Adam Wagman is a Senior Partner at Howie, Sacks, & Henry, and Past President of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association. He’s been involved with legal technology since he stepped into a managing partner role fifteen years ago. Last week, we sat down with him to discuss how a modern firm approaches legal tech. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the legal profession and its relationship with technology?
Lawyers hate change. I’ve seen a ton of change in my career, whether within the law firm, statutory change, or changes that affect the personal injury practice. For 99% of lawyers, when there’s a change, they’re slow to adapt and quick to object. And technology is one of the areas where the legal profession has been slow on the uptake.
Fifteen years ago, I took over as managing partner for Howie Sacks, and one of the first decisions I made was to take all the paper away – and people freaked out. “What about my paper inbox?”, they said. And I said, “You’ll have an electronic inbox, and it will look just like your paper inbox – and you’ll never lose a single document. It’ll be in the system.” Had documents gone missing before? Yes. We had one person whose job was to look for binders that went missing. Now nothing goes missing.
How has the pandemic changed the way lawyers view technology?
Over the last couple of years, the pandemic laid bare those who didn’t have the technology in place. So, for the holdouts, those who knew the tech changes were coming but were trying to put their heads in the sand, it became impossible to avoid. I’ve seen a huge sea change in the way lawyers think about technology and its necessity and realize you can’t practice law without it.
The courts have demanded we adopt technology. Most court proceedings are virtual and require you to upload electronic documents. We have a trial going on right now that was delayed because one of the lawyers had a problem getting up to speed on the technology. Judges are not going to accept that for much longer.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, how have ACL and legal tech helped you adapt?
Some of the changes we’ve seen are here to stay. The first is the idea of hybrid work environments. Being ahead of the curve from a technology perspective meant that when our world shut down in early 2020, we were able to send 100 people home and the next day everyone was fine. Not everyone had a good internet connection or a second monitor, and we dealt with that, but the software was there, and people could turn on their computers at home and work as if they were at the office.
So, through the last couple of years, the software allowed us to work remotely, and not just from home. Some people were working a lot further away, whether it was at a cottage or beach holiday. And I don’t think that’s going away. People like the flexibility. They like the ability to work from home or other locales and from the office.
The Great Resignation has made staffing for legal firms much more challenging. What role does legal tech play in retaining and acquiring talent?
I think it’s become necessary, from a staff retention perspective, especially the technologies that enable work-from-home arrangements. Let’s face it, there are jobs out there in the legal industry for support staff – lots of them – and if you’re sitting in a law firm where you’ve got to commute 45 minutes each way, an hour and half a day, five days a week, the numbers add up. And if you can do that same job at another good firm, one that will allow you to work from home half the time, and you save all that commute time, and all the other expenses that go with it, you’re going to move.
Going hand in hand with that is talent attraction. In every interview I’ve done in the last five years, a good chunk of the discussion is about technology, about what software we use, what proficiency people have with those applications, and with technology and software in general. And they’re asking about work-from-home capacity. At our firm, the technology we have gives us a leg up.
How does legal tech influence your firm’s culture and your staff’s job satisfaction?
The first word that comes to mind is efficiency. Efficiency is important because people like to feel their time is being used in a valuable way. As I said earlier, we had a person whose primary job was to search for missing binders. How much satisfaction is there in searching for missing binders that people put in the wrong file?
Being able to track tasks is another area where technology is important – from a management perspective and for individuals. When people start their day, they have a list. They don’t have to think about how to prioritize. And the faster those tasks get accomplished (back to “efficiency”), the faster the file moves, and the faster the file moves, the faster my clients get a resolution of their case (and that makes for a happier client). And the faster the case resolves, the faster we get to bill. And in a personal injury environment, it’s all contingency work. I don’t get paid one penny until the case is finished. So, the faster we can turn those cases into billings, the happier my partners are.
Then, we add consistency. Consistency across documents. Everyone’s letters, at least the simple ones, look the same. The documents coming out of our firm look the same.
And then there’s training for new people coming into the firm. We have a training process that’s well laid out and when you have good technology in place, it allows everybody coming into the firm to come up to speed much faster. Everybody is rolling in the same direction.
Then there are the little things, like when a precedent letter goes out to the client, and in the body of the letter, someone forgot to remove the previous person’s name. Before we started using ACL, this happened all the time. In ACL, you just push a button and as long as the information was entered properly the first time, every single letter and court document comes out right. And I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore.
You mentioned that legal technology helps you close files faster. Is there a straight-line connection between technology and profitability?
We use so many different software applications. It’s hard to say which one is driving profitability more than another. The best indicator would be to sit in on one of our partner meetings and compare it to the tone of our meetings fifteen years ago. The senior partners of the firm had a hard time adopting initially and are now the biggest proponents of our systems. Nobody is looking back. Nobody is second-guessing our adoption of technology and its widespread use. And there’s no question that our ability to thrive over the last couple of years is a direct product of our early adoption of technology.
About Michael Sauber
Michael Sauber leads the marketing program for Korbitec, producer of Automated Civil Litigation Software (ACL) and xchangedocs. He has worked with document production technologies and professional services for over 30 years and is a frequent blogger on these topics.