There’s gold in them thar hills. Mark Twain in 1892 novel The American Claimant

Almost every law firm has a great wealth of documents and knowledge locked up in work they have previously done in cases and matters. If only they could find it. The problem, as I have discussed before, is that lawyers don’t want to spend nonbillable time getting the information into a system where it could be searched and accessed. But a recent partnership between the major legal research player, vLex, and a leading document management vendor, iManage, is attempting to solve that problem.

The vLex-iManage Solution

Sandwiched between a lot of glitz and glamor at iManage’s recent ConnectLive customer Conference was an announcement by the two vendors of a partnership. The partnership is designed to enable customers of both to access those past efforts of the firm hidden away in its bowels. The idea is that customers can use vLex’s AI tool, Vincent, to respond to natural language queries based not only on case law from the vLex database but also on internal documents of a firm housed in iManage databases. Vincent is a powerful and impressive legal research tool that vLex says works without requiring users to devise a complicated prompt. The prompts, according to vLex, are built into the system. 

It’s a pretty clever way to enable law firms and legal organizations to finally get at those past efforts without a lot of time and trouble. And since the iManage materials are in private and protected databases, privacy and confidentiality are assured, says iManage. But like any good tool, the results depend on how well the tool is used.

I had a chance to talk with Ed Walters, co-founder of FastCase, which merged with VLex some time ago. Walters is now Chief Strategy Officer at vLex.

Walters told me, “A lot of younger lawyers, particularly and even older lawyers, struggled with previous systems. You sort of knew that there’s something good in there someplace if you just find it.” With the partnership, “firms can pull out their golden ticket documents the best stuff. Find 11 golden perfect documents to create a highly targeted answer. We have created a kind of a knowledge base for the firm.” 

The Devil In The Details

But, of course, the devil is in the details. One problem, according to Walters, is that there is too much data in the iManage databases. Since those databases include almost every document generated by users in an organization, including emails, a query using Vincent might generate a lot of irrelevant stuff like information about the associate softball league or firm outings. Vincent needs, therefore, says Walters, some form of governor or guardrail on the type of data it can access to respond to an inquiry. 

The solution to the “too much data” problem, says Walters, is for firms and organizations to create a separate folder of material that Vincent will access. This folder would contain a firm’s past best efforts on any given subject. The best briefs, the best contracts, the best Interrogatory answers, for example. Like most AI systems, Walters says this will require human input to work. Sounds good.

But this solution leads to other problems given the necessary human input. For example, what materials will be put in the special folder? But criteria for what constitutes quality can be developed. Russ Goberman, founder of BriefCatch, a legal writing tool, discusses the ability to empirically define and select good legal writing in a recent LawNext podcast. So, determining what to put in is doable. However, firms will need to invest time and energy in developing the criteria for selection.

Human Involvement: A Blessing or a Curse?

And there are other problems: how does the material get selected to be placed in the special folder? Who will be in charge of the selection? 

If you let lawyers make the selection, we could be back to the same problem we have always had. Lawyers don’t want to take the time to make the folder robust enough for responses to be counted on. Lawyers didn’t want to do it before Vincent. I’m not sure many of them will do it now without a pretty strong push. And are firms willing for their lawyers to spend nonbillable time doing this somewhat tedious work? 

If pushed, lawyers may take the opposite approach; I will just dump everything I did in a case in the folder and be done with it. Now you have a bunch of junk thrown in with what is viable. Or they will give little thought to what goes in and over include materials. 

Perhaps knowledge management workers, like law librarians, can take on the task. Law librarians are undoubtedly competent and can sniff out good writing. But often, what is good work in a case depends on the facts and the unique situation being solved for. Placing this burden on law librarians risks either over- or under-inclusion. So, lawyer involvement may be essential to maximize the opportunities.

And, of course, there is the lawyer hubris problem. Lawyers think only they know good writing. Their egos get in the way. Can you imagine a law librarian not including the work of a senior partner who already believes he is the proverbial special snowflake? Subjecting a law librarian to this kind of pressure is unfair. So, firms will need to have clear procedures.

Future Directions: You Can Lead a Horse to Water But Can You Make It Drink?

So where does that leave us and the new vLex-iManage partnership? It’s tempting to say that it leaves us where we have always been. But now the firms that want to invest in a viable, robust past efforts system have better tools to create and use that system. 

The advantages are pretty significant, too, ranging from generating better quality documents, creating documents that bear the firm’s unmistakable aura and culture, and better associates’ training.

The opportunities offered by applying Vincent to the iManage database housing a firm’s best efforts are pretty significant. Retrieval before technology like Vincent, even if the material was housed someplace, was at best clunky and hit and miss. It took time. Now, it’s instantaneous. And the advantages are pretty significant, too, ranging from generating better quality documents, creating documents that bear the firm’s unmistakable aura and culture, and better associates’ training. Perhaps these advantages will finally convince firms of the need to corral and use their past efforts.

To make use of the opportunity offered by the vLex-iManage partnership, law firms, and lawyers will have to invest the time and resources to make it work. They will need criteria, a process and some firm procedures. They will need the involvement of lawyers, practice group leaders, and other legal professionals. 

At the end of the day, whether the great tools of the vLex-iManage partnership enable great things depends primarily on firm resolve. It will depend on human involvement and input.