The Latina Litigator Set to Innovate the Legal Industry
This month we have the opportunity to speak with Lourdes Slater, a rising star in the legal sector with a flair for innovation.
Lourdes Fuentes Slater is the Founder and CEO of Karta Legal. A veteran litigator and a pioneer in digital transformation, she has a long list of achievements in legal process improvement and the adoption of technology solutions to innovate the delivery of legal services. This month, we have the pleasure to speak with her. Despite the accelerating pace of innovation in legal technology, lawyers have been slow to embrace tools that could greatly improve their productivity and add value to their clients. A new approach is needed to help lawyers remain competitive and, importantly, comply with their ethical and professional duties of competent and efficient representation. A trained Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and described by the New York Law Journal as “truly an agent of change”, Lourdes shares her thoughts on innovation and how the sector can be transformed.
Legal technology has made great strides in the past decade. How has the implementation of these new tools benefited legal project management?
You have to separate two things here. Yes, legal technology investment and available tech solutions for legal are at an all-time high. In 2018, tech investment experienced a growth of 713%. 2019 set another record with $1.23 billion invested by the third quarter of 2019. But the adoption of legal technology, generally speaking, has been incredibly slow, and even when new technology is implemented it is used at 50% or less capacity. Innovation in legal has certainly been a lot slower than in other industries, despite being constantly top-of-mind. In fact, I recently came across a PWC survey that highlights the industries that focus on “breakthrough innovation,” but shockingly, legal was not in it.
The obvious question is: why is it so hard to motivate lawyers to do something they have the ability to do? Psychologists will tell you that the answer is simple. Motivation is intertwined with reward value. And reward value, in turn, is deeply influenced by past experience. An important consequence of this biological fact is that new behaviours are rarely as motivating as existing ones that have previously been rewarded. This is a fundamental problem for those wanting to innovate the practice of law.
Meaningful adoption of legal technology solutions has been incredibly slow. Innovation initiatives fail approximately 70% of the time and even when new technology is implemented it is used at 50% or less capacity.
I want to take a minute here to address the question about legal project management and highlight something that I think is very important. Due to economic pressures, the 2008 recession triggered the rise of legal project management as its own separate field in legal. In my opinion, the 2020 pandemic and the transformational changes in the way we practice law – have triggered the rise in legal process improvement as a legal career path in and of itself. Those of us selling process improvement as a separate service are now in more demand than ever, and I do not see that changing because I believe the tippling point for legal innovation is now. As I explain below, the pandemic has us poised for finally making those great strides.
Which areas of legal practice have seen especially strong returns from the adoption of specialised legal tech?
Data security and privacy compliance tools are two must-have that pay off in dividends. Collaboration and project management tools can streamline processes internally and externally and cut down waste significantly. The pandemic saw the rise in video conferencing, remote hearings and depositions, which have proven to be great ways to save money and time. Same goes for e-signing. These tools have been there for years, but it took the pandemic for legal to embrace them fast and furiously, which shows it can be done!
In contrast, what areas have yet to see improvement, and how can they be brought up to speed?
Well, where do I start? With some notable exceptions, very few law firms and legal departments, private and public, are at advanced or mature stages of legal technology acquisition, adoption, and implementation. Most companies regardless of size are in the underdeveloped or foundational stages. Part of my job is to assess the maturity level of a company and prepare a prioritised legal technology roadmap, which can be done only by working hand-in-hand with an internal cross-functional team. The needs and priorities vary greatly by individual organisation, which is crucial not to forget.
Also, as a process expert, I am a big proponent of bite-size innovation. If you want to gather a few takeaways from this interview, let this be the first one: digital innovation is a process. Think of it as a big project full of mini projects that have been properly prioritised and mapped out after a holistic assessment of your current capabilities, technology and needs. The second takeaway is that innovation has a compounding effect and grows exponentially, which is why it is so important to start innovating.
If your question is: “which solutions will promote quick gains and efficiencies right now”, my first recommendation would be to focus on the “efficiency boosters,” including business process management tools and robotic process automation. We can bring these tools to bear in any organisation today and you will see a positive ROI within a few months of implementation. I was pleased to see a recent report from the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium showing that 71% of legal teams have identified the automation of legal processes as a high priority.
A 2019 study found that only slightly more than half (53%) of lawyers in the US and Europe said their organisations intended to increase investment in legal tech. Why do you think firms are reluctant to adopt new technologies?
Change is hard. Elliot T Berkman PhD wrote a good article on the subject of neuroscience and behavioural change last year in the Consulting Psychology Journal. He points out that any human change in behaviour requires “the will” and “the way”. Let’s look at these in the context of legal innovation.
The “will” is the “why” of behaviour change. You can call it the business case. In contrast, the “way” refers to the cognitive and informational aspects of behaviour change. The “way” is the “how” to change. How are you going to innovate your practice? Where do you start? What skills and capabilities are required? Do you have a process map ready? Law schools and training in law firms have not provided lawyers with the skills to find the way.
Moreover, learning new skills and gathering the data needed to transform law practice and the delivery of legal services requires executive function as that term is used in neuroscience. That means that learning something new demands conscious attention. To truly be successful, time, energy, and focus need to be deployed in finding “the way”. Of course, this means there is an opportunity cost of deploying the path to finding “the way”. For attorneys, this is significant because it takes time away from billable work, meeting deadlines, preparing for a pitch, writing briefs, etc. Opportunity cost is possibly the biggest challenge we have as legal professionals in trying to innovate the industry. For lawyers, time is money, and as an industry we have not placed a lot of value in legal process innovation. This is where great leadership makes it or breaks it when it comes down to it.
What can firms and in-house legal teams do to overcome this reticence?
Innovation theory explains that for any successful innovation to take hold you need the perfect confluence of these three factors:
- Human desire
- Tech feasibility
- Market factors
The tech feasibility has been here for years. What we have lacked as an industry are 1 and 3. Outside events, like the pandemic, trigger those two events to happen quicker than we, the evangelists, are able to do ourselves. That is why I view 2020 as the tipping point for legal innovation. But I do want to stress that even before pandemic, I and many others have been pointing out that there are other market factors, such as regulatory reform, the Big Four and alternative legal services providers, that were threatening the traditional law practice models.
The hardest challenge to overcome has been – and still is – the human factor. Nobody likes change, law is deeply rooted in tradition, it is still being managed by Generation X, and the billable hour is still queen, just to mention a few human factors at play here. So, to overcome reticence, I am a big proponent of deliberately working on a culture change and being intentional about a mind shift. This requires time and effort on an extraneous concept: change management. Both are foreign concepts in traditional law. We need training and workshops on how to view law as a business in a way we have not before, and we need leaders to invest in upskilling their teams in change management methodologies and process improvement techniques. And frequently, it requires outside consultants like me to guide the internal team in a digital transformation journey by facilitating the change management piece.
The hardest challenge to overcome has been – and still is – the human factor.
From what you have seen, how far has the COVID-19 pandemic led to renewed interest among legal firms to mend their outdated tools and processes?
As I stated before, we have made some quick basic gains (video conferencing, e-signatures, collaboration tools). I think contract management tools have also made huge gains because of the pandemic. But there is still a long way to go.
An ancillary point, but one that will bring faster innovation to bear, is the renewed interest in hiring heads of legal operations. Right now, between 25 and 55% of all legal departments regardless of size have at least one legal operations person onboard. The point of legal operations is to carry out the business of law, leaving your lawyers to practice law. That is of course much easier said than done, so please keep in mind that legal operations can transform the practice of law only if they have the experience, the background (the perfect combination of lawyer, technologist and business process person is ideal) and the gravitas needed so that everyone else embraces her/his ideas. This takes me back to the importance of leadership in fostering culture change and change management.
Is there an area of legal tech (AI, cloud, etc) with development potential that you feel particularly optimistic about?
I am optimistic that our long-term relationship with e-discovery tools will continue to flourish with the use of AI and analytics to not only cull documents, but to review documents for production. Page-by-page digital review of documents is outdated, error-prone, time-consuming and costly, and it is remarkable how many people still follow that process. I also think AI will make great progress in contract review and life-cycle management, and data mining. And, as I mentioned before, I am of the view that all networks should be cloud-based, and that BPA and RPA are must-have tools.
But I am mostly optimistic not about technology but about approaching innovation the right way. Research indicates that over 70% of all change management initiatives or innovations fail and almost in every single case the main reason for that failure is the lack of leadership and human interaction with the innovation, and the lack of willingness to change. Therefore, it is so important to have or work with change management and process experts.
About Lourdes Fuentes Slater
What can you tell us about your journey into law?
I am a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a litigator by training. In addition to being a partner at a litigation firm in New York City, two years ago I founded a legal operations and technology management consulting firm with a focus on design thinking and process improvement.
I have had a long career, litigating in state and federal courts across the USA and in international arbitrations. My detour from courtroom to tech-room happened seamlessly. Unlikely the vast majority of my colleagues, I was drawn to the field that was to become e-discovery. I was at the forefront of that critical path that merged IT, litigation support, technology, and the law. The idea of providing immediate value by creating workflows to improve an obsolete process (manual document review) using technology was genius. E-discovery is an early example of legal innovation. As an aside, I know “innovation” sounds like a buzzword. It is not. Innovation is the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods.
Early on I realised that to deliver legal services to my clients in the most cost effective and efficient manner, I needed skills I did not learn in law school or as a practicing lawyer, and I became a legal project manager and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. For those not familiar, Lean Six Sigma is a team-oriented data driven approach to process improvement focused on delivering value to the client. Those skills and my background have been crucial to my work in managing technology projects, logistics, data and discovery in two of the most complex and data intensive matters of the last decade, the Madoff Trustee and the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities litigations.
I know “innovation” sounds like a buzzword. It is not. Innovation is the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods.
How does your firm reflect your professional outlook?
Karta Legal is a legal operations and management consulting firm. The genesis of Karta Legal was my desire to push forward team, process, and technology innovation and change management. We have a team of lawyers, process experts, and legal technologists working with legal departments and law firms of all sizes to innovate the practice of law, and we have a roster of vetted and tested partners to help us deliver the best for a successful digital transformation – because we understand the theory behind change management itself. We are unique in the method we deliver our services, focusing not on technology but on change management and process improvement. We use curated design thinking, Lean Six Sigma, and Agile project management tools and techniques tailored to the management of the business of law and legal processes. By doing this, the success of any innovation initiative is optimised. This approach also maximises efficiencies, resulting in significant savings in resources.
In 2021, the National Law Journal selected Karta Legal LLC as a Legal Technology Trailblazer. Very few companies get recognized as a Trailblazer and the fact that our young company was selected among a choice of titans is a testament to our innovative approach to legal technology innovation. Not only was the award meaningful for this recognition, but also because Karta Legal LLC was the only woman and minority business enterprise to be given this prestigious award. Moreover, to my knowledge, we are the only 100% minority- and woman-owned consultancy in this field. While I cannot say I am proud of being the only one, I am proud of being a role model for other women and minorities in this space because you cannot be what you cannot see.
What personal goals do you have for yourself and your organisations in the second half of 2021 and beyond?
We will continue to provide individual consulting services to our law firms and legal department clients on change management, process improvement, and legal technology acquisition. After an initial assessment, we create a prioritised legal technology road map that works for the individual client. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so the right considerations must be given to the work and processes being delivered by each individual client. Also, as we have done since our inception, we will continue our due diligence to find the best solutions in the market for the needs of the legal buyer. We vet and test these solutions, and we form valuable partnerships with legal vendors in the ecosystem to be able to deliver value.
Moreover, there are two initiatives this year that we are particularly excited about. The first is that our Karta Online Campus is now open and accepting enrolment from all legal professionals, not just lawyers! We provide certifications in change management and Legal Lean Six Sigma. Applied to legal services, LSS can quickly and favourably impact the bottom-line in cost and time savings. The legal industry is entering a new period of people, process, and technology innovation. We believe that by up-skilling your team and giving them tools to tackle legal innovation effectively and efficiently, you will be able to deliver unparalleled services and value to your clients.
Also, our Karta Staffing company is now accepting applications for lawyers, project managers and process experts interested in temporary work assignments. Our staffing company is incorporated in Puerto Rico and serves Mainland USA and LatAm with a workforce that is expertly qualified and trained, fluent in both Spanish and English. We offer unparalleled global services at a lower cost point with an emphasis on security, speediness, and efficiency.
Lourdes Fuentes Slater, Founder and CEO
Karta Legal LLC
Address: 950 Third Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10022
Tel: 212 897 9500
Karta Legal is a legal operations and management consulting firm founded in 2019. Through a combination of training and expertise in technology and processes, Karta works with firms and legal departments of all sizes to innovate the practice of law. Despite its relative youth, Karta’s work has been recognised by the National Law Journal as a Legal Technology Trailblazer – the first minority- and woman-owned firm to have received this accolade.
Lourdes Fuentes Slater is the founder and CEO of Karta Legal. A Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and legal project manager, Lourdes is committed to legal process improvement, described by the New York Law Journal as “truly an agent of change”. She is also a sought-after speaker on process improvement, legal technology, privacy, artificial intelligence, diversity & inclusion and e-discovery issues.