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No Win Too Small: Crowell's John Davis on Leveraging AI Across Legal

Liz Roegner

There is room for artificial intelligence to help lawyers in many practice areas distinguish themselves from the pack, according to AI Visionary John Davis. Read on for his advice on how to leverage AI in creative ways, and better demonstrate the unique value you can deliver for clients with the help of the right technology.

The legal sector has a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies. What are some of the structural barriers that keep these teams from adopting emerging tech? How and why did you take an interest in AI?

It is true that, although forward-thinking and adaptable in so many ways, lawyers have not always been early technology adopters. There clearly has been some fear of change as well as discomfort with operating outside of the legal services sweet spot. The success incentives—within the law firm and without—also may not have been driving lawyers and law firms to innovate with technology.

That has changed. The current and upcoming generation of law firm leaders have grown up professionally with mini computers in their pockets, and the incentives have now tipped the other direction. Clients evaluate law firms for their innovation and demand that we demonstrate how we are investing in technology to provide better value. And law firms are doing a better job of managing for the future, growing their technology practices and crediting the long-term value of innovation investments. Embracing technology has yielded measurable competitive advantages. Certainly, firms like Crowell with that sort of mindset did better when the pandemic forced everyone to do things differently. Success in using technology and embracing new ways of working will only feed further appetite for innovation.

Clients evaluate law firms for their innovation and demand that we demonstrate how we are investing in technology to provide better value. And law firms are doing a better job of managing for the future, growing their technology practices and crediting the long-term value of innovation investments.

That really is where I come in. My focus on data and technology has fed my underlying practice as well as my management approach, both as in-house and outside counsel. My interest in AI is a natural progression of this drive to develop better ways to identify the key facts and factors needed to approach the legal and business problems we get hired to solve, and to troubleshoot to mitigate risk and cost in the future.

You have had an illustrious career—from working at UBS to co-chairing Crowell’s e-Discovery and Information Management Practice, besides being an award-winning author and lecturer on investigations and information law. What, in your opinion, were the most meaningful wins in your career, and why?

Every litigator has war stories. We usually talk about the triumphs—that first closing argument; winning my first jury trial; crafting the prevailing argument—but some of my most meaningful experiences are not classic “wins.” Three that jump to mind:

  • Helping to keep my client, who was on death row in Alabama, alive for an extra twenty years while seeking a new trial. This was the longest and hardest case I ever had. The stakes and obstacles to relief were immense. The Rule 32 hearing was like a meanspirited version of My Cousin Vinny. But this is the case my kids want to hear about most, and I do not regret a single minute.
  • Managing an expedited technology-assisted review investigation of critical data elements in a business unit. We rapidly uncovered sufficient information to enable my client to make a disclosure to competition authorities just days before a competitor. That early success in what would escalate to a bet-the-company global engagement provided us with credibility that we used to do amazing things with technology and process in that case and more generally for the client. Never let a good disaster go to waste!
  • Creating CMD, which is an internal data service at Crowell. This is a tremendous way to provide greater value to our clients, to get deeper into their data, to experiment with tools and process, to raise our technology skill level, and to train a new generation of attorneys to be data investigators.

Your career has touched and spanned across multiple facets: e-discovery, privacy, cybersecurity, investigations, data breach response. How have you been able to navigate so many worlds?

What attracted me to disputes and investigations in the first place, when all of my law school friends wanted to “work on the deals on the cover of the Wall Street Journal,” was the opportunity to become an expert in a new field for each new matter. I loved the endless variety and the challenges of translating these new issues into legal advice. My practice has followed that pattern through multiple disciplines.

As data volumes continued to explode and my clients’ businesses and disputes increasingly reached across borders, I saw a need for attorneys who could straddle the worlds of law and technology on a global scale.

I started with international law and arbitration, then worked increasingly in the financial services industry through the various market and industry crises that always keep New York firms busy. As data volumes continued to explode and my clients’ businesses and disputes increasingly reached across borders, I saw a need for attorneys who could straddle the worlds of law and technology on a global scale. All of my practice areas that you mentioned are natural outgrowths of that technology focus. Each also addresses different aspects of the same essential problem: how to effectively identify and manage the digital information we create and capture every second of the day, consistent with the accompanying bundles of rights and obligations, to accomplish your goals.

How can legal professionals who are passionate about working with technology, particularly AI, use their interest to further their career?

Legal professionals further their careers by demonstrating that they add value to engagements. Attorneys who can help their clients accomplish their goals efficiently and effectively will always be in demand. AI and other technologies can provide a great lift and means to distinguish yourself from the masses. So, I would advise professionals to be curious—to ask questions and look for opportunities to show clients how you can use technology to better identify and address their problems.

What were your interests early on and what drew you to the practice of law?

I have always been a big reader. I remember finding The Brethren by Bob Woodward on my parents’ bookshelf. Its depiction of the academic and strategic challenges of the law and the ways that lawyers were the center of the great events and issues of our society really captured my interest. I looked up to those justices and the lawyers advocating before them, and I wanted to do that. Looking back, once it became clear that I was not going to have a pro basketball career, I moved somewhat erratically but steadily toward the practice of law.

What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?

I struggle with work/life balance like everyone. The pandemic and working from home was not helpful, but things seem to be moving more toward normal. When not working (and sometimes when working), my four kids keep me and my wife more than busy. I tend to use exercise both to center and prepare myself for the day and to decompress. I bike to work, and I run. There is nothing like the bloodsport of competing for shared NYC bike lanes with frustrated car commuters, trucks, and taxis to keep things in perspective. I also find time to pursue my under-appreciated passion for craft beer.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I don’t know that I identify with some great figure from the past so much as I see a lot to admire in many who have shown themselves to be thoughtful and kind. Like John Lennon meant to say, “I don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in you and me.” I will avoid politics, but these days I particularly look up to persons who deal in facts, and demand the same from others.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

Curiosity. I value those who ask questions and are truly interested in learning. It is not simply an effective way to strengthen your work. Practice this quality and you will find it to be habit forming, and to open yourself to all sorts of new ideas and experiences.


Liz Roegner is an account executive at Relativity. Before joining Relativity, she was a practicing attorney with Choate Hall & Stewart LLP in Boston, where she focused on commercial litigation, government investigations, and insurance/reinsurance arbitration.

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