Data-Driven Counsel: Yes, It Can Be Done.

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The following blog is based on a panel discussion DISCO hosted with Shearman & Sterling at ILTACON 2021, “Building the Law Services Delivery Team of the Future.”

Before Meredith Williams-Range had even gotten her laptop for her new role as Chief Knowledge and Client Value Officer at Shearman & Sterling, her boss asked her if she could get the firm compliant with the new GDPR regulations — within a month. She nearly had a heart attack.

Recalling the incident in a panel discussion at ILTACON 2021, she quipped, “I have many talents, but that’s not one of them. But — we can work towards that goal.”

In undertaking the project, she found an opportunity to update the 150-year-old firm’s systems and future-proof them against the continuous change of data regulations. Several systems were old and needed to be updated. There were no explicit rules preventing global employees from saving documents in a different jurisdiction from its related transaction. Data compliance, security, and governance needed to be re-examined. 

Luckily, she had several executives eager to rethink how the firm delivered legal services. Determined not to, as she calls it, “waste a good crisis,” she worked in partnership with the CTO, Lawrence Baxter, to draft a strategy to get compliant as quickly as possible — which grew into the larger Shearman Analytics initiative.

The initiative had three pillars: 

  1. Develop a data collection strategy
  2. Build the data governance plan  
  3. Leverage data analytics to differentiate the firm’s offering

Together, these pillars gave Shearman & Sterling the opportunity to become data-driven counsel. Here’s how they did it. 

Getting started

Critically, this project was a firm-wide initiative with cross-functional teams. “​​That way we could have people learn from each other,” Williams-Range explained. “If you don't bring your people along in that journey, then you're going to fail.” However, the firm also partnered with managed service providers, including DISCO, to fill in gaps. 

The team decided to tackle the most high-risk areas first: new business intake, email, and work product (the latter was a task so daunting that it was internally dubbed the “Never Again” project). 

It turned out Shearman & Sterling had one billion documents spread out over 100 different repositories that needed to be consolidated into one document management system (DMS) to be compliant. The team needed to cull the documents based on data retention policies and organize the data, often relying on machine learning from partners to be able to, for example, tag documents without a client identification number. By applying the right partner model, with technology and people, the firm was able to reduce its total document population down by 70% in two years.

Shearman & Sterling rolled out the DMS in phases, starting with a pilot with some friendly practice groups and then expanding to partners all over the globe. This required several long Zoom calls with participants spanning multiple time zones, virtual war teams with outside parties, and a lot of exhaustion. 

Email was a particular challenge, because although it is pivotal in terms of preservation, expecting partners to go back and file all their emails would be impossible. Here, Shearman & Sterling relied on DISCO Professional Services. DISCO AI was able to auto-classify the 30 million emails in less than 12 days. 

Fellow ILTACON panelist Glenn LaForce, Global Director of Knowledge & Research at Shearman & Sterling, shared that previously, 4% of documents went into the DMS. “Now, everything goes into the DMS,” he said. 

Putting together the process

“The firm was very good at pushing out technology, but for the purpose of technology,” said Williams-Range. “And when you do that, you're not listening necessarily to your users — and more importantly, you're not taking advantage of the governance aspect that needs to go along with that.”

The firm created a six-pronged process for change:

  1. Change management 
  2. Governance and policy 
  3. Technology group and execution
  4. Business processes
  5. Collection and storage
  6. Architecture

LaForce noted that implementing a new system was “wildly unpopular” at times, but governance was a key contributor in getting to 100% adoption. The team had over 2,000 engagement sessions — one-on-ones with every critical partner — to get past these hurdles. Process-wise, they documented processes from distributing closing sets to handling knowledge, then worked the technology around that process. 

“We interviewed 220 lawyers and shadowed them before we ever engaged with a technology,” said Williams-Range. “Because we needed to understand their process that they were going through and how and why they were doing certain things. And we then had to start to break some of those habits. We could have easily implemented a piece of technology in three months, but it would not have solved the actual problems of our people or improved the process. We would have had a revolt on our hands.”

The team also wanted to move to a cloud-first mentality and found success after talking to clients and choosing the right vendors. “As a law firm, we don't want to have servers everywhere with data on it and have somebody be able to come in and hack us,” explained LaForce. “We want ISO certification from my vendors. We want to be able to trust that this information is siloed and secure.” 

Partners initially thought that many of the firm’s banking clients would not be able to accommodate this shift due to privacy regulations, but after using an AI tool to analyze court orders and guidelines, they determined not a single one prevented them from migrating their data to the cloud. (As far as the humans at the banks, Williams-Range reported having “seven or eight conversations,” but most didn’t care about the intricacies of where data was stored as Shearman & Sterling provided notice.) Still, the firm engaged with external auditors to ensure their security practices around cloud use were sound. 

This all comes back to making the technology work for the user. “​​We're not here to solve technology problems. We're here to solve business problems,” explained Williams Range. “And technology is usually the last 10% of that problem.”

The final step: analytics

After two years of work in the first two pillars, Williams-Range feels like the team has finally achieved what she calls “the sexy stuff” — analytics and dashboarding. For example, she can see on average how long it takes an associate to draft something so the team can explore opportunities for education and training. They are rolling out dashboards to partners and using analytics firms to do forecasting and revenue models for value-based pricing. 

Still, the work isn’t done. Shearman & Sterling will continue to reevaluate its systems and organizational challenges. However, with this new framework in place, everything feels possible.

“Anyone can do this,” says Williams-Range. “Start small with simply looking for opportunities in business problems that the organization is facing and find those opportunities to shine.”

“It doesn't have to be some large-scale analytics program,” adds LaForce. “Just get that quick win. Then you can build your credibility and then build up a whole analytics program.” 

For more on Shearman & Sterling’s transformation, watch the full panel discussion from ILTACON 2021 (ILTA login required). 

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Erin Russell

Erin Russell is the senior communications manager at DISCO. She has extensive experience covering tech and AI as a journalist and editor, and her bylines include Texas Monthly, Eater, and Austin Business Journal.