment in technology include Dentons and labor law firm Littler. Dentons launched an accelerator in 2015 that aims to transform the legal profession through investments in legal technology startups. Littler created a dashboard that its clients can use to check progress on their cases and an automated program clients can use to navigate workplace laws.

Zuklie said not only clients, but laterals and even law school students ask what the firm is doing to innovate and provide legal services in a more efficient way — and Orrick Labs is part of the firm’s response.

“I think we’re at a tipping point,” where advancements in technology, client demands, a war for talent, AI, and disaggregation are creating an environment for innovation, Zuklie said. “We’re an industry that has lagged behind.”

Contact the reporter responsible for this story: Gabe Friedman at gabefriedman@outlook.com.

Contact the editors responsible for this story: Casey Sullivan at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com, Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bna.com and Tom Taylor at ttaylor@bna.com.

To read more articles log in.

Learn more about a Bloomberg Law subscription.