Ken Crutchfield, vice president and general manager of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., discusses the results of the organization’s 2021 Future Ready Lawyer survey, including how new technology and processes are moving the legal field forward.

CCBJ: There has been so much talk in recent years about changes to legal departments, most of it having to do with technology and process. Why do you think those expected changes gained so much momentum from 2020 to 2021?

Ken Crutchfield: The pandemic was the trigger that caused organizations to really rethink things. There was a real need for action, and increased pressure to change to ensure continuity of business operations and competitiveness. Everyone needed to make sacrifices and take action. We’ve certainly seen the pace of change accelerate in our daily lives. We’re still not going out to restaurants or shops as much as we used to, and we’re still buying more things online. Those sorts of ongoing trends in our personal lives have definitely played out in the business world too. Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, there was tremendous pressure being driven by the potential that something catastrophic might happen that would have further impacts on business. Organizations have been accelerating the pace of change and acting on things with greater urgency than ever before.

What barriers do you expect as far as implementing any of these changes?

The first step, especially with technology, is accepting the need for change. You have to adjust the tools, you have to adjust the processes, and people need to be trained and accept the changes that are being pushed through. This was pretty self-evident when offices shut down. Everyone affected had to adapt to work remotely and understood why. Other changes can be a bit more nuanced. Skill sets need to be adjusted in order for these changes to be successfully implemented and staff need to understand “why”. That’s key. You need buy-in from your people, as well as buy-in from organization leaders. You also need to make sure you’re solving the right problem in the first place and focusing on real business results, as opposed to implementing artificial intelligence (AI) just for the sake of implementing AI, for example. In the case of an AI project, AI should be applied to a specific problem, such as identifying deadlines in contracts that need compliance, so that you can take action.

Regarding client-firm relationships, in Wolters Kluwer’s Future Ready Lawyer survey it was noted that law firms fell short in terms of certain client expectations about their capabilities and services. Please expand on this. Why was this the case, and is this likely to continue?

The 2021 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer survey identified and mapped out certain existing gaps, but it didn’t go into as much detail about the root causes, aside from the fact that we know clients want their law firms to know more about them. The gaps the survey pointed to suggest that maybe firms don’t know their clients as well as they should. Maybe they don’t know the industry as well as they should. Maybe they need more tools or expertise to be able to do that. As an example, an M&A attorney may want to have a better pulse on what investment bankers are advising similar clients. If the finance world thinks the market for “SPACs” is drying up, it would be good to know that when advising a client on a SPAC related issue.

But I will also say there are explicit items in the survey, such as greater scrutiny from clients about how technology is being applied to deliver legal services from law firms. In short, clients want confidence about how services are delivered in addition to results. There’s also an expectation that a firm’s policies and practices reflect the client’s business from the standpoint of diversity, supply chain policy, data breaches, things like that. A firm is a trusted advisor, but firms must also increasingly conform to vendor requirements and client policies. That means conforming to areas like hiring practices, data security, and even things that may seem totally unrelated to a law firm, but that are important to the client. And with new disclosures required by publicly traded corporations from an environmental, social and governance (ESG) perspective, there will likely be even more focus on aligning with client policies.

Those are some areas where the survey indicated there are gaps and how I interpret some of the data. Clients need firms to understand more nuances about their business and industry to effectively advise them, and they need firms to conform more with their goals, values, and policies.

Let’s talk about technology investment. The survey reported that 63 percent of law firms and 57 percent of legal departments intend to increase their technology investment. Are you inclined to believe that this growth will occur? What will it mean for firms and departments if growth in this area does occur?

Yes, I am inclined to believe this growth is going to occur. I will say it’s likely to happen, if for no other reason than because there’s a talent shortage. If you have a certain amount of work to get done, that workload continues to increase, and you can’t throw more people at it, you have to use tools to enable productivity among the people you do have – and I think that’s key. I would argue that technology has to be part of the relief valve for the pressure that is on corporate legal departments today.

So what will it mean for law firms and legal departments if this growth does occur? I think it means greater productivity, being able to do more with less, and hopefully getting better results for the business and better outcomes for corporate legal clients when a law firm is serving them.

If increasing the importance of legal tech and coping with the increased amount of information are top legal trends, why is it that only one-third of lawyers are actually prepared to meet those demands?

That’s a good question. Sometimes it could be as simple as adding a legal ops professional to an organization, whether it’s a law firm or a corporate legal department, to make suggestions and help guide the decision-making – someone who can bring a bit of business rigor to the legal department or to the firm itself. That’s probably one of the most basic things. Lawyers don’t have to be experts in everything, just as an accountant doesn’t have to be an expert in knowing how software is designed. A lawyer doesn’t necessarily need to understand that either, but they do need to know how to rely on people who can help manage these trends and help them prioritize and apply the right technologies to the right problems. That’s really the core of this – if lawyers are willing to think about how to leverage business people, whether it’s product managers, project managers, or people who can write a good business case to justify a good technology investment, that can help get them over the hump.

Realistically, as we look forward, you are going to have more people on legal teams who have strengths in business or technology. If you start to strip away that prerequisite of having a JD, when you’re looking for project management or coding or whatever, it’s just going to open up that talent pool. Maybe there are some things you don’t need to have done by an attorney, but you do need support staff that can help guide you and help you be more effective with various tools for deploying better processes – and that’s what you get with legal ops.