Guest Jeffrey Brandt, CIO for Jackson Kelly and Editor of PinHawk Legal Technology Digest, joins Bill to discuss technology solutions for the business and practice of law. Jeff’s extensive experience working as a legal technologist gives him keen insight into what it takes to see deep ROI from your technology investments.
Bill Bice: Hi. This is Bill Bice, and I’m here today with Jeff Brandt. Jeff, welcome.
Jeff Brandt: Thank you very much, Bill. I appreciate it.
Bill Bice: It’s great to be with you. We’ve known each other for a long time, but I don’t really know how you got into legal technology. Give us a little background. How did this happen?
Jeff Brandt: My first job out of college was in complex litigation support. They didn’t even call it e-discovery at that point. I applied for a job at Rust Consulting. A good friend that you also know, Curt Meltzer, actually hired me at my first job, and I did everything there. I wrote programs. I did database work. Rust Consulting at the time had the distinction of having one of the largest PC-based litigation cases in the world at that point. I mean, we’re talking IBM PCs, Tall Grass, Priam, Disc Towers. I’m really, really dating myself here.
Jeff Brandt: I mean, I did programming on weighing vs mini computers. I did stairs on mainframes, you name it, and I did it. So, that was my introduction. I got into the world of complex litigation support. The first lawyers I ever really met and dealt with were Texas litigators. We had an oil case in the panhandle, Texas, Oklahoma area. And I learned all kinds of colorful new vocabulary, that was not necessarily legal-specific, but that was my start.
Bill Bice: What an introduction to start with tech, with lawyers. So we get to blame it all on Curt. It’s his fault.
Jeff Brandt: We can blame it all on Curt. Yes. Curt hired me so we can blame it all on him.
Bill Bice: When you were going to college, was this part of the plan or did it just happen?
Jeff Brandt: Well, actually I wanted to go to school originally for architecture. My uncle was an architect and my father did a lot of work in his line, worked for Bell Telephone. He did was an outside plant engineer. And both of them ultimately talked out of becoming an architect. So, I went with my second love, which we had just gotten in high school a year and a half, I think before.
Jeff Brandt: So, I think the tail end of my junior year, and then my senior year in high school, they cleaned out a closet, literally a supply closet and put two or three Apple twos computers in there. And I love that. My degree is in computer science, mathematics. No idea what litigation support was or anything else at that point. And so, I have then spent the last, what? 35, 36 years working in the legal market.
Bill Bice: Yeah. And don’t worry, we’re all dating ourselves in this podcast, is part of the point of it. So, that’s okay. I mean, there is a history of repeating itself component to this, because the challenge is that we’ve faced in the 80s and 90s, we just have different versions of them today.
Jeff Brandt: Yeah. Everything does seem to come around at some point, everything that’s old is new again.
Bill Bice: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, there’s still an architecture component of what you do. It’s just the network architecture and the…
Jeff Brandt: Yeah. It’s very different in that respect. I mean, I literally love the drawing part of it. And arguably, as I have matured and my roles have taken on more senior status, really, it becomes even less about the technology and more about the vision, the plan, the adoption, the strategies of how we get from point A to point B, because quite frankly, there’s a lot of good technology out there. It doesn’t have to be a certain technology in order to be successful, but your communication plan, your strategy for how you’re going to get there becomes a very critical component in that path.
Bill Bice: Yeah, absolutely. So, what drew you into… Because I mean, you’re not just the doing legal technology in a firm, you’ve been involved in the legal tech from the industry standpoint and in conferences, in your writing and all the work that you have done. What caused you to expand that horizon as opposed to just being heads down and doing your job?
Jeff Brandt: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think again, I started very technical. I was writing programs. I was doing system administration. My very first job at Porter Wright. I would actually go into the computer room when we had issues. But I think I will credit it to Hildebrand. Now, Brad Hildebrand was a guy that people either love or hate. I really liked Brad, but the experience I had to Hildebrand, I worked with what I consider to be even today, the top people in their fields, library, space management, finance, all these different areas that impact a law firm, because Hildebrand did all of that at the time.
Jeff Brandt: And so, it exposed me to a wide of things, get down and think about, okay, well, what is a marketing director looking for? What’s the goal of the technology? What ultimately are the wins? How do we declare success for this particular project from a marketing perspective? And so, I’ve always been, a what-if person, you go through the different scenarios in your head. Well, what if this? And what if that? And so, I built up myself at quite an RSS feed. And I would read, I would read, what are the trends in legal? What are the trends in technology in general?
Jeff Brandt: I’ve been a member of ELTA and all the different, various iterations, I think 30, 31, 32, 33 years, something like that. And I had some incredible mentors in that process. I didn’t know lawyers well, I didn’t know the politics of a law firm. I didn’t really even know when I first started, I hate to admit that, but this is true. Even what the business of law really was about. And so, I had great people helping me through some of those pieces. I had my readings, which really helped.
Jeff Brandt: And then again, will come back to Curt. Kurt is a fixture in my life. Curt was doing the PinHawk, Legal Technology Daily Digest. I think at the time he went back in house to be at work, I think. And he said, “Well, you already do this, you do the reading, you analyze, you’re trying to pick up on the trends. So, why don’t you take over and do the PinHawk?” Man, that was 10 years ago.
Jeff Brandt: I took that over in 2011. And that has just been a joy in general. I love doing that. I love the feedback from the readers and I love looking through, what are the trends? What are the things that are happening? What are the things that I want to pass on to my peers inside my firm? What are the things that I need to make sure that my IT group knows in particular? So, I will surprise people from time to time, where did you get that information? And we didn’t know that was happening until later. And you seem to be ahead of that.
Jeff Brandt: Yeah. I see 500 plus feeds of information with legal and non-legal sources as part of the PinHawk work. And actually, when I joined Jackson Kelly, that was one of the things that they really liked. They said, wanted me to continue to do it. My morning starts rather early as part of that, but I find the analysis for the trends in what’s happening, even talking to my peers, why they’re doing something different than I’m doing it?
Jeff Brandt: One of my goals for the past, well, five, six years, five years here, a little more than five years here, has been to get IT out of the plumbing. And we want to be in the business and the practice of law. Yes, there are certain things that we have to do plumbing-wise, whatever analogy you want to use, the toilets have to flush. The trains have to run on time. All those things have to happen from a plumbing perspective, but it really doesn’t add value.
Jeff Brandt: The fact that I upgrade from this version of Netdocs to that version or office to this or windows or whatever, it’s not really the value add proposition. It’s when I can get around those things and start pushing solutions or training or anything else so that the tools are being used at a higher percentage, or literally the point where I am impacting the business and the practice of law.
Jeff Brandt: And that takes a lot of understanding of the business of law, the culture of the firm, the tolerance of the lawyers, in our case, we don’t have partners, we’ve got members, but the members of the firm, the executive committee, what risks they’re willing to take, which ones they’re not. I’ve been very fortunate here. I’ve got an incredible staff, number one, number two, I have a firm that is of a size that’s nimble. I’ve been a part of larger firms and that’s a bigger boat and it’s harder to turn.
Jeff Brandt: But Jackson Kelly is of a nice size in there. They’re willing to be persuaded to make changes. I mean, we’ve got pretty much nothing of value left on-prem anymore. We’re a complete cloud solution. And Azure, the last thing we uplifted was Aderant into the cloud and made us look really smart from an architecture point of view, when COVID came along, had we had to do what our old on-prem systems with Citrix and everything else, buying the hardware, getting the hardware shipped to you and installing it and so on.
Jeff Brandt: And instead it was a 15-minute operation for senior Azure engineer. Does a, okay, here, we want this a little bit bigger, clone this, bingo Bango, we’ve got a hundred percent remote access at this point.
Bill Bice: You were at a perfect place to deal with that.
Jeff Brandt: It worked out well from that perspective. So again, one of the… if there is a potential silver lining to the pandemic, we were fairly well prepared for it.
Bill Bice: I think there’s a number of silver linings actually, sometimes in legal, we need this outside pressure to cause change to occur. And what you’re really talking about is IT making technology strategic for a firm, is that switch in mindset. That’s how you get a real return on the investment. What do you think the impact of what’s just happened with the pandemic, that overnight shift that you had to do and that every firm had to do, whether they were ready for it or not, how do you think that’s changed the partners and administration view of legal tech now?
Jeff Brandt: I think probably the biggest change is, and I’ll over-generalize at the more senior levels. People that were maybe a little afraid of the technology, a little concerned about how to work it, or will I break it? Really got proven that it’s not that big a deal. You can handle it. You can do more. I mean, you look at the kinds of calls we got when we first pushed everybody back home, where everybody fled. However, you want to describe that.
Jeff Brandt: And it was simple stuff. How do I do X? How do I do Y? There’s no crutch for a secretary. There’s no crutch for a paralegal. Everybody’s got to be able to do what it is they want to accomplish from home. I think people realized that it wasn’t as bad, it wasn’t as scary an area as they thought.
Jeff Brandt: So, I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen in talking to colleagues, not just here at Jackson Kelly, is that kind of more and more open mindset. Oh, well, okay. We did this, I can accomplish this, so I can see how going forward that we could probably do this. We could ratchet it up a little bit because that’s truly what we saw was a curve of, again, over-generalized, the more senior folks that, how do I do X and Y and then it was, well, geez, I can do A, B, C, and then, by the time you get a month or a month and a half into this, people are going through the whole alphabet, how do I do A through Z?
Jeff Brandt: We had people that were looking at their offices. They hadn’t been back in their office for three and a half months, saying, okay, every piece of paper on my desk, I don’t need at this point. Again, we early on when we adopted Netdocs and that was the primary first piece of our push into the cloud that was actually done by skip my predecessor. That is our client record of choice. That’s our client file. We try and get rid of… Again, I don’t believe in a paperless society. Maybe my grandkids will see it. I don’t know. But I do believe in a less paper society.
Jeff Brandt: And so, we’ve been able to do quite a bit of that. And again, people that had come with us on that journey had put more into Netdocs than operated better more efficiently without any of shoes or concerns going forward, what they had in their office, what they had on their desk, what was in the filing cabinets, really became, I don’t want to say inconsequential, but copies of it were there digitally. And so, you’re able to operate from anywhere.
Bill Bice: I think the great benefit of this mind shift, we’re going to see this for years to come, because we’ve just had 18 months where we’ve proven that we can do it and that you can work from anywhere. I don’t know if you saw the data from Thompson Reuter’s, it’s essentially profitability index.
Jeff Brandt: I did see that. Yeah.
Bill Bice: Yeah. And so, it would be one thing if the numbers were negative, but it’s the biggest gain that we’ve seen in legal and in many years, and that happened in the pandemic.
Jeff Brandt: Well, and that gets back into your earlier comment about sometimes we need external pushes. The bubble that surrounds legal is, I don’t know, intense is the right word. It just thick, it’s a thick bubble. Lawyers selling to lawyers, which is the majority of the model. You now have people in purchasing an acquisition, you’ve got the business line, leaders, and so on that are now buying. So it’s not always so much lawyer to lawyer anymore.
Jeff Brandt: And in fact, I remember, geez, my last law firm, the very first call the attorneys had, we’ve put out a proposal to do some work. We won the work. There were some heavy technology components as part of that. And the attorneys got on the call that was basically the purchasing department. So, I imagine that these people had a conversation with the coffee distributors before us, and they were going to deal with truck tires after us.
Jeff Brandt: And it was a very eye-opening experience for the lawyers because they weren’t talking to one of their own. But that aside, I mean again, the ability to adapt and shift, the ability for us to be able to move forward in a digital fashion. I think you’re right. I think there will be, whether or not work from home becomes a routine and institutionalized saying, I don’t know, there are some law firm cultures. I mean, you talk about law firms in the culture.
Jeff Brandt: Every culture is different. It’s a massive spectrum out there. I don’t know in my own mind how some firms will operate with the idea, if you’re back in the office and you have an associate that’s two doors down and one that’s only available via Zoom or Teams or something like that, are those individuals going to be treated culturally the same? Is the progression, the path for them going forward truly going to be equal? I don’t know the answer. In some cultures, I’m sure the answer is yes. In other cultures, I’m quite sure the answer is no.
Bill Bice: I think we’re going to see some divide there. So, in really large firms with lots of offices and large metros, there’s a lot more pressure around supporting hybrid work. And so, I think it’s going to be very different depending on the firm size. I think we’re going to see some firms that lean into return into the office and really make that their culture and others that tackle that, those kinds of issues of how do you mentor and support the advancement of associates when not everybody’s in the office at the same time all the time? It takes a different approach.
Jeff Brandt: It does. And I think again, that openness that the pandemic pried opens the idea that, okay, we don’t have to do… We can still be successful. We can still do things slightly differently. We can move forward. It does not necessarily have to be the way we’ve always done it, which is actually a phrase I’ve always hated in my life. But yeah, and we can move forward. We can make changes. We can be successful with a different model.
Bill Bice: I mean, we went out and talked to our team and we chose to purposely stay remote. We still have two offices, well, three, really, one in Phoenix, one in London, but they’re much smaller now. And nobody goes to the office every single day. And the majority of people work from home, the majority of the time, which is what they wanted to do. Right. We’re leaning into that. It’s given us a big advantage from a recruiting standpoint because there’s just a huge portion of the talent that that’s what they want.
Jeff Brandt: It will be interesting to see, I mean, because you had all these studies… Well, let me rephrase that. You have all these studies really starting and the data now just being analyzed as to what really happened? How productive were we 18 months into the pandemic? I think there’s a huge need and want for work from home. There’s I think a contingency that wants to come back into the office and have things return to normal. And there are folks that want to be able to switch back and forth as they need between the two. I think quite frankly, it comes down to a function of your role and what the bigger role, the team piece is doing. There are absolutely things that I can do more productive from my home office.
Jeff Brandt: And there are things that absolutely are much better done in an in-person meeting. I’m still a bit, whether it’s I’m old school and too many gray hairs or what exactly. I still feel that there are some things that work better in a face-to-face meeting. There are certain kinds of collaboration. My office is outside or just outside my office is our network support group help desk and so on. And the conversation is that go back and forth over the top of the cubes is really what builds that team and cooperation between those teams.
Jeff Brandt: And as much as we move to teams, Microsoft teams and did audio, did video, we moved probably 90% of our email traffic into teams, as part of all this. It doesn’t give you that benefit. You can’t be listening over the top to somebody else’s phone conversation with a user and be able to say, “Hey, this is going on.” You have a little bit more of a delay as that gets communicated in writing and in some way in a chat or, something like that. But I think that there are functions and that probably is the biggest thing to me.
Jeff Brandt: I don’t know that I could define, of all the articles I’ve read, I think one firm quoted 70 or 80% of their space they were going to give up. And I don’t know how you could know that right now. I see giving up space because I see more, a certain percentage of people working from home. But I mean, I’m still trying to gather information on what our clients are going to be doing. How are they going to approach this change? I’ve talked to a lot of our senior practice leads and marketing department and it’s like, “Okay guys, this is where we think we’re headed,” but I’ve got a background as a boy scout, my son’s an Eagle scout.
Jeff Brandt: It’s still involved with Scouts. I knew I want to be prepared. I’m already working on, what do I need to do if the Delta variant gets bad enough and pushes this all back home again. I hope that doesn’t happen, cross fingers and certainly hope that we don’t see a return of that. But if we do, how can I even be more prepared than I was the first time we went out? But I think there’s a lot to that. I think there’s a lot of how you define those Interactions. Some roles work really well remote, other roles don’t work quite as well.
Jeff Brandt: Some you can supplement with technology. Some you can supplement with new workflows. But I think it’s going to be a balance. And I wouldn’t argue that after 18 months or so in the pandemic that I’ve got down pat at what my full on answer is for how I see us proceeding forward as we go through Delta and then hopefully return to whatever our new normal is.
Bill Bice: Yeah. But it’s going to be a new normal and it’s not-
Jeff Brandt: Absolutely.
Bill Bice: … entirely clear what that is. Not everybody’s got it all figured out, but that assumes that everybody’s going to be in the office all the time for a huge majority of firms isn’t going to be true anymore at some level, wherever you fit on the on the spectrum.
Jeff Brandt: Yeah. But then how do you deal with, and of course, it leaves my mind right now, who is a general counsel or chief legal officer that basically said to their outside counsel that he wanted them all in the office? And it’s like-
Bill Bice: Investment bank memo. Yep.
Jeff Brandt: Yes. Yeah. It’s like, okay. Really is that your place to dictate how the firms get the business done? I mean, I get it, there’s, you want efficiencies. You want all these different things, but that’s like telling me, I have to use a certain accounting package or I have to use this particular tool in order to no, no, really. I don’t. I have to provide you superior service and timely service. But I don’t know that I like the idea and concept of clients dictating that level of… I mean, we’ll do lots of things for clients. Absolutely. And don’t get me wrong, but telling us how to operate, what our procedures and so on should be.
Jeff Brandt: I don’t know that I’d buy into that. And I think so far he’s really the only one that came out and said that. But like I said, who knows what… Clients I think are in the same position we are, they’re still feeling out what do they need to do to keep their operations going. What they need to do to incentivize employees, bring on new onboarding people. What does that new normal look like? And I can’t define my new normal until I know what my client’s new normal is. We’re going to travel that path together, I think for a couple of months yet.
Bill Bice: Yeah. And that memo was really pre the full Delta surge. It already looks different just a few weeks later.
Jeff Brandt: Yep. Very true.
Bill Bice: And so, it’s hard to pin everything down and say, “Well, this is the way it’s going to be, because we don’t know. We’ve got to work it out together. I think flexibility though, and the need to be able to deal with that change, that is the new normal.
Jeff Brandt: I mean, even before the pandemic, so 2020, we were already looking at pushing deeper into the tools we already have. Do we really need more software or is it a function of, can we make what we have do more for us? So, we’ve been pushing that direction and are continuing to do so through, excuse me, through 2021 as well. And I think, ultimately, that’s what a client wants. They want you to be able to be as efficient as possible, as direct and speedy as possible in order to resolve whatever the legal business pain points that they have been. And that’s how we do that. Technology workflows, interactions, research, all those things come together in ultimately providing the advice and counsel that we give.
Bill Bice: I think the increase in appreciation that we’ve seen for legal technology because of what’s happened in the pandemic. I think that’s going to pay off for law firms for many years to come. And that exposure that you were talking about of more senior personnel in the firm getting their hands on it, that’s going to make a real difference in decision making down the road.
Jeff Brandt: I think the biggest thing that’s going to change is the adoption piece. I don’t think, well, some firms, I guess will probably buy more technology, but we already have firms that buy tons of technology. And I don’t know who coined the term shelfware, but a lot of firms buy a lot of software and it sits on the shelf unused. I think the pandemic opened up, okay, we have this tool, it can do X, I can use it. So, I will adopt and use it. I can integrate it better into my practice, into what I need to do to deliver to my clients. I mean, I don’t think we have purchased more technology, excuse me, as a result of the pandemic, but I will say absolutely, we’re using the technology we have a lot better.
Bill Bice: Well, and I think that word integration is so key because shelfware is so often the pieces that didn’t integrate well, that live in their own little side law. You have a lot higher chance of success if it ties-
Jeff Brandt: I think so.
Bill Bice: … to the core pieces in the firm.
Jeff Brandt: Well, I mean, you’ve always had the issue of what’s in it for me? What is the ultimate payback that I get as part of that? But you still have issues when you look at hourly billing. If I’m disincentivized to automate and if I can reduce the time to produce a document from three hours to half an hour, but the mindset is I just lost two and a half hours a billable time, that doesn’t get you anywhere. So, I think there’s still work that needs to be done there, but I do believe that you’re absolutely right, we will be benefiting from that crack in the armor that says, this is doable. And therefore, once you’re saying that this is doable, then this other thing is also doable and this is doable. And then you can build on that going forward.
Bill Bice: Well, one thing that we’re seeing is a further reduction in the attorney staff ratio, just look at the firm numbers as a whole.
Jeff Brandt: Sure.
Bill Bice: And I think what you’ve talked about of attorneys using the technology directly is contributing to that because they’re seeing that that does work. You really don’t get to pass through the cost of staff. And so, because we’re still driven by the billable hour, there’s a natural end result that comes out of that.
Jeff Brandt: Yeah. I mean, but you can’t run afoul of the idea though that some things should be pushed to other layers. So, you want to push something down as far as it could go and still be done well and properly. So, it’s not necessarily because I can now do it, I should do it. And I think that’s somewhat of a risk, but again, I think the positives are well outweighing any of the negatives.
Bill Bice: Yep. Absolutely. Well, Jeff, this has been a lot of fun having this conversation with you. I appreciate you coming on. We got a lot more work still left to do.
Jeff Brandt: We do. It doesn’t end.
Bill Bice: Absolutely. Thanks.
Jeff Brandt: Take care.