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Ensuring access: Law firms adopt technology for better security, document search

Much like other industries, the legal world is rapidly adopting new technologies to improve efficiencies, better serve clients and ultimately to maintain security and remain profitable in an ultra-competitive industry.

Long considered an industry slow to adapt and resistant to technological advancements, the law-firm landscape is quickly changing as data analysis, predictive analytics and other technology developed and improved during the past decade take hold. Local law firms are using technology to serve clients at any time or place, improve security, identify relevant documents and predict costs for clients.

“You can’t be faxing with your clients anymore,” said Chris Rodi, a partner in the corporate department at Rochester, New York-based Woods Oviatt Gilman, who also chairs the firm’s technology committee. “We need to keep up with our clients — we have a lot of cutting-edge technology clients — and they expect us to communicate and operate on the level that they do.”

One of the most important developments in recent years is the transfer of data to cloud-based platforms rather than in-house storage. Rodi said the lifeblood of a law firm is documents, noting the firm is working toward moving much of that to a cloud-based platform to give attorneys access to documents from any device anywhere on the planet.

Justin Runke, partner at Rochester-based Harris Beach who is co-leader of the firm’s health care team and heads the technology committee, said Harris Beach in recent years has moved much of its data to cloud-based storage strictly to improve security.

“It gives us the cutting-edge security that, frankly, if we were to do it by ourselves would be cost-prohibitive,” he said. “And we’ve taken the steps to really take all the sensitive information we have, outside the paper that exists — and we’re trying to get away from that — to move all of that sensitive information to the cloud for the security that provides to our clients and the comfort that it gives them.”

Rodi said at Woods the focus is on accessibility, availability and security when it comes to adopting new technologies.

“We’re always trying to make it so our clients can access us at any time, no matter where we are, and then when they do, make it so the attorneys have access to everything they need to help the client who has reached them,” Rodi said. “Then the caveat to all of that is having to do it in a very, very secure manner.”

Security is a theme that comes up over and over in talking with attorneys about adopting new technologies.

“One of the struggles, frankly, that we have as we mature into the digital age is the security around all of the services that we’re delivering,” Runke said. “They’re looking at us and saying, ‘We’re providing you in many respects our most sensitive information, and we’re relying on you to protect that information,’ and how we do that is first and foremost how we’re extending our technology resources.”

Rodi pointed out that at Woods Oviatt Gilman the offices’ non-public spaces are locked down and require keycard access, and the same approach is taken with digital data, documents and other information.

Security and reliability are incredibly important to law firms, according to David Otte, chief operating officer at Syracuse, New York-based Bond, Schoeneck and King, noting firms must have an understanding of where data is stored and the security involved in that storage. Security is “paramount at Bond,” Otte said, adding the firm is tasked with handling sensitive information, and clients expect that information to be secure.

Dawn Russell, director of compliance and risk management at Harris Beach, whom Runke described as the “architect and driver” of the firm’s security program, said as technological advancements move forward security becomes more crucial for law firms. Russell, who previously worked in the financial industry, said many of the same protections used in banking have been implemented at Harris Beach.

Humans are inherently the weakest link in any security system involving technology, Russell said, and Harris Beach has made efforts to adopt secure strategies and train employees in how to handle and access information safely.

“Training is really, really important,” Russell said. “If the people who are handling the information don’t know how to handle it, it doesn’t matter what technologies you put in place.”

In addition to cloud-based platforms, firms are also using videoconferencing and other technologies to connect lawyers with one another and their clients.  Especially among younger attorneys, there’s an expectation to be able to work from home or elsewhere, which requires access to some of the firm’s documents and systems, Rodi said.

“We have a lot of folks who want to continue to practice but want a work-life balance,” Otte said, noting that firms have to try to accommodate mothers, fathers and others who want to be able to work from outside the office. “We have to be able to provide solutions to help them serve clients wherever they are.”

Otte said the ability to work remotely also enables the firm to attract and retain talent, which is increasingly important in a competitive field.

“It’s hard to find talent, and when you find that talent you want to be able to bring it in, regardless of where it’s located,” he said.

Otte said another development in recent years is the firm’s usage of data analysis to create budgets and forecast financial models to accommodate clients. Data analysis allows the firm to come up with accurate budgets, Otte said, and case-management software allows lawyers to see how they’re doing compared to budget on a daily basis.

“So they’re able to proactively head off any cost overruns or be able to address those proactively,” he said. “Clients are more sensitive now than ever to costs and budgets.”

Otte, who previously served as a chief information officer at Sidley Austin, said Bond also maintains a team of e-discovery professionals who take in data from clients, analyze the data and provide attorneys with collections to review for litigation and other practices. E-discovery uses artificial intelligence-type tools to scan large numbers of records and identify relevant documents, Otte said, noting it helps “find the needles in the haystack.”

“Our lawyers are still involved in the process and help refine the collections. It really brings down a collection from several hundred thousand documents to a couple thousands or a couple hundred documents the lawyers have to spend a lot of time analyzing.”

Runke said Harris Beach started using e-discovery tools several years ago, recognizing it was an emerging technology. In addition to saving time, Runke said the e-discovery services are also “clearly more accurate” than humans.

In the coming years, technology is poised to play an even bigger role in the legal field as artificial intelligence improves and major players such as LegalZoom carve out a larger share of the simple day-to-day, commodity-type services lawyers have performed for decades.

Otte said in the coming years, artificial intelligence is likely to take lawyers out of certain basic decisions, pointing out the technology has already taken some work away from paralegals and associates.

“It is a big deal, and it’s going to be an even bigger deal a couple of years from now,” he said, adding that in the future lawyers would have to provide value in more substantive decision-making beyond the simple day-to-day or routine legal tasks.

Artificial intelligence could also lead to forecasting outcomes, something Runke called a “hot topic,” noting it could become a useful tool in the future.

As technology advances, Runke said it is critical to make sure firms are staying up-to-date on new products and services, but also to ensure investments are mutually beneficial to clients and attorneys. Firms are assembling technology committees to evaluate new technologies and oversee their adoption.

“It’s critical at the end of the day, and it’s difficult,” Runke said of deciding when and what technologies to adopt. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis, and we look at the clients that we’re serving, the clients that we’re looking to serve and figure out how best to deliver the services that they’re looking for.”

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