Comment – Rolling In The Deep – What’s next after email?

Adele-Time-Magazine-January-2016-Cover-Photoshoot01by Andy Stokes* (Not Pictured Left)
A number of comments and pieces on Legal IT Insider have recently referenced the question “What’s after email” … quite often in a way that says “we are/our product is”. But, I hear you ask, what has that got to do with “Rolling In The Deep”? Well, if you remember the chorus from Adele’s lyrics, then you may know … and I’ll come back to that.
So, what’s after e-mail? The answer is; the same as it ever was. And what’s that I hear you ask? (OK, so I hear voices occasionally, but don’t let that put you off). But before we get to that, let’s think about e-mail and its history. Back in the day, I was and used a 56K modem, screeching and whining away as it connected on demand and when I could afford it. Then I worked for a firm that dialled up for e-mail regularly … every hour – wow! And now we curse the gods of the internet and bang F9 with a vengeance if an e-mail does not appear in seconds. And because e-mail is so ubiquitous we use it for everything; instant chat, arranging lunch, dating, everything; heck, sometimes for work. We get copied on threads we don’t want to by people we don’t know, every system we use knows how to hijack mailto:. I know of systems that used to initiate matter file opening via the automated reading of e-mails, generated by a third party system … because that’s all it could do. We’ve become overloaded with e-mails because it’s ubiquitous and every system integrates to it, ‘because that’s where the lawyers live’, and with the exception of large law firms with matter-centric document management systems, the vast majority of these e-mails have absolutely no context.
So what is after e-mail? Well I’m going to call it Embedded Contextual Collaboration. Now that’s never going to catch on, so let’s call it LegalPivot (LP) … or whatever other lipstick the marketing folks think suits the pig.
So what does ‘LP’ do? Nothing … it’s an imaginary construct! But what will it do, or need to do? Well in my opinion it needs to:
* Be technology neutral and easily embedded and accessible in all our legal applications.
* Be accessible using the familiar ‘Right Click’ method.
* Know the context from which it is invoked (am I looking at a matter? A client? A timekeeper?)
* Be able to invoke actions, including updates, in and via other systems, using common access points (API’s, contextual variable URL and commands) in those systems.
* Have a core set of data utilising a Master Data Dictionary, shared by all systems it’s attached to. Including the data required to enable collaboration between individuals.
* Make use of common and open technologies already in use; Web Services, SSRS, the ‘CMD’ line etc.
Yes, I did say the ‘CMD’ line … it’s as ubiquitous as ‘mailto:’ after all, and the ubiquity of the technical methods used for ‘LP’, as opposed to proprietary methods, are of fundamental importance to the ability to achieve what we want. So, when can we have it? Well, many people and suppliers will say that ‘we already can, or do’. My point however is to do with “Rolling In The Deep”. Remember that? The chorus?
“We could have had it all (whoo ooh, yeeah eh); We could have had it all”. Well we could have had it all … 10 years ago!
Yes, we could have had ‘LP’ 10 years ago. Back then the firm I worked for (Gowling WLG, then Wragge & Co) won the Legal Business “Most Enterprising Law Firm of the Year” award for our collaborative technologies. What did we use? Not some fancy third party tool. We used what we had; Aderant Expert could invoke via its Smart Tags (‘the purple dog ears’), it could load forms and associated contextualised data when invoked from within third party systems – and this was on the ‘old’, now 20 year old Classic model of Expert. We could access contextualised data URLs via SharePoint URLs using Handshake – launched from within Expert. We could load documents automatically from the DMS using contextualised data URLs as well – and did the same when we switched DMS systems by changing just one entry point. We had common contextual data join points in all our core system databases. Yes, we had it all, we used some of it … but by no means all that we could.
So, I’ve just referenced that ‘LP’ was certainly possible 10 years ago, using fairly basic technologies and integrations. So why didn’t more law firms do it when they had the chance? Firstly because of the risk adverse herd mentality; if it’s not main stream (and a ‘product’) and ‘the firm down the road’ doesn’t do it then ‘we won’t either’. Secondly, because we had a bit of an economic hiccup in 2008 and good internal people who can do these sorts of thing were ‘let go’. And thirdly because lawyers were not very good at conceptualising things they cannot see; they needed to see and feel it, so it has to be prototyped – and to prototype costs money, so ‘we won’t do that’. Now I was lucky, the firm I worked for were very forward thinking about things like that, but that was pretty rare back then … Back in the days when ‘we could have had it all’.
So, now, 10 years later, what is after e-mail? Well in my opinion it’s the same as it almost was back then – Embedded Contextual Collaboration. OK, it’s not catchy, and thinking about it neither is LegalPivot – how about “AI-Robo-PA … it does everything but the coffee!” After all ‘AI’ is this year’s stand out ‘buzz word bingo’ winner. And 10 years on, things are a little different with law firm attitudes as well. We have law firms investing in “AI”, we have them looking into and investing in “Innovation”. Basically we’re seeing more of the mind-set required to change and make things work differently, more collaboratively and more efficiently. It’s ‘change’ or, as Roy Batty said, ‘time to die’.
And to help us with all this new found focus on innovation and change, some things have thankfully still not changed – the same ubiquitous technology stack I referred to is still there; URLs, the CMD prompt, web services. True, they’re not fashionable or cutting edge, but they can do what we need in a way that will give us the answer to” what’s after e-mail?” All it takes is a little imagination and fast prototyping. So before we turn to spending millions on ‘AI’ and the like, perhaps we should answer “what’s after E-mail?” with:
“We could have had it all (whoo ooh, yeeah eh)”
And we still can.
* Andy Stokes – Director, ASC Limited