Business of law: Knowledge is beginning to take wing

Firms have been slow to invest in data analytics and knowledge processing platforms, but some are now moving ahead of the curve

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Big data has been one of the business world’s buzziest phrases this year. The practice of harnessing large quantities of day-to-day information and analysing it for patterns to inform new ways of working has been embraced by sectors beyond technology, from retail to financial services and even fraud investigators.

Law firms, meanwhile, have been laggards. They are aggregators of huge amounts of information and knowledge, yet have been slow to deploy it beyond traditional legal advice. That is beginning to change, at least among the most innovative firms.

At the heart of legal service, however, is the client.

Seyfarth Shaw, which tops the rankings in this sector, created a platform to facilitate information-sharing with its corporate clients. SeyfarthLink is a combination of the digital services that firms routinely provide to clients – such as an extranet with document-review, contract-management, process-mapping, file-sharing and so on – and newer services such as predictive analytics, or statistical techniques that include data mining and future modelling.

Given Seyfarth’s traditional focus on employment, there is also a large portion devoted to labour law, with services such as a tracker for any accommodation made by a company for a particular employee, and assistance for employers that have to deal with large unions. It is proving popular with clients: nearly 600 companies now use SeyfarthLink, and over the past year, page views have more than doubled to about 200,000.

Another employment-focused law firm, Littler Mendelson, has developed a tool to facilitate not only client understanding about the plethora of labour regulations, but also their input in how those regulations are developed.

Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute gives companies access to the firm’s 1,000 attorneys who specialise in employment advice. It aims to be a broker between its clients and Capitol Hill, advising companies on subjects ranging from giving testimony to a select committee when regulations are drafted, to how to file an amicus brief should the legislation be particularly onerous.

And what if your clients are themselves immersed in innovative technology? For a firm such as Cooley, which has long served companies in Silicon Valley, putting document-management services on any old website was not going to impress. Cooley GO is a website which (as perhaps the highest possible accolade from a tech client might have it) does not look as though it has been made by lawyers.

While document management and creation services are available, Cooley has thought about the further needs of its particular clients: the documents in question include how to develop a privacy policy, for example, while targeted tutorials include how to allocate stock to founders. Cooley has also eschewed traditional marketing to focus on social media and blogs to promote its site.

Kirkland & Ellis also knows the power of playing to one’s strengths. The firm, which is a powerhouse in advising on top-drawer mergers and acquisitions, realised there was a dearth of material about how private deals – or failed acquisitions – were structured. An initiative to harness information gleaned in the legal market is paying dividends, with information on 1,000 deals now collated and analysed to the advantage of both lawyer and client.

Data analysis is also being used to attract clients in the first place. A sure sign that a company is in a spot of legal bother – perhaps following the announcement of a regulatory investigation – is that its share price will take a hammering. Follow-on lawsuits filed by shareholders who allege that management should have known that such news would precipitate a drop in the value of their shares are all too common. There have been 78 such securities class actions filed so far in the US in 2014, according to research published by the New York Times.

The practice of harnessing information for patterns to inform new ways of working has been embraced across sectors

Weil, Gotshal & Manges sees those cases as business opportunities, and so for the past year has been monitoring stock drops of more than 5 per cent and comparing them with research on its clients and other companies. It approaches companies that suffer such a drop, explaining the risk of a lawsuit. It has resurrected a former client relationship that way, and was prepared for litigation for another client when the lawsuit was filed.

That technology is so client-centric among law firms is certainly a positive, but are firms perhaps missing a trick? In the UK legal market, technology has been harnessed to streamline processes and to make business models more efficient. But this is not really the case in the US, where the vast legal market gives less of a financial imperative to trim fat.

It is a Canadian firm, however, that has undertaken efforts more like its UK than US counterparts in this regard. McCarthy Tétrault, which has deployed new technology and an alternative legal-services provider, has seen clients receiving bills that are as much as 30 per cent lower. Evidence, perhaps, that smart use of technology can benefit both firm and client.


Applause for the creation of an international behemoth

Bob Dell

It is hard to overstate the impact that Bob Dell has had on Latham & Watkins, where he has been chairman for the past 20 years.

Mr Dell, 62, will step down from that role in later this month,, and from the firm where he has been for 32 years of his career, initially as a litigator before he moved into management.

In the past two decades he has orchestrated a strategy that has seen Latham grow from a firm of 583 lawyers whose centre of gravity was very much Los Angeles, to the $2.3bn international behemoth it is today, with more than 2,100 lawyers across 31 offices worldwide.

That international growth – aggressive in its lateral hiring of partners – has been achieved, unusually, without merging with another firm.

When pressed on what he feels is his greatest achievement, Mr Dell replies: “Building our global presence but, even more importantly, doing so while preserving our highly valued culture, which is not easy.”

Such a legacy is enough to confer upon Mr Dell the North American Innovative Lawyers’ first-ever special achievement award.

Latham has taken on the competition in two of the most cut-throat legal markets in the world – New York, and more recently, London – and is doing so successfully. It has built on its key practice areas and a few choice clients to become a rounded force.

“When Bob took over 20 years ago, Latham was an LA firm that had tried to do a few other things outside LA, although not terribly well,” the managing partner of a firm headquartered in New York confides.

“Twenty years ago, our competition would have been the other Wall Street firms. Now, Latham is very much on the list.”

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