From sweeping contract lifecycle management and e-discovery tools to communication and file management software, an attorney's work has moved almost entirely off paper and onto the screen. Each of these technologies individually purports to take on the drudgery of legal practice. However, to constantly move between technologies, enter the same data multiple times, and regularly learn new tools and workflows, the time-saving benefits of technology diminish, and we instead spend much of our time wrestling with multiple logins and moving information from one system to another. This can be solved with successful platform integration.
To ensure that the legal technology you purchase provides the time-savings and data insights promised by vendors, you need your software to be as fully integrated as possible. Put simply, integration is when one software can speak to another using a common language and thus share information between the two. An example you may be familiar with is Single Sign-On (SSO) which allows you to log in to multiple websites or platforms with one set of login credentials. This reduces the time and headache of tracking multiple logins and increases system security by reducing the number of entry points to access sensitive information.
The core purposes of integration are increasing usability, improving accuracy, and enhancing security. Usability refers to how straightforward it is to use a system. The easier and simpler it is to use a tool, the easier it will be to encourage users to adopt it and use it correctly. Higher adoption and ease of use lead to higher data accuracy as more information will be entered and with fewer errors. An integrated system also prevents conflict stemming from the same information being entered differently in multiple locations. The single point of entry to an integrated system also increases security, as there are fewer points of attack for a malicious actor.
Another benefit to proper integration is access to multiple data points for insights and analysis. The more visibility a platform has to data from different sources, the more effectively that data can be combined to generate powerful insights. Data is only useful if it's brought together and analyzed. An integrated platform allows for those relationships to be identified and analyzed at greater speeds with far less manual labor and is the surest path to rapidly generating real business intelligence. Additionally, the effectiveness of AI, which is rapidly becoming table stakes in many areas of legal technology and legal workflows, is compounded by the availability of many varied data sets to draw upon.
Anyone who has worked with enterprise software will know that very rarely is a platform perfectly integrated. Most platforms live somewhere on a spectrum between total isolation and total integration. However, the goal should be to strive for full integration whenever possible. A perfectly integrated platform would mean that:
Challenges of Integration
Integration is certainly not a challenge specific to legal technology, but legal departments and law firms do face several unique hurdles in addition to those posed by any integration:
Lack of Industry-Wide Standards
Building software that can flexibly talk to multiple other technologies can be an incredible challenge. Some software developers will tell you it's a miracle we get software to talk to itself, let alone to another program. Part of this is because there is no set standard language, standard or protocol for building software—there are certainly practices that have become more prolific than others, but nothing is stopping a company from inventing their own software language and programming their new product entirely in their proprietary format. This is particularly true in the rapidly expanding legal technology market, where some providers are much further along the development maturity curve than others.
Non-legal professionals often view the legal world as arcane and impenetrable—and some legal professionals gladly cultivate this perception. In many organizations, this leads to legal work being treated as separate from “business” work. The most successful integrations will connect legal technology with the rest of the business, not just other legal technology, and will often require a change in mindset from both legal teams and the rest of the business to be effective.
Legacy Systems and Workflows
Lawyers are change-averse. Any new technology, and particularly integration, are major changes for an organization. To successfully integrate and then leverage that integration effectively require a significant change in mindset in how organizations think about data and how work is managed and prioritized. It will also require monumental change in current workflows—though a lawyer's role doesn't change significantly, there may be a drastic change in the path they must take to complete it. The time spent learning and adapting to new workflows can be incredibly disruptive, particularly to teams that are entrenched in long-standing processes or technologies that were previously implemented but never fully embraced.
Legacy technologies that are being replaced or sunset post-integration pose a similar challenge in that information in that system is stored in a way particular to that system. Some level of translation must occur as data leaves an application in one format and needs to be ingested into another application in some other form. In a non-integrated platform, this is often done through manual exporting and importing of data. For example, you may ask one application to export a collection of data in a spreadsheet, which will then need to be reformatted and manipulated to be loaded into the second application.
This is not only a time-consuming process, but that level of manual manipulation creates numerous points of possible error and inaccuracy as data is inadvertently moved or altered. Without integration, moving data from one system to another becomes a rather complicated and high-stakes game of telephone.
“Data privacy” and “cybersecurity” should be watchwords in any modern legal department or law firm. While an integrated platform is inherently more secure than a series of non-integrated software, the integration must be approached holistically and with the full cooperation of the rest of the business, particularly IT, to ensure data is stored and managed in a way that maintains security.
Ideally, the integration process begins even before you bring a new application into your organization's tech platform. There are several things you can do even before you begin seeing product demonstrations to ensure a successful integration. However, if your organization is currently using non-integrated software that you would like to see integrated, these steps remain the same.
Step 1: Identify the Need
Before you think about integration, you need to understand the challenge you are solving for. Is it data security? Time savings? Deeper insights? Likely, it's some combination of these and more. Taking time to explicitly determine what result you want from integration will allow you to determine the scope of your integration project such as what other applications you need to integrate with and how they will need to be fully integrated. These will be the metrics you establish to appropriately triage issues that arise during the integration process and ultimately measure its success.
Step 2: Talk to IT
Even if you are technology-savvy and keep up to date on all the latest tech news, your first stop any time you are thinking about software should be your organization's IT department.
IT is a function that is often overlooked until something goes wrong, but the truth is expertise can be used proactively as well. They will be able to answer many of initial questions, help you refine the scope of your project, and will know what additional questions to ask providers to ensure that a new technology integrates as seamlessly as possible with your existing tech stack. This is crucial, as the software you are eyeing will need to integrate not just with other legal-focused technology, but other software used throughout your organization. When selecting a software provider, you will want to question them directly about their ability to natively integrate with the software already in your enterprise platform, ideally sparing your IT team the need to build that capability internally.
Begin your conversation with IT by sharing what you determined in Step 1—tell them what you are looking for in a new technology and the impact you hope it will have. If you are working with an application already in use by your organization, share with IT how you are using the application today, the benefits you see from it, and what you would like to see from it that you are not already seeing. Be as specific as you can, especially in addressing any compliance concerns you have—such as discovery rules or regulatory requirements.
You will not be able to effectively integrate without IT's assistance. Keeping them involved and informed from the start gives them advance notice of the lift they will face in building these integrations, and ensures you'll have their resources at your disposal when you need them.
Step 3: Extract Your Data
You are likely not using your current technology to its fullest. This is normal. Most users of most software only use a few basic features and functionalities. Whether due to attorneys trying to deal with already full days and skipping filling out some fields, or just an overall unfamiliarity with which features are available, oftentimes only the bare minimum of information is already in the system. The issue with this though is we often are not feeding enough information to our systems to drive the powerful insights we are looking for. The quickest way to explore this is through an export.
Most software will allow users to bring a snapshot of the data housed in it out of the application, usually in the form of a spreadsheet. Reviewing these outputs can be a rapid way to identify what types of information the software is capable of housing, the format in which it is kept, and most importantly, whether that field is being actively used by your organization. If you are seeing a large number of empty fields, it could mean those data points are not being entered into the system regularly, or at all.
From this, you can make decisions about which types of data you want or need to be passed to and from other systems within your enterprise platform. Of note are fields that will need to be unified across several systems, such as employee names and roles, client names and contact information, or contract terms. Post-integration, many of these data points may be received from another piece of software in your enterprise platform. This is another excellent opportunity to collaborate with your IT partner, as they will be able to identify which of those applications will be the program of record for a given piece of data.
It is important to remember to check with specific vendors when extracting data from their tools to ensure you extract all of the potential data available to you and in the proper way. Many applications have customizable reports, or multiple options for exporting. Experiment with these to determine the full breadth of what is available.
Step 4: Establish Standards
Armed with deeper knowledge around what your software can do and a clear idea of what data you want in your system, you can establish workflows and procedures to ensure that data gets where it needs to be and in the right form.
There will likely be growing pains associated with this step. You and your colleagues will likely need to slow down, break old habits, and learn new ways of performing your day-to-day tasks. Changing workflows can be incredibly disruptive initially and are usually one of the most significant barriers to technology adoption. Whenever possible, try to use existing processes as the cornerstone of your new workflow instead of reinventing the wheel.
You will need to dictate standards like file naming conventions, storage structures, and a clear workflow for how documents and data move from person to person and program to program. Every piece of software was developed with a specific vision of how users move through that system, and you will likely need to adhere much more closely to that vision than you do today.
Once your software is integrated into the platform, you will not want conflicting data entered into the system, nor will you want large gaps in your data, ultimately preventing you from using it to its fullest. Building new procedures to ensure the completeness of your data will help mitigate those issues. If necessary, invest in additional training for your team to increase their familiarity with the system and reinforce adherence to the correct workflow.
Step 5: Clean Your Data
You will ultimately need to do something with the data already in system. Your export from Step 3 will likely be lacking some of the key information you have now standardized. These will need to be corrected, as this data will be shared with other applications as part of the integration, and muddy data is unusable data.
“Cleaning” your data consists of removing inaccuracies and inconsistencies and then reorganizing the data into a format usable by the new system. Duplicate data, incomplete entries, misspelled items, and numerical errors all need to be cleaned for an integrated system to use the data effectively.
Legacy data is often poorly maintained and incomplete. Many teams may have data that has never been entered into any system, or has been placed into a legacy system without any sort of organizational structure. Cleaning this legacy data is often an arduous, manual process. Much of it may involve reading through multitudes of documents, pulling out key information, and moving that information or document to a new location. There are solutions focused on reducing this lift, but be prepared to consider engaging additional interim resources in order to keep your high-impact resources focused on their day-to-day.
Step 6: Become—or Assign—a Power User
Even with clean data and strong processes, determining what to do with newly integrated data can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Many applications offer some level of reporting out of the box, and customized reporting may be available as well. This will take time and expertise to explore and to determine the best opportunities to use this information. Additionally, your data needs may change over time, requiring changes in how your information is input or structured.
Just as the users on your team may need a comprehensive training, at least one member of your team should go even deeper. A “power user” is a common term for a user who has in depth knowledge of a software and can effectively leverage its advanced features. This individual will be prepared to explore new possible insights and adjust the software's functionalities to ease data collection and display. They can also be a first line of assistance and guidance for the rest of your team. It is common for some member of the IT team to have a level of ownership over a given application within the platform— however, someone with expertise specific to the legal function will be able to anticipate and execute on your team's specific needs more effectively.
Platform integration can reduce user headache and drive powerful, data-driven insights. Many major developers are aware of the challenges around integration and are building partnerships and connections to help simplify the process. However, even with these efforts on the part of providers, that integration will still be ineffective without IT partnership, an understanding of the data you have, a plan to get the data you need, and a clear process with which to move forward.