This year’s Legalweek conference was back to an in-person event in New York City — a significant change from the virtual format in 2021. Folks who hadn’t seen each other in person in over two years (or met for the first time in person) were able to talk and exchange ideas while sharing a hug, a meal, or a drink. Over and over again, the words, “It’s so good to see you, in person!” echoed throughout hallways and conference rooms.
But as good as it feels to reconnect, it was also abundantly clear that the pandemic has fundamentally and permanently altered our world. There is no return to the “normal” we knew prior to March of 2020. The pandemic has changed us. Over the last two years, we have reprioritized what’s important in our lives, which has changed not only where we work, but how we work. And technology, as it always does, has evolved to keep up with those changes.
As we emerge into this new world, our eyes blinking in the sun, these changes may fill us with anxiety. Change, after all, can be scary. But as Don Draper, the fictional Madmen character, once said when talking to a client about cultural change in 1960s New York City: “Change is neither good nor bad, it simply ‘is.’ It can be greeted with terror or joy — a tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, something new!’"
Below, I’ve outlined some key industry changes that were discussed throughout Legalweek, as well as how legal technology companies can help law firms and organizations greet these changes as an opportunity, rather than something to be feared.
The virtual workforce revolution is here to stay
The massive and abrupt pivot to remote working for organizations and law firms is not a blip that will reverse itself once the pandemic “ends.” Prior to 2020, it was a trend bubbling under the surface. The pandemic simply accelerated that trend more quickly than previously anticipated, and in doing so, permanently changed the landscape of white-collar careers. Most young adults who entered the workforce over the last two years have never known a world where work had to take place solely in an office setting. Meanwhile, more experienced workers — suddenly able to reap the flexibility that remote working provides — also do not seem keen to go back to a more rigid office-based work environment. And the younger generations waiting in the wings to enter the workforce over the next five to ten years have grown up learning and socializing in much more immersive virtual settings than any previous generation. As they become consumers and employees, technology will continue to evolve to accommodate their comfort interacting in those virtual environments. With a worldwide workforce shortage that does not seem like it well ebb anytime soon, this modern workforce will have the upper hand when it comes to demanding a more flexible, remote work environment, as well as access to the technology that facilitates it.
Thus, organizations will not only have to adapt to these changes — they may need to lean heavily into them to survive. We can see the harbingers of this sea change even today. More and more companies are entering the metaverse , investing in NFTs, and utilizing virtual reality (VR) technology to perform work that would have typically been done in person or on flat screens (like training new employees). Microsoft, developers of one of the world’s most heavily used cloud collaboration and work platforms (M365 and Teams), also announced plans to introduce VR technology in 2022 that will work in conjunction with their existing technology, facilitating a more immersive virtual remote working experience for workers around the world.
All these potential new data sources will significantly increase challenges from a data governance, data privacy, and eDiscovery perspective. But rest assured, the work that legal technology providers are doing now to put better systems in place to handle existing cloud-based tools will help lay the framework for how we handle data from the metaverse and other new sources in the future. For example, some eDiscovery providers and lawyers are already advocating for a move away from the traditional eDiscovery “custodial” ownership framework in order to accommodate how cloud-based data is stored and interacted with in organizations. Forward-thinking eDiscovery service providers are also advocating for a more holistic view of eDiscovery, one that begins at the data source and spans the entire data lifecycle — which will be a necessity as we move into a more virtual-based workplace. Technology providers are also starting to factor eDiscovery, data privacy, and compliance issues into future roadmaps and upgrades — making it easier to manage, search, and export data from new data sources for eDiscovery and compliance purposes.
There is no magic bullet — a risk balancing act
The shift to a more virtual world significantly increases risk for organizations and the law firms that represent them. Utilizing cloud-based tools and newer technology to facilitate a more virtual workplace will be increasingly important for organizations. However, due to the volume of data, and the speed at which it’s created, organizations will have to accept increased risks related to data privacy, data security, compliance, eDiscovery, etc. In effect, in today’s cloud-based world, there is no magic bullet that will completely eliminate risk caused by the proliferation and speed of data. Organizations are learning to balance risk and innovation when it comes to technology, rather than take an “all or nothing” approach. To do so, stakeholders from across the company must have a seat at the table when deciding how much risk they’re willing to take on in order to keep their employees productive and customers satisfied via technology. Knowledgeable legal technology service providers are already helping organizations adapt to this balancing act. Companies that have dedicated cloud technology experts can help their clients understand the technology they are using and how it works within their own environment. They can also help their clients staying abreast of ever-evolving risks presented by cloud-based technology and provide risk mitigation strategies that fit within the priorities of the organization.
An increasing need to lean on managed service providers
Today’s cloud-based tools and applications are increasingly complicated and present increased risks that must be managed. Additionally, due to global workforce shortages (i.e., “the great resignation) and unpredictable economic conditions (caused not only by the pandemic but by market uncertainty around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increasing gas prices, supply shortages, inflation, etc.), employees are often being asked to do more work with less budget and resources.
Together, these two factors have led organizations and law firms to lean more on outsourcing specific segments and technology processes to outside service providers. The benefits of partnering with a trustworthy service provider to manage segments of the organization that require specialized expertise are manifold.
The right service provider will have experts on staff who are wholly dedicated to understanding and managing specific technology, processes, and risk. Offloading management to those partners allows organizations to refocus on their own underlying mission. Service providers may also be better positioned to advocate for a company’s needs with pure technology providers because they have an existing partnership with those companies. This can help organizations fill technology gaps without spending weeks or months trying to negotiate with technology providers.
Partnering with service providers also allows the organization to offload risks associated with the management of specific technology or processes to a company that is much better equipped to understand and take on that risk.
Outsourcing work to a service provider can also significantly lower overhead costs and allow organizations to stay leaner and nimbler — empowering them to focus on tasks that add value to the underlying business while providing relief to overworked employees. In short, a good legal technology service partner can become an extension of an organization’s own team while lowering overhead and risk.
Diversity can no longer be just a numbers game
Over the last few years, we saw organizations and law firms focusing more on diversity efforts. Often, this focus was merely numerical, intended to increase the headcount of diverse staff. While this effort is well-intended (and long overdue), we are now seeing more demand for a deeper commitment to diversity and inclusion that goes beyond statistics, diversity training, and simple corporate statements.
Today’s workforce, spurred on in part by a new generation of employees, are demanding that organizations be truly committed to diversity and equality on a deeper level — with action that is evident across the organization, from leadership profiles, to internal and external teams, to opportunities for advancement, to vendor selection, etc. And due to labor shortages, this new workforce has the power to effect change by refusing to work for companies that can’t demonstrate this type of commitment.
Both the legal and technology industries have historically suffered from a lack of diversity. This is evident from the diversity gaps we still see in the industry today. However, this lack of diversity also presents an opportunity for legal technology companies to make a more significant impact. There is no downside to leaning into diversity. In fact, studies have shown that diverse companies are more successful. Legal technology companies have an opportunity to lead the way by putting dedicated systems in place to ensure that their leadership is diverse, that diversity is represented across all teams and company segments, that annual review processes and career advancement within the company are focused on equality, and that employees from underrepresented communities feel supported and seen within the company. Legal technology companies also have a unique opportunity to support groups that are dedicated to increasing legal and technology education and training opportunities for underrepresented communities (which is often at the root of the diversity problem across both industries). In this way, legal technology companies can help lead by example for the organizations and law firms they serve — showing that truly, a more diverse company is a more innovative company.
The world we are facing in 2022 is much different than the pre-pandemic world we left behind. The changes we are encountering today can present significant challenges to organizations and law firms — but they also present unique opportunities for growth. Legal technology companies can help both segments take advantage of these opportunities and emerge into a brighter future.