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AI Visionary Emily Collins of Southwest Airlines on Building Dinosaurs and Illuminating Opportunities with Tech

Raly Ivanova

e-Discovery wasn’t on the radar for Emily Collins—information governance attorney at Southwest Airlines—at the start of her career. But once she discovered how technology was rapidly evolving this burgeoning area of law, she was eager to jump in and open new doors for her career. Today, Emily uses AI to help her in-house team work smarter, embrace new challenges, and deliver better outcomes for their organization.

Raly Ivanova: Please describe your role in your organization and how technology plays a part in it.

Emily Collins: I am responsible for all things e-discovery at Southwest. I also work on information governance initiatives on behalf of the company. On the e-discovery front, identifying and utilizing the best technology for our company is critical. I define the “best” as the tools that allow us to work most efficiently and effectively, both internally and with outside counsel. For example, our document review platform must be intuitive and easy to use, as it is used by our litigation and labor attorneys and paralegals, not just the e-discovery team.

I also want tools that help us work smarter, not harder. We are a small but mighty e-discovery team at Southwest, and with the right tools, we can augment our support to our litigation team without increasing headcount.

When you’re not working, how do you like to decompress?

I’m fortunate to work at a company where we are not constantly pushed to burnout and exhaustion, so I do have time to decompress and recharge. Also, working for an airline, we are encouraged to take time off and use our travel benefits! I was able to travel to Puerto Rico this past summer, and it was a wonderful experience.

I am a lifelong lover of books; especially during the prairie winters, I can often be found in my favorite chair with a book, a mug of tea, and sometimes a cat. I also enjoy being outdoors, hiking or horseback riding with my family, as well as cooking and attending live performances (mostly opera and symphony).

Next up on my list of endeavors is painting, and I still have a novel that needs to be written!

What were your interests early on and what drew you to your line of work?

I had wanted to be a lawyer from a fairly young age. In fact, a couple summers ago, I was at my parents’ house and found an essay I had written in eighth grade about wanting to be a corporate attorney. I know, every little girl’s dream—but I knew from a young age that I wanted a career that would allow me to think for a living!

I studied history, political science, and Russian language in undergrad and then went straight into law school. After graduation, I started my first “real” job at a mid-sized law firm in Kansas City and kind of fell into e-discovery. I worked on pharmaceutical litigation with a large document lift. This was in the mid-late 2000s, so document review tools were still very much in the developmental phase. Back then, I remember thinking that being an e-discovery attorney was similar to being a paleontologist: it’s like you’re uncovering bones in no particular order and trying to build a dinosaur from them. Sometimes you’d get halfway done, and realize you had to tear the whole thing down and start again because you’d find a piece that didn’t fit.

It’s exciting to still be doing this now, when we have the technology to generate an projected image of the dinosaur, if you will, before we start trying to construct it. So even though I’d never even heard the word “e-discovery” in law school, I realized early on that this field brought the challenge that I’d always wanted out of a career in law: solving interesting and complex problems. Also, as an added bonus, being so tied to technology, e-discovery is a fast-moving and newer area of law. e-Discovery practitioners get to be trailblazers and innovators in the legal profession, which is otherwise much slower to change.

What is artificial intelligence?

In the simplest terms, I would just say artificial intelligence is a thinking machine. Instead of a computer merely doing what it is programmed to do, which would just be a machine, it is programmed to be able to figure out what to do—making it a machine with a brain, capable of “original” thought.

Why does AI matter for what you do?

Twenty-first century corporations create a lot of data. Twenty-first century humans create a lot of data. We are talking about data in exabytes now, which, if you are curious, is one billion gigabytes. The days when a lawsuit meant linear review of custodial email are long gone.

And volume isn’t the only challenge. New data types are redefining what it means to be a document, and all these developments demand new ways of finding the information relevant to a particular matter.

AI matters a lot to me because I am responsible for ensuring e-discovery is done in the most cost effective and efficient manner, so utilizing tools that will shrink my data set, find relevant information with minimal billable time involved, and organize my data sets into more practical buckets is key to the success of my team.

Embracing technology is one thing, but finding the right technology partner is quite another. What do you look for in yours?

First and foremost, I view a technology partner as an extension of my team, engaged to do something we cannot do, because we lack the time, expertise, or both. It’s critical for our partners to have the same vision. As hard as we try as a team to stay on top of all things legal tech, we are looking to our partners to lead us on new developments and tools. Ideally, they will understand our company and our processes well enough to bring the most relevant and most useful of these to our attention, while filtering out the noise.

What are some of the structural barriers that keep legal teams from adopting new technologies? Traditionally, lawyers don’t like change.

Fortunately, I do not have to fight to get best-in-class e-discovery tools for my team. Throughout my career, though, I have encountered lawyers—both in-house and outside counsel—who do view new technology with great suspicion. I’m not sure exactly what causes the anxiety over legal tech, but perhaps lack of formal training and education has something to do with it.

As you indicate, most lawyers don’t like change and most lawyers do like rules. I graduated from law school in 2007, and the only legal tech ever discussed was Westlaw and LexisNexis with the minimal application of case law research. I think because many attorneys—good, intelligent, otherwise competent attorneys—don’t understand legal tech, they don’t feel confident in using it or recommending its usage.

You say that traditionally, lawyers don’t like change, but I love it! Change not only opens doors, it creates them—illuminating opportunities for those who traditionally might have had a harder time gaining influence in this profession.

Of course, the ABA Model Rules and many state bar associations now address competence in legal technology as a matter of ethics and professional necessity. Even though a one- or two-hour seminar on legal tech once a year won’t make legal technologists out of your average lawyers, hopefully, this will lead to increased comfort.

I think it’s easier for in-house attorneys to adopt AI than outside counsel, especially in corporations that embrace technology as part of the corporate culture. It seems we tolerate more risk when trying new things, perhaps because, in many ways, corporate legal departments are expected to embrace new technologies as an extension of their company as a whole.

You say that traditionally, lawyers don’t like change, but I love it! I believe there’s always a better way to do something, especially when bright and clever people are involved. I’ve been interested in AI since the days of digging through dinosaur bones at the law firm and recognizing that not only did document review need to change, but the way we thought about document review needed to change. And because we needed to do something different, something that no one else had done, I went from being just a green associate following orders to a respected thought leader.

Change not only opens doors, it creates them—illuminating opportunities for those who traditionally might have had a harder time gaining influence in this profession.

Raly Ivanova is a program manager on Relativity's brand team.