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Innovator interview: Colin Levy, Salary.com

Colin Levy writes one of the most informative and engaging blogs on legal innovation. We caught up with Colin to explore the realities of tech and the future of in-house legal.

Hi! 👋 Who are you?

I'm Colin Levy, corporate counsel at Salary.com.

Can you tell me about your role?

We’re a small and growing SaaS company - my role encompasses the full legal spectrum with a with a transactional focus. Most of my day-to-day is on contracts, contract management, legal operations, and general ad hoc legal stuff including helping marketing with legal issues, helping maintain our IP portfolio, advising on our corporate acquisitions, and so on. It’s a one-person legal department and I work closely with outside counsel on other stuff.

The hype cycle in legal tech has shifted recently - do you think the pace of change in legal tech means people overestimate what it can do?

The large investments of money into legal technology companies have reinforced, to an extent, this idea that legal tech is this major disruptive force that’s going to completely revamp the profession from top to bottom. That’s unrealistic. Legal tech is a powerful set of tools, but not a panacea.

The good news is that there are folks out there - and I’m trying to be one of them - who are helping to cut through some of the hype and set out what’s realistic in terms of the pace of change; and refocus the discussion on not just the tech, but the processes, the culture, and the core practice of law. 

Check out Colin's blog: from the front lines of legal innovation at www.colinslevy.com.

Is FOMO an issue in legal - are people guilty of jumping on the bandwagon without thinking through their problems?

The jury is still out! Hopefully there’s less of a tendency nowadays amongst legal teams to be attracted to that shiny object and just buy something for the sake of it; but there are definitely far too many people who think that buying some new shiny tech is the quick way to jump-start their function or even their business.

People hope that if they can do something innovative, it’ll help them to shortcut that process. But at the end of the day, if your processes and people aren’t organised and built around the goals that you’re aiming to achieve, as well as the problems you’re looking to solve, then technology on its own isn’t going to do anything other than put a shiny new face on the same problem that you have had before.

"The present and future of law is data and data analytics, and more and more lawyers are embracing data-driven decisions"

You mentioned on your blog that there are more than 40 contract management vendors - why do you think that is? 

It’s partly because it seems like low-hanging fruit. Every in-house legal department deals with contracts, and there are always going to be pain points - whether that’s renewals, tracking contract progress, managing them, or any of the other different aspects of contracts that people deal with. That’s precipitated the number of contract management vendors out there, and the funding in the sector reflects that.

There are signs that that sector is becoming a bit more consolidated, with larger companies acquiring some of these companies (for example Docusign buying SpringCM) and that kind of development is interesting. I do think that the fact there remain many common pain points for in-house lawyers will mean in the short-term that contract management or some aspect thereof will remain a focus for new tech companies.

Something to keep in mind though is that the solutions themselves aren’t the only thing that’s important - the data is critical. The present and future of law is data and data analytics, and more and more lawyers are embracing data-driven decisions. The issue is getting the right kind of data and then knowing what to do with it once you have it. Many larger companies, like Microsoft and Amazon, are already doing a lot with data.

Lawyers and the legal profession remain highly resistant to change. Why?

There are lots of reasons. Underlying all of these reasons, though, is the fact that lawyers are taught the way they have been taught for many, many years and part of that education includes this notion that graduates come away with, which is that there is one way to practise law. 

When you graduate, you’re all approaching work in pretty much the same way, doing the same thing; and then in private practice, law firms have operated the same way for many years. What incentive is there to change if you’re making lots of money the way you always have? 

That way of thinking isn’t client-centric, and clients have learned that they are entitled to expect more than that, and with the innovative new providers in the market today, clients are getting smarter and asking for more (more effective service, better outcomes, lower costs) from their legal providers and they indeed should get more. The transparency and disruption that data and technology bring to processes means that clients are learning that lawyers are not magicians performing magic behind a curtain. Education has a role to play in bringing about change too.

Regarding legal education - what would you advise a young lawyer entering the profession to study or do?

The first thing is to read blogs, articles, whitepapers, and listen to podcasts to stay up to date with what’s going on in the industry. Secondly, make the effort to meet and talk to current practitioners and learn from them. Thirdly, it’s important to develop your skills outside of the narrow legal remit - that’s things like quantitative literacy, spreadsheets, manipulating and visualizing data. Revive your math ability and learn to understand the impact of business decisions.

It’s also good to become familiar with tech beyond a bit of typing. There’s more to life than typing and converting documents to PDF. Experiential learning and practical skills are really important and can help students figure out what they enjoy and taste a bit of what it means to work as a lawyer. When you graduate from law school, you may not know where you’re headed, but whatever you can do to get you there faster, and be ready for what you find, will be beneficial. 

The content and design of contracts is still a problem for lots of people - do you agree?

Absolutely. Legal documents definitely have a problem with being verbose, written in legalese. And that’s a big problem because the people bound by the terms in those contracts aren’t lawyers, and for the most part those people can’t understand the contracts by which they’re bound. To me that makes no sense. I’ve been working hard to make sure that with my agreements, ‘what you see is what you get’ - they need to be understandable and to the point. But lots of lawyers still use all that awful filler jargon, with all the ‘hereto’ and ‘whereas’, and all the rest of it. 

"At a very basic level, if we expect a person to abide by an agreement, they need to understand what it is that they signed"

That’s a broader problem with legal writing in general. That way of writing isn’t helpful to clients - I think and hope that it’s changing. At a very basic level, if we expect a person to abide by an agreement, they need to understand what it is that they signed.

Finally: if you embrace automation, make your processes more efficient and manage to liberate yourself and get all that time back - what do you do with it?

You have lots of options! You can start to tackle the higher-risk strategic work, giving more input to things like mergers and acquisitions. You can work on developing better relationships with the leadership. You can map out your goals and strategy, which would be much more beneficial to the company than burying yourself in this repetitious volume work that doesn’t bring much value. 

If you don’t have to do that low-level routine stuff, it gives you much more freedom to think about the skills that a lawyers actually brings to the business and use them. Ultimately lawyers waste so much time on NDAs, but it’s important to remember that often an NDA is just something you have to do to keep progress moving towards a big transaction. They are just a means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. Time is much better spent on the higher-value work that comes next.

Thanks Colin! 🙌

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