Added May 14, 2008. Note: On April 16, 2008, I became general counsel of Pontus Global, Inc., one of the companies mentioned in this post.
I’ve been following developments in legal technology for the past ten years or so. During that time the slow pace of adoption of game-changing technology by the legal profession has been disappointing.
Yes, nearly everyone uses email now, and we all have at least a rudimentary understanding of Microsoft Word (massive overkill for most of what we do), but we’re still fundamentally doing things the same way lawyers have for years. Technology allows us to do certain things faster, but many of the fundamental processes we use haven’t changed much in the 25 years I’ve been practicing law. And instead of having secretaries we now get to do our typing ourselves. How much progress is that?
So when something comes along that actually promises to fundamentally change the way we work I take notice. That’s the case with a new generation of contract management systems now coming on the scene.
Contract management systems (aka contract lifecycle management systems or enterprise contract management systems) have been getting more attention from legal departments recently. And rightly so. Most companies are terrible at managing their contracts. (See Contract Management Is More out of Control Than You Think.) Contract management is an area that’s crying out for process improvement and automation.
Contract management is something that’s almost entirely done in-house, so the skewed incentives of private practice don’t enter into the picture. In-house lawyers should have an incentive to adopt technology that will improve their processes and efficiency. Yet in spite of all the benefits promised by the providers of contract management systems, companies have been slow to adopt these kinds of systems. And according to anecdotal evidence, many companies’ contract management system implementations have fallen short of the promises or have been abandoned.
So what’s holding the legal profession (and particularly the in-house bar) back from adopting the kinds of technology that could make a real difference? According to Pontus Global, the problem is the fundamental model of expecting busy lawyers to adapt to technology that often causes the lawyers to feel that they have to do more work than they did without the technology.
A system that allows everything in the contract process to be tracked and reported on sounds great until you think about how the detailed information actually gets into the system. That’s where these systems often fall down. If you rely on busy lawyers to enter information into a system it’s almost bound to fail. In fact, that could be the primary reason there hasn’t yet been a true revolution in legal technology.
So the Pontus model goes beyond software. Pontus has a hosted contracts management platform, but they support it with a team of lawyers and technologists in India and processes designed specifically to take advantage of the technology and the offshore team.
The idea is that your in-house team doesn’t have to learn complex software and they don’t have to enter data. The Pontus team will do that for you. This model is very different from the pure software contract management systems that require your lawyers to do much of the data entry. And it’s different from the legal process outsourcers, (LPOs) that provide the labor, but not the integrated technology platform.
I’m familiar with Pontus because my company has been working with them over the past year or so to get our contracts under control. There’s at least one other company that I learned about recently (FirstDocs) that appears to have a similar approach. And I know that some of the big names in the legal industry are looking at this model as well.
Contract management is only one application where this model could work. Many companies are looking at outsourcing legal services or hiring their own offshore legal professionals, but neither of those approaches is ideal if you are still using outdated technology and inefficient processes. The convergence of technology, better processes, and offshore resources by new companies like Pontus and FirstDocs could finally be the key to getting the legal profession to truly take advantage of the promise of technology.