Herman Raspé, a partner with with Patterson Bellknap, shares insights from a recent survey surrounding in-house technology and the trends that will shape the future of the legal industry.
CCBJ: To start out, please share your background with our readers, including your involvement with the WSG–Legal 500 Survey of In-House Legal Technology.
Herman Raspé: I am a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in the capital markets group with a focus principally on equity, but also cross-border debt transactions. Patterson Belknap is an independent firm in New York with one office where my practice has thrived, which is very unusual in that you wouldn’t think a single-office firm would be able to host, foster, and grow a practice of this type. I have been able to do this principally because of two things. One, the network that we’re members of, World Services Group, puts us in contact with incredibly well-heeled and well-entrenched law firms in their jurisdictions around the world with whom we work all the time. And secondly, the ability to use technology to facilitate interaction among lawyers, the servicing of clients, the teaching of our associates, the exchange of lawyers among firms.
In the survey that you conducted in conjunction with WSG and Legal 500, 92 percent of the respondents said it was very or somewhat important that law firm partners are up to date with technology. How is that playing out for WSG members?
I think the COVID pandemic has been an absolute game changer in the legal profession in general, but also for the members in WSG. Pre-COVID, if you look at the way lawyers approached the adoption and use of technology in their practices and particularly their communications with clients and colleagues, was very often viewed as an obstacle, something you had to contend with and that didn’t come very naturally, particularly video conferencing. When COVID hit, we all went home with our laptops if we had them, or the firm delivered laptops to our home, and the practice of law really changed.
We didn’t have a choice. You couldn’t go to the office. You couldn’t practice the way you were used to practicing, so technology became a resource that was much more readily adopted, and I would say embraced much more than before—first because you didn’t have a choice and second because you became very adept at it. Within WSG, we pivoted very, very quickly from an environment of mostly email-based communications to online meetings, online resources, online cooperation with folks that we knew from many in-person meetings, but now were cooperating with via Zoom and other technology-enhanced meeting spaces.
And we not only interacted more frequently but also got to know a lot of new colleagues. Without technology, we would have had to put the network interaction on ice. But we didn’t have to. We came to view technology as an incredible tool to foster connection and cooperation, not by meeting in person, not by flying to London, not by having traditional conference calls made through an analogue landline, but by having significant amount of online interaction via Zoom, WebEx and other novel means of communication. I think from the network’s perspective, we were able to pivot very quickly from in-person meetings to virtual ones.
However, Zoom fatigue is real. At some point, you get a little fed up only seeing people on screen. But now that we are back in our offices having in-person or hybrid meetings, virtual participation is really welcome. Whatever helps people get together and cooperate! Some people want to go back to more traditional ways of communication, but overall, technology allows us to communicate in different ways, to practice in different ways, and work together in perhaps a more informal way, which really is very welcome.
When asked if legal tech that uses AI should be more regulated, 72 percent did not think current regulatory frameworks are enough or were unsure. Do you think that this concern will slow the adoption of AI in legal practice?
I don’t think it’s going to slow down at all. With more and more technology being adopted and AI making significant strides in our profession, in our clients’ businesses and in the way regulators interact with us and our clients, the questions, challenges and regulatory environment around AI are going to become a much bigger part of the dialogue that we are in.
AI is already expanding in the area of research and product development. In the legal profession, you’re seeing it on both the compliance and enforcement sides. In a litigation context, AI has proven helpful in analyzing enormous amounts of data in a much more sophisticated way. But as more AI-related matters come across my desk, I worry about who exactly is practicing law. Is it the computer? The person who enables the computer? The software developer? If some server somewhere is “practicing law” who has oversight and control? These are interesting issues that we’re going to need to face and address as AI permeates more and more of our practices.
Another set of issues is how to protect against AI infringing intellectual property. Or is an AI application creating intellectual property that needs to be protected? And if so, who owns it? I’m not sure it’s going to be such an easy question to answer.
Consider also if AI is generating legal output, is it really attorney work product? Is it protected from discovery? Is it confidential? And then there are the more general issues of cybersecurity, data privacy, communication privacy. Who takes responsibility for monitoring AI systems and output? There’s going to need to be a significant amount of guidance and thinking about how this is regulated.
55 percent of GC respondents said the need for legal tech adoption has increased. As the chairman of WSG, how do you think WSG members will respond to this outlook?
I think people are going to respond very, very favorably. Within the World Services Group, we are fostering the lawyers who have been identified or come forward as really emerging leaders in their firms or practices, and many of them are very tech-savvy, view technology as being extremely helpful to their practice, using it very effectively to promote their practice and assist them in work-life balance issues. For example, I have noticed that young lawyers who are part of the emerging leaders’ group within our firm readily use technology to build their network of contacts at other firms. So, I think legal tech is going to be looked at very favorably.
When it comes to tech adoption, what are some of the greatest hurdles in the legal industry?
There are a number of them. One area is cost. When I look at how law firm budgets have evolved over time, budgets tend to be based on: What did we do in the past? How did we cover our expenses, fixed, variable, etc.? While technology was certainly increasingly a large line item, I think it will need to be a much more significant line item. And there’s no question that testing, adoption, training, integration of different technologies will be expensive for firms. Obviously, there are many arguments to be made why this is very good for firms: you can reduce your carbon footprint, reduce your square footage footprint, reduce your rent payments, be more flexible in terms of employment practices, etc. But for most firms, IT investments are a significant expense.
The second challenge I have observed—within my firm, within WSG and in my personal life is the more we get used to technology, the less patience we have it. It has to work immediately. It has to work all the time. It has to be reliable. How many passwords do I need to remember? A lot of folks get very frustrated when faced with new technology if it doesn’t readily integrate with what they’re used to doing. It was one thing to change from WordPerfect to Word in an environment where most of the typing was done by typing pools and word-processing centers and personal assistants. But when you have a major technology upgrade today, if it isn’t integrated well, if it doesn’t work efficiently, there’s enormous frustration within the organization. And even as technology advances ever more rapidly, we are still struggling with legacy computers, legacy systems, legacy code, etc., and that’s going to be another challenge.
What is your advice to attorneys or other executives looking to advance their organization’s capacity in legal technology?
Embrace it! One, there are incredible opportunities—professionally, personally, and intellectually—in adopting, testing and using new technology within your organizations. Yes, there are challenges, but to the extent that you are a professional and enjoy the challenges of your profession, you should be welcoming technological changes/opportunities as another facet in your professional development. I would not want to go back to the way we practiced law 25 or 30 years ago. I really enjoy the fact that a tremendous amount of the drudgery has been taken out of the practice of law thanks to technology. Black-lining, proofreading, distributions, access to information are just a few of the things that are now available at your fingertips, and that enable you to much more creative because you are not bogged down pushing papers through very inefficient streams of distribution and review and so on.
“Technologization” of the profession is a wonderful thing. Daunting at times, but wonderful. One last thing I would say about it is how much I have enjoyed looking and experiencing and experimenting with new, technology-enhanced ways of building relationships with clients, building relationships within the WSG network, with other lawyers, and with other firms. Client development pieces don’t need to be in memos that are 30 pages long with 70 defined terms. Bullet points have become an acceptable way to communicate. Podcasts are extremely effective. Legal communication does not need to be as formal as it used to be. I enjoy it. I say embrace it.
Published March 2, 2023.