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How Alison Grounds and Jason Lichter of Troutman Pepper eMerge Have Blazed a Path for AI

David Disch

Working together at one of the most technology-focused firms in the business, Alison Grounds and Jason Lichter at Troutman Pepper eMerge make no apologies for putting technology like AI at the forefront of their business and legal strategies. Read on for a look at how they became AI Visionaries.

What motivated your interest in the legal field? How did you go from that interest to where you are today?

Alison: One of the reasons I was interested in the legal field and litigation in particular was because I am easily bored. I love how litigation requires learning a new company, a new industry, and a new business every day. I might learn about running shoes or how Georgia Power makes energy. It's very interesting to get to build that kind of knowledge, and that sense of intellectual curiosity really gets satisfied in the legal field.

But then, how did I go from being an IP litigator to an e-discovery practitioner? And how did eMerge come to be? I actually think there are similar interests in the two fields—that intellectual curiosity, that desire for problem solving. So many people fell into the discovery space, decades ago, because it wasn't yet a space that was occupied; it was a place where you could tread new ground and kind of invent your own rules, which is an unusual opportunity in the legal world.

Early on, I realized that the number one problem with this emerging space was a failure of process. As it turns out, if you had all the pieces together, you could be more efficient, more accurate, and find the information you needed without getting bogged down by some of the less exciting pieces of the discovery process. So we built eMerge with that in mind, advocating within the firm to make that investment in the technology and the people to enable us to do everything, end-to-end. It'll be our tenth anniversary this year, and we're very excited about that.

Before eMerge, I had a lot of large matters, and in our IP practice, we were using outside vendors. At that time, there was a very broad landscape of providers, and they each had a new toy to share every week. Somehow I was given the flexibility to use them all—I probably had login credentials to at least 10 different platforms. In fact, I have a three-inch user guide to Summation that's still on my bookshelf as a collector’s item. When Relativity came on board and gave us an opportunity to level set on an industry-leading platform that we could customize, and to do this ourselves without jumping around between providers, the timing was actually quite perfect.

Jason: As far back as I can remember, people would say to me: “You're going to be a lawyer.” Whether due to nature or nurture, I evidently had a tendency to litigate topics of all stripes. At the same time, I was always a techie, first haranguing my parents for an Apple 11c in 1984 and then for a primitive modem to get online. There, I participated in the evolution of the internet from something completely text-based to the nascent “world wide web” of the early 90s. So there was the burgeoning lawyer in me, and then there was also the person who always wanted to be tinkering with a computer. While I initially studied computer science in college, I ultimately found most of those classes, including one on artificial intelligence, to be too theoretical and not as practical as I hoped they would be.

For a year after graduation, I worked for a consultancy that had many startups for clients. It was a great experience, but ill-timed, as the first dot-com bubble was in the midst of bursting. So the risk-averse lawyer in me took hold, and I started law school, but all the while I kept looking for a way to make technology a piece of that path forward. My primary outlet for marrying the legal with the technological was at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, which focused on legal issues in cyberspace.

As it should happen, I had the good fortune of receiving an offer to begin my legal career at a firm with two partners who had just written one of the first treatises on e-discovery. It was through them that I was initially exposed to the burgeoning e-discovery field as a summer associate. This was 2002.

Gravitating toward a highly technical area that most lawyers shun created an opportunity for me—one that I embraced.

What were some of the structural barriers that you noticed kept the legal industry from adopting new technology faster? How did you try to buck that trend?

Alison: Lawyers are probably the most change- and risk-averse professionals out there. We help when things go wrong. We advise our clients on avoiding risk. So it's considered easier and safer to take a conservative approach and not adopt new technologies or workflows.

I find the adoption rate for technology in the legal space typically requires someone else going first. So with eMerge, our attitude has always been: let's be first. Let's put our toes in the water. Let's adopt the technology, use it, and then demonstrate the value with it.

I also think the hourly model of revenue generation tends to stifle innovation and technology adoption in some instances. It's not that they’re saying, “Well, we're making money doing this inefficiently—so why would we make it more efficient?” It's more resting on the laurels of the safe way to do it: “People are happy paying us to do it this way. Why change that?”

The barrier that we faced when we first launched eMerge was that we just weren't used to charging for technology. We charge for our minds; charging for technology almost seemed to be cheapening what the law firm does best. So we had to change the mindset to say, “We're not selling six-minute increments here—we're selling legal solutions and our ability to get you to the resolution of your matter successfully. Today, that requires the use of appropriate technology.”

Jason: It's been almost 20 years for me now, and I see the structural barriers starting to come down, for the forward-thinking firms, attorneys, judges, and regulators. But they’re still there. And if we're talking about artificial intelligence, that's even more opaque, right? That's the proverbial black box.

Even if you have attorneys who are willing to try new technologies, it can backfire if the judge, arbitrator, or regulator is inherently skeptical.

There is also the potential tension that exists with the billable hour model. Although alternative fee arrangements are increasingly in play, most often attorneys are still billing by the hour. So if you're now able to do something in half the time, there’s a certain panicked sense of, “Well, wait, did we just lose 50 percent of our revenue?” It’s not an easy hurdle. As the saying goes: “if it ain't broke, don’t fix it.”

But from the perspective of many clients, the traditional system is broken. Clients play a very critical role in forcing innovation because they have seen that technology and artificial intelligence can quickly provide high-quality work at a lower overall cost. This isn't like the unattainable triangle where you have to pick at most two out of three benefits; they know it can be faster, cheaper, and better with AI.

The barrier that we faced when we first launched eMerge was that we just weren't used to charging for technology. We charge for our minds; charging for technology almost seemed to be cheapening what the law firm does best. So we had to change the mindset to say, “We're not selling six-minute increments here—we're selling legal solutions and our ability to get you to the resolution of your matter successfully. Today, that requires the use of appropriate technology.”

How does your team manage the partnership of people, process, and technology as well as your relationships with clients? And how do you demonstrate the value of technology to clients in addition to colleagues?

Alison: I find we tend to lead clients to the technology. And I think the reason for that is simply that we believe in it. We founded our entire business around the concept that leveraging technology, along with legal strategy, is going to lead to a better result in the end. Because of that model and because we were one of the first law firms using this model, we were forced to make that value proposition right away. Technology created the problem we're solving, and technology will solve it.

We don't want to sell gigabytes; we want to sell solutions and results. They come to us with a problem and we work collaboratively with them to figure out the right solution. Ultimately, we do what we think needs to be done. That's what we're hired for—to use our judgment and our understanding of technology and the law. So we combine that skill set and present clients with a technological solution that doesn't currently exist, knowing we’ve built it in a way that's legally defensible, reduces costs, and gives better results.

In what untapped areas do you believe AI could have a significant impact?

Jason: Perhaps because one of my busiest cases is in the midst of depositions, the analysis of deposition testimony comes to mind. In e-discovery, you often start with terabytes of data and may end up with only a few dozen documents that really matter. In that tapering process, you are trying to arrive at the documents that are going to be shown to a witness in a deposition; their testimony will then inform motions practice, settlement negotiations, and trial. So depositions are super important.

The technology exists right now—Relativity has it—to synchronize the video recording of a deposition with the text and mark up the portions of particular significance. But I have yet to see AI and machine learning applied directly to deposition testimony. Each transcript can be hundreds of pages long and touch upon myriad issues, but the key elements can be difficult to find absent a very manual annotation process. And you could have, on larger cases, dozens upon dozens of depositions. If only one could apply machine learning technology to find those critical excerpts by leveraging previously coded documents and the first few annotated transcripts—it would be game changing.

What do you like to do in your spare time? How do you decompress?

Jason: Before the pandemic and having our daughter, my wife and I were major travelers, with a particular affinity for wildlife-themed travel: the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Galapagos, and Tasmania are three highlights. We hope to be able to share those experiences with our daughter soon.

Closer to home, I have always been a doodler—I find it helpful for relaxation and focus. It recently came to my attention that my particular style of doodle now has a name: Zentangles. I don't know when this company put that name to it, but I was making them in second grade—literally prior art! 

What is one of the most underrated qualities or skills that you find amongst people in the legal realm?

Alison: I think empathy is probably an underrated skill. People who are just able to read a room or an individual and understand what it is that is driving their stress or decision, and then be able to adapt to that, empathize with it, and see the problem through their lens.

David Disch is a customer success manager at Relativity, where he helps users make the most of their investment in the platform with optimized workflows and greater feature adoption.

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