High Performance Counsel Interview with Mark Yacano

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU CAME TO BE IN (OR A CUSTOMER OF) THE LEGAL BUSINESS?

I have been in the legal services business since 1988. I was fortunate enough to practice law at some excellent firms. Calfee in Cleveland and Wright, Robinson, Osthimer & Tatum \ LeClairRyan in Richmond.  My time at Wright, Robinson was transformational because I got the opportunity to work with some great young lawyers and build one of the first dedicated e-discovery practices in the country. I am so proud that those young lawyers are now accomplished veteran lawyers with significant achievements.

In 2010 I made a big change. I left my treasured colleagues to run a legal staffing division of a public company. It was hard to do but it was the right decision.  After of decade of leading the firm’s Discovery Practice Group it was time to let my younger partners step up and lead the group.  Coming in to run a division that was part of a struggling public company was the biggest challenge of my professional life. I would rank my tenure there as incredibly educational and I believe that the crucible of adversity I walked into made me stronger and more resilient. When I left that company, I looked at all the things I could have done better and focused on identifying the things within my control that I could have controlled.  The major lesson I learned is stay true your own voice and do not let top-down chaos drive your strategy.

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING RIGHT NOW?

Today, I am the Global Practice Leader for Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Managed Legal Services Practice.  Our team works with clients to improve the way they create and manage contracts.  We help them embrace document automation and find the right tools and platforms to manage their contractual risk. Our Smart-Look Analytics™ review offering pairs skilled legal specialists and advanced technology to perform fast, efficient and accurate contract analysis in a variety of contexts. By using Smart-Look Analytics™ review services companies can achieve significant cost savings through faster and better contract review and risk analysis.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST TRIUMPH AND YOUR GREATEST SUCCESS IN THE LEGAL SERVICES FIELD AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM EACH?

Building the Discovery Solutions Practice at Wright, Robinson was a labor of love, as was building MLA’s Smart-Look Analytics™ review service.  At Wright, Robinson our team learned to work in adversative circumstances and find creative ways to deliver great work.  For example, we worked with a major American auto company at a time when all the auto companies were in very rough shape. To manage to their resources, we needed to create new staffing models and new workflows to do the work at a lower price point without compromising quality.  Learning to do world-class work in sub-optimal conditions is a key driver of innovation.  Adversity breeds invention.

By delivering work that focused on delivering true value and helping clients solve their business problems we created a high performing group of professionals that worked well as a team. I love seeing how many of the people that came through our Discovery Solutions Practice are doing great things since leaving our practice.  Heather Caputo and Graham Rollins at Capital One and Darryl Shetterly at Orrick are great examples of people who have gone on to create a significant body of meaningful work.

DO YOU THINK THE LEGAL INDUSTRY IS HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION, THE WRONG DIRECTION – OR WHICH DIRECTION?

I think that is exciting to watch our industry accelerate the pace of change. That said, the gas pedal gets stuck from time to time. Still, law firms and law departments are embracing technology, legal operations professionals and new staffing models at a quickening pace. There is an intellectual energy driving new ways of delivering legal services better. These changes will enable lawyers and other professionals to do very high-quality work while spending less time on less-complex work.

I do worry about the rush to over-hype the ability of technology to “self-perform”.  What I mean is that even the best technology needs sound processes designed by people to better provide client services. At CLOC, Connie Brenton and a colleague from NetApp did an amazing session on Robotics Process Automation (“RPA”). A key point that they made was that bots can execute on a wide number of functions if the processes and rules structure exist to guide them.  That is true for expert systems such as Neota Logic as well. Technology that is deployed without a process and rule-driven structural framework is generally ineffective.

WHO – OR WHAT – INSPIRES YOU – AND WHY?

My first mentor, Joe Castrodale, now the Vice-Chairmen of Benesch, taught me to write and to use my words to tell a compelling narrative. Murray Wright and Bill Robinson taught me to challenge conventional wisdom, take smart risk and most of all, to be inclusive and share credit with others. At MLA, I am inspired to come to work everyday because we are an organization of truly gifted people that puts clients first and who lift each other up.  I am just as excited now as I was the first day I started at MLA.  Building a business that grows by delivering great service in a collaborative relationship with our clients is what excites me.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE YOUNGER GENERATION CONTEMPLATING LAW AS A CAREER?

Have an open mind about your path forward. Success is personal to you and only you can define what that looks like. Maybe you belong in a big firm or perhaps your passion lies with public service – just remember that any path you choose is ok.  We learn to frame and analyze issues in law school.  Increasingly law students also learn about how to leverage technology to solve problems.  Live in both worlds.  Using a pencil and paper to think through issues is a practice you should embrace just as much as writing code or using automation tools.  Inventors still have inventors notebooks for a reason. The act of putting ideas on paper stimulates deeper thinking.

HOW READY FOR CHANGE DO YOU THINK THE LEGAL INDUSTRY IS?

I would describe it as ripening.  Change is happening and is being driven by both law departments and law firms. More and more we see the emergence of Chief Innovation Officers at firms and Chief Legal Operations officers  at law departments.  Those emerging class of professionals are driving change and their numbers are growing. We are seeing more firms do hackathons and helping younger lawyers develop innovative solutions.  Technology companies are doing the same.  The great thing about the emergence of the “hackathon culture” is that it is democratic and creates an environment where the best ideas win.

IS MORE – OR DIFFERENT – LEADERSHIP REQUIRED? IN WHAT WAYS?

More education is needed and as that occurs more leadership will arise.  Both CLOC and the ACC are trying to buildout the legal operations function and an increasing number of law firm leaders and general counsel are creating environments within and/or in conjunction with their firms to spur innovation.  I was at CLOC this year and in addition to focusing on technology and technical skills, there were a fair number of sessions on leadership and effective communication.  It was smart of CLOC to do that because those skills are necessary components of helping create a class of professionals that have mastered the skills of driving change as an influencer. Better education will help everyone in the legal advisory and operations sector do a better job separating the pundits from the serious professionals.  Understanding what counts as good thought-leadership absolutely leads to better decision making.

HOW DEEP DO YOU THINK WILL BE THE INROADS OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE INDUSTRY?

I don’t think I like the term deep.  The use of technology will continue to perfuse the delivery of legal services and given the nature of how the legal industry has historically responded to change, adoption will be dose-calibrated.  Think of legal technology like IV medication.  That medication is delivered in doses at certain rate and at certain strength levels.  The same is true with adoption and deployment of legal technology. As technology is deployed across all sectors of business the flow rate for legal technology will increase.

IN TEN YEARS, DO YOU SEE AN INDUSTRY MUCH AS IT IS – OR DO YOU SEE NEW PLAYERS, NEW TECHNOLOGY AND AN ALTERED STATE?

I will answer that with a question – do you see any industry looking the same as it is today ten years from now?  The answer is no. Technology across all sectors will get better and the legal sector will benefit from that. Lawyers entering the market will proficient at both law and technology.  An extraordinary generation of people will come into the legal profession that are built to conjoin passion for the law with passion for technology and for personal growth.  They will achieve great things.  I can’t wait to see it!

ARE CONSULTANTS AND LAWYERS LOOKING INCREASINGLY SIMILAR? SHOULD THE DISTINCTION CONTINUE?

In many respects they do already.  Look at a complex acquisition and try to draw a bright line between where legal, accounting and consulting start and stop.  It is hard to do. Lawyers both in-house and externally will increasing leverage consultants and integrate them into their service delivery models. They will also integrate alternative services providers to rationalize the costs of doing certain types of work.  The distinction, between lawyers and everyone else however, will remain because it must.  The delivery model for providing legal services is one lung.  The other lung is the ability and the need for lawyers to make law, create new and innovative ways to structure business relationships within existing legal and regulatory frameworks.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE INCREASING AVAILABILITY OF DATA TO GUIDE CLIENT-SIDE PROCUREMENT OF LEGAL SERVICES?

Curated knowledge is a good thing.  Clients need to build an eco-system of legal service providers that includes law firms, technology firms, flex-staffing providers, consultants and other solutions providers.  Making good decisions requires education and sorting through the enormous volume of “stuff” out in the public domain.  Clients that create a system and process for evaluating the different participants in the eco-system and for gathering information will create a higher-performing network of services providers that are “fit for purpose”.

LAWYERS HAVE TYPICALLY REGULATED TO KEEP NON-LAWYER INVESTORS OUT BUT THAT’S A TWO-EDGED SWORD THESE DAYS. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

That question is murky.  The first firm to go public in Australia has struggled.  Outside the US there has been significant investment in alternative legal services organizations that mimic law firms in many respects. I am not sure we have enough operating history and data collection to know the impact those organizations have on long term patient (client) outcomes.  When you look beyond cost savings, the question that comes to my mind is whether some of the “New Law” ventures deliver the same degree of judgement and acumen to complex legal problems that traditionally structured law firms do.

At MLA my mission is to work interdependently with law firms and law departments to do their work better – not to create a structure that competes with them.  When I think about converging firm ownership into entities that are owned by both lawyers and non-lawyer investors the analogy that comes to mind is the types of issues that arose when accounting firms could provide both audit and consulting services to the same client. How do you ensure that the ability to provide the best client results is not undermined by the need to deliver outside investors an appropriate rate of return? I think over the next five years we will have a better feel for assessing the wisdom and efficacy of  investor-funded or vendor-sponsored “law firms”.

WHAT’S THE ONE MOST SIGNIFICANT FACTOR THAT WILL DRIVE CHANGE IN YOUR VIEW?

The rest of the business world will drive change in the legal sector. Businesses are continuing to make huge strides in automating business and manufacturing process. Those same businesses are using artificial intelligence to find trends and to model out different business scenarios.  Law firms and law departments will have to adjust to stay aligned with what their respective internal and/or external clients are doing.  The speed of business will push the legal sector further down the innovation path and their clients will love it.

ARE WE SEEING THE DEMISE OF THE “PROFESSION” AND THE REAL EMERGENCE OF THE “BUSINESS” OF LAW?

I don’t see what is going on in the legal sector as a zero-sum game. Infusing process management and technology into the way legal services get delivered does not diminish the legal profession. Every single day lawyers are working on complex transactions or trying big cases.  Sometimes those gifted lawyers are creating new business structures or making new law.  The fact that they are looking to deliver the entirety of their services more efficiently and profitably does not come at the expense of deft and brilliant lawyering.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FACING THE INDUSTRY?

The economy is the biggest threat.  During the last recession the legal profession was deeply impacted.  There were a group of firms that had the talent and the expertise to create solutions that helped respond to a potential meltdown of the global economy, but many firms took a significant hit financially.  My sense is that the profession is not battle-ready for an economic downturn.  Trade issues, spastic de-regulation, reform rollbacks and political uncertainty create the potential for a significant slowdown of the economy.  While the process of creating more efficient delivery models through technology, process management and alternative staffing models is occurring, it may not happen at a fast enough pace to mitigate the potential impact of an economic slowdown.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITY FOR THE SECTOR LOOKING FORWARD?

The climate is right for firms and legal departments to take a multifaceted approach to delivering legal services. I think that we are entering the age of the Legal Alchemist.  The Alchemist can blend interdisciplinary teams that span technology, finance, process management, talent management and substantive legal expertise to create better ways to deliver services to internal and external clients.  The message here is that there is a big opportunity to create new legal eco-systems of service providers doing what they do best.

WHO DO YOU THINK ARE THE GREATEST INFLUENCERS ON THE INDUSTRY THESE DAYS?

I struggle with this question because the sector we span is so vast and we hear so many voices.  People like Ralph Baxter and Stephen Poor really helped their respective firms embrace innovation and look beyond the standard way of delivering services and running a law firm. They continue to speak to the need for the legal sector to innovate and invest. My friend Judge Peck was part of a group of talented judges and magistrate judges that help sort out the eDiscovery landscape. His forward-leaning views on Technology Assisted Review helped use of that technology become more prevalent and as a result, saved parties to litigation a lot of money while enhancing the process.  Regarding people that write and publish people that I follow carefully are Ron Friedman, Ari Kaplan, Dennis Kennedy and Mark Cohen.  I follow them because they are serious people who put a formidable amount of work into their writing.  They are not pundits but serious students of the legal industry. On the corporate side the mixture of forward-thinking General Counsel and the emergence of true legal operations professionals are driving changes within corporate law departments as well as pushing their outside firms to innovate.

IF YOU HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, WOULD YOU? OR WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

I would not change a thing, even making the decision to leave a great firm to run a company. Each challenge I encountered led to opportunities to do exciting and compelling work the next time around. Being a lawyer is a great way to make a living. Being a consultant and advisor in the legal industry is filled with opportunity and room to growth as a person and as a professional. As person, I firmly support anyone that wants to leave a comfortable situation and walk into the crucible to take on giant challenges that are anything but safe and complacent.

IF A LAW FIRM WAS A STARTUP PITCHING FOR INVESTORS, WOULD YOU BE AN INVESTOR?

Not unless I was going to re-enter the fray and be one of the people providing legal services at the hypothetical firm.


WILDCARD QUESTIONS:

IF YOU WEREN’T DOING THIS, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING?

That is a complicated question because if I weren’t doing this and I had a knack for it, I would be a carpenter.  My Dad’s wood-working skills were amazing and unfortunately, I did not inherit them.  My wife is far more proficient than I am. Having to acknowledge my lack of talent in that area, I would want to write for a living.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE KNOWN FOR?

Fostering talent and creating teams where the best idea wins. Leaving clients with the feeling that our teams always cared about getting the best outcome for them.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE EVERYONE IF THEY KNEW (THEY MAY NOW).

I am an MSNBC junkie and that that I would love to be a guest of Deadline Whitehouse with Nicolle Wallace and sit at the table with John Heilemann, Donny Deutsch, Kassie Hunt and Ashley Parker.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE HOBBY OR ACTIVITY OUTSIDE OF LAW?

Reading biographies.  John Meacham is my favorite historian although he has not written on my favorite topic which is the life of Robert Kennedy. Everyone should read Larry Tye’s book on RFK. I also spend more time than I should at Boho Cycle Studio in Richmond and at Soul Cycle wherever else I am.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM?

The Buffalo Bills.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CITY?

I have two:  Buffalo, New York and Richmond, Virginia.  I grew up in Western New York. Richmond is where we raised our kids and where I found my intrapreneurial spirit. Both cities are perfused with creativity, great people and great food.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE FOOD?

Chicken Wings of course.

WHAT’S YOUR NICKNAME – AND WHY?

I get called a lot of names:)  Many of them have to do with my love of words – especially when and while I am saying them!

 

This article originally appeared on High Performance Counsel

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