How often do you read that Big Law is improving? Not that often? Many commentators view large law firms like dinosaurs. Yet I see much evidence that Big Law steadily improves client value and business operations. That was my take away from a conference last week.


I attended the Summit on Knowledge and Innovation for Legal Leaders (SKILLS), a private conference held at White & Case. It attracts about 60 of the most senior knowledge management (KM) and innovation leaders from large firms in the US, Canada, and the UK. I have co-organized it with Lucy Dillon, Mary Abraham, and Oz Benamram for 15+ years. The views here are mine alone and the SKILLS rules require no attribution.

I cannot quantify how fast Big Law is improving but after many years in the market, I have a pretty good gut for its progress (and frequent lack thereof in the past). When I consider what I report below, I see Big Law improving steadily, more so than I have seen over the 15+ years of this conference.

The Rise of Data-Informed Decision Making

The Rise of Data. A leading consulting reported on the state of the legal market. It found increasing prominence of data analytics in large law firms based on a survey it conducted. Examples of client facing analytics include litigation settlement prediction and client-facing deal intelligence systems. Examples of law firm business decision ones include matter pricing and client churn + retention analysis. Its survey also found that the top “Emerging Technology” in law departments is data analytics, with 57% having already implemented it. And, on the law firm side, they found 134 data analytic roles in large firms, based on public source searches of titles.

Deal Databases. A couple of firms described their deal databases – a very specific type of data. These sound detailed and helpful both for clients to know what’s market and for the firm to pitch for new business. One firm gives billable hour credit to lawyers to complete detailed deal forms after the deal. That’s important because despite advances in machine learning to extract information, the best deal databases – and many other systems – require human input, ideally from an experienced lawyer on the matter.

New Types of Automation and Efficiency

End to End Transaction Efficiency. In the past, many Big Law improvement efforts focused on narrow tasks. This year, in contrast, one US firm in the top 20 described multiple steps that increase the efficiency of a M&A and private equity transactions: a lower cost support center where non-partner track lawyers do some of the work, use of Kira to accelerate due diligence, legal project managers to free partner time from that task, deploying automated documents, and wide use of Contract Companion for proof reading.

Deal Management. One large firm reported that it is the first firm to deploy deal management platform Doxly across an entire practice. To be sure, many firms have licensed the software but, as we all know, uptake of most software is selective. I am impressed that an entire practice is using it.

Robotic Process Automation. (RPA) Speakers from four Big Law firms explained improving efficiency with RPA. Examples include automating court document pulls (a tedious task!), answering simple administrative questions, and grabbing corporate logos from websites to insert in proposals.

Chatbots. One firm is using a chatbot to answer a range of internal queries. It is building on a Microsoft stack and has entered information to answer 500 questions. On its roadmap are more features: legal research topics, training via video clips, who knows whom; plus “skills” from Microsoft such as calendaring, availability via Skype, on demand voice recognition, and conference room booking

Managing Alerts. Another firm has developed an “alert center” to which all email notifications and subscription email go. This keeps the email inbox for key client and internal email messages. I love this though I have worked with lawyers want everything coming into their Outlook inbox. I hope this project works – it would definitely save time. Even if lawyers do not embrace it, however, it illustrates how Big Law is improving itself, or trying to do so.

Search. Though search is not new, older platforms seem to be giving way to newer ones. Many firms remain on Decisiv Search (formerly Recommind) and are looking at alternatives. The only widely viable alternative appears to be iManage Insight. (At least one firm uses Sinequa but I understand that to be more toolkit than purpose-build law firm search.) One lesson from SKILLS: it seems easier to roll out Insight at firms that never had search than at ones replacing Decisiv. That is less a tech issue than one of managing expectations. While the playing field remains uncertain, the signs point to more sophisticated search in the future.

Investing for the Future

There were a couple of other tidbits showing that Big Law is investing to improve the future for both clients and firms. About 50% of 60 firms at SKILLS have an R&D budget. And, separately, about 20 give billable hour credit for KM and innovation work. That’s about double the number as in 2019.


Assessing Big Law based on one conference remains risky, I know. In the past, however, I left conferences like this somewhat depressed about the present and future. In 2020, however, I see real signs of Big Law improving. In my view, the incremental steps I report above will drive changes that matter. Those who expect revolution, disruption, or even rapid change will remain disappointed. Those, like me, who see the steady evolution of Big Law should be pleased with the progress.