Exceptional opportunities exist in legal operations to leverage development platforms—meaning tools which enable skilled configuration experts (e.g. not coders/developers) to create software applications using a platform’s technology stack at accelerated rates and lower overall development costs.
But before we dive too deeply into the weeds, it’s important to frame the discussion. Development platforms, in my view, provide the most value when aimed at specific legal functional opportunities to manage data and enable efficiencies. But they should leave certain core functionality to industry leaders.
More specifically, let’s understand that, today, many legal specific work processes are dominated by SaaS or off-the-shelf software shops. The main functional categories included in this bucker are functions like case management, law firm practice management, time entry and accounting, document management, e-discovery, conflicts, litigation holds, legal research, etc.
And, to properly define the landscape, let’s furthermore acknowledge there are other essential applications in play within law firms and legal ops excluded from this analysis. These include business applications like Outlook and Office, the use of embedded toolkits like SharePoint for simple needs, and many security infrastructure-centric tools like virus scanning, hard drive encryption, email flow and the like.
With this foundation in place, let’s explore the key benefits of development platforms.
Perhaps it is helpful to first cite some common platforms in play today. Salesforce Lightning and Oracle Visual Builder are two options available within the ecosystems of some leading CRM/ERP companies. On the other end of the continuum in the software field are startups like Autologyx, a company based in the U.K. If their name is new to you, they are one of many which offer the nimbleness and tech-centric culture so beneficial in the software industry.
More specifically, in the words of Ben Stoneman, Autologyx’s chief technology officer, “We strongly believe that putting a configurable platform like Autologyx into the hands of legal ops and process professionals has the potential to revolutionize service delivery for both law firm and in-house customers. Key capabilities for this market will be the ability to handle complex, changing legal processes, and allow for people-in-the-loop and integration of other legal tech at any point in the process”.
Startups combine a tech “can-do” attitude with the viewpoint of identifying the legal vertical as a key growth area, provide a springboard for legal ops professionals keen to create targeted software solutions for their unique needs.
That might be too technical. Perhaps a real-life example provides better context.
So, consider the task of building a matter management system for an emerging area of law. Perhaps something like bankruptcy law, an area many predict will burgeon given the pandemic. One could use a development platform to execute tasks like the following
- Create system objects: Entities like a “Matter”, “Form”, “Creditor”, “Debtor” “Law Lirm”, “First Day Pleading”, “Liability” , etc.
- Define fields within system objects: Consider the “Matter Object”. For this, creating fields like “Matter Type” (meaning the specific Chapter like 11, 13, etc.), “Matter Date”, “Matter Status” and others to add various forms, creditors, debtors, liabilities, assets make sense here.
- Create Forms: Of course, all fields need to be organized on user-facing forms.
- Create Reports: Clearly, the creation of reports such as “Show All Matters”, “Show All Law Firms”, “Show All First Day Pleadings”, etc. add value.
- Security: The ability to implement simple grants on objects (think who can add/modify/delete a record) is vital. The implementation of Zero Trust (e.g. deny then allow) functionality is key, as is the ability to bolt-on SSO (Single Sign-On) technology to protect data.
It may bear repeating that the value of development platforms is how they allow non-programmers to create full-featured systems at lower overall fixed costs. This greatly empowers innovation and creativity; technologists can run with ideas without having to ask management for funding.
To further relate this concept to core traditional infrastructure project decisions, one might say development platforms are to applications as cloud platform providers like Amazon Web Services are to infrastructure.
What do I mean by that? Well, in the “old world”, when legal project managers developed plans for new projects, the infrastructure element included hardware costs for on-prem items like servers, disk space and software licenses. These were generally fixed costs. The injection of AWS into the process allows us to “spin up” resources on a pay-as-you-go model with no long-term commitment. So, if you need a server for a project, in the “old world”, you spent tens of thousands of dollars to acquire hardware. In the “cloud infrastructure world”, you “spin up” what you need. And if you need to change them (more/less memory or disk space for example), you can do that easily as well.
Budget flexibility is always important, but in today’s world, even more so than ever.
Christopher Zegers, director of legal consulting services for Ivionics, notes that attorneys generally prefer models where they contribute their valuable time rather than having to finance projects. He also believes that sticky services, such as those one can construct with development platforms, provide business advantages.
“If we look at how sticky client services can impact business—I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen where these sticky services keep clients even after the original relationship partner exits; and I’ve seen partners exit with their clients and web services intact. Either way, it makes good business sense to be looking out for ways to improve client service and relationships. Managing partners should be identifying ideal clients and facilitating development and partners should be identifying and articulating opportunities for their clients,” said Zegers.
In closing, what are the most obvious areas of opportunity in the legal function for development platforms? The management of common legal processes like managing matters, the tracking of meetings and deadlines within the calendaring area, the exchange of data such as discovery requests or deposition reports between clients, national counsel and local counsel are a few examples relating to the management and exchange of data. Automating and streamlining processes (e.g. responding to interrogatories, efficiently completing legal research) via routing tasks to the best available, lowest-cost legal worker is another area of opportunity. And integrating legal workflows with best-in-breed tools like Tableau (for reporting) or technologies like artificial intelligence are also plentiful areas containing precious tech oriented raw materials just waiting to be mined.
So, when looking for software to address some of the more complex and challenging areas of legal operations, don’t be afraid to expand your field of vision beyond that of the typical vendors with booths at ITLACON and Legalweek. They are all great, my firm uses and has great relationships with many of them. However, development platforms sometimes offer a higher ceiling and relatively easy-to-achieve opportunity for law firms to use technology as a differentiator to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Kenneth Jones is Chief Technologist of Tanenbaum Keale, a boutique litigation law firm and Chief Operating Officer of the Xerdict Group, a SaaS legal collaboration software company. Xerdict is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tanenbaum Keale.