Practice Management

Where law firms and legal departments are succeeding with innovation

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Ari Kaplan

Ari Kaplan. (Photo by Tori Soper)

Ari Kaplan recently spoke with Aaron Crews, the chief product and innovation officer and head of enterprise at UnitedLex, a provider of alternative legal services.

They discussed UnitedLex’s unique approach to e-discovery, the evolution of artificial intelligence in the legal industry, where law firms and legal departments are succeeding with innovation, and how leadership is changing.

Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your background and your role at UnitedLex.

Aaron Crews: I am a litigator by training and a data scientist by accident. I have spent most of my career focused on the intersection of data and the law and how data informs the practice of law day to day. I started my law firm career as a trade secrets lawyer at Littler Mendelson. I later became an associate and shareholder in the firm’s e-discovery group litigating e-discovery issues. I left Littler to work in-house at Walmart, where I helped build and run the e-discovery program for several years. During that period, I advised several legal tech startups before being recruited back to Littler Mendelson for a second stint to serve as the firm’s chief data analytics officer. I was then recruited to do what I’m doing today at UnitedLex.

Ari Kaplan: What distinguishes UnitedLex’s approach to e-discovery?

Aaron Crews is the chief product and innovation officer and head of enterprise at UnitedLex, a provider of alternative legal services.

Aaron Crews: While many providers call themselves e-discovery companies, their real focus is document review more than anything else, and those business models are the number of documents times rate equals revenue. We are a data and services company for legal. Document review is a service we provide, but because we are a data company for legal, we view document review as a data problem and leverage technology to solve it efficiently, defensibly and transparently. We aim to put human eyes on as few documents as possible—within any given client’s risk tolerance. To this end, we have invested deeply in data science and the ability to leverage industry-leading tools. We have also developed a proprietary data reuse platform called the Vantage Intelligence Repository. We add records to this repository by creating a synthetic hash value of documents that have already been—or are being—reviewed. In the repository, we maintain the synthetic hash value and metadata related to document tags and how documents were used in prior matters. This allows clients to use prior decisions regarding the documents in downstream matters to make no-look productions or build models to identify issue-related and relevant documents quickly. For us, e-discovery is a data game, rather than a volume game.

Ari Kaplan: As a former chief data analytics officer at a top law firm and general counsel at a well-regarded AI technology company, how would you characterize the evolution of AI and legal?

Aaron Crews: Slow. AI in the form of technology-assisted review, continuous active learning and various analytics engines has been a part of e-discovery and the investigative life cycle for a very long time. They are accepted uses of AI, but it took them a long time to earn that trust, and it is only in the last four or five years that they have become more common. Generative AI is newer, but in the long term, it will alter the profession and work product of lawyers. Although we are in a hype cycle, this technology will eventually force lawyers to be editors, rather than authors, which is different from how the law was built. The law was traditionally built on a model of lawyers making and refining arguments via writing. Technology can now autonomously draft briefs, motions and discovery requests, so that lawyers will do less writing and more editing. This will force us to reimagine training, particularly for young lawyers.

Ari Kaplan: Where are law firms and legal departments succeeding with innovation, and where do they still face challenges?

Aaron Crews: Law firms and legal departments that remember innovation is a human-centered enterprise first and a technology-centered enterprise second are succeeding. Strong innovation initiatives highlight the source of friction and what limits professionals from performing sophisticated, strategically important work. Innovation directed at practical problems that examine how work in a particular practice gets done and how you can either take friction out or add value is essential. Continued technology improvement will allow small law firms to perform work they cannot do now and allow large, sophisticated law firms to pursue work that is not currently economically practical for them. Figuring out how to do this well is a great example of successful innovation.

Ari Kaplan: What are the most common challenges your clients are facing?

Aaron Crews: They are being asked to do more with less. Legal departments are cost centers, and organizations are increasingly scrutinizing them. The key for them is to focus on running the legal department as a business. Clients are also struggling to understand how they can work more effectively, particularly through the practical application of generative AI. Legal departments also struggle with raising the visibility of their activities, and legal operations is a vital lever that organizations can pull, although legal operations is often under-resourced. Data and analysis are the lifeblood of the impact legal operations teams can have, but they rarely have extra data scientists and analysts just lying around.

Ari Kaplan: Where do you see law firms in legal departments investing in litigation and e-discovery services?

Aaron Crews: Law firms are increasingly looking at different ways of having captive ALSPs and profitable e-discovery groups to serve clients in the modern world. They don’t necessarily want to give all of the revenue associated with that work to a third-party provider. But those investment decisions are trade-offs for law firms because, as partnerships, investing in these practices limits the revenue partners share at the end of the year. Many law firms are evaluating how to build their internal capabilities while outsourcing the technology and the infrastructure. Some outsource the review component and keep the processing and hosting. Clients also invest in outside counsel management and key strategic leaders, such as innovation officers, similar to law firms.

Ari Kaplan: You have served in various leadership positions throughout your career. How is leadership evolving?

Aaron Crews: It is more diffuse. When I was a law firm lawyer, I traveled a lot, but I also had an office and was in it a lot. When I was in-house, I worked in the office. The pandemic and the expansion of virtual work make mentoring and motivating people more difficult. EQ is more challenging, yet it is one of the most important things a leader can bring to the workplace by motivating and mentoring, shaping the organization’s direction, influencing teams and inspiring individuals. All of that is more difficult in a virtual world. As a leader, I’ve tried to spend a lot of time building those skills. Our CEO, James Schellhase, is very good at bringing people together, creating a unified message, and deploying his team to work on the plan. This is a big evolution in leadership, which is much less directive and much more focused on trusting but verifying. Leaders must also be conversant in the applicable technologies for their companies and clients. Ultimately, it is essential to dedicate the time to think about driving the organization forward in a tougher world where issues seem to accelerate all the time.

Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals.

Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change and introduce new technology at his blog and on iTunes.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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