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Clippy's Revenge : Only ten years away...


In humour / By Charles Christian / 27 January 2017

I had to check with The Boss, the new Managing Partner (always use upper case when referring to senior members of your law firm) about writing this column. I know, it should have gone via the Head of Marketing & Public Relations but technically I outrank her so I left her department (the Department of Colouring-In as we like to call them) to continue floundering with the firm’s CRM system (the one they purchased against my advice) and went over her head.

“No problem with the column,” said The Boss, “but why did you call it Clippy’s Revenge?” Which suddenly made me feel very old so I explained that “Clippy” was the name of Microsoft’s well-intentioned but in reality less-than-gloriously executed attempt to create a virtual assistant for Microsoft Office users in the late 1990s.

Microsoft had spotted the tendency for human beings to scream abuse at computers when they felt frustrated by them. (Or, as in the case of the finance director of a Thames Valley firm I once worked for, to throw the entire computer out of a window. It landed harmlessly in the firm’s own car park by the way, so it never made the Six o’Clock News.)

Restraining themselves from pointing out that if people made the effort to invest in some decent user training they’d avoid a lot of these issues, Microsoft created what they hoped was a more friendly “human” (well human-ish, it was a paperclip after all) interface that would pop up with helpful suggestions. You know the sort of thing: “It looks like you are trying to create a bulleted list, here’s an easier way to do it.”

It worked, well sort of. People stopped shouting abuse at their computers and shifted to screaming profanities every time Clippy showed his little bendy face. That’s why I call this column Clippy’s Revenge because, just like Clippy, legal technology started out as a well-intentioned attempt to make life easier for lawyers but all it ever does it is frustrate them and leave them screaming abuse at their computers (and their laptops, and their iPads, and their smartphones.)

Of course if lawyers ever bothered to attend the tech training courses they are offered, it might be a different story but… to quote one of the Golden Rules of Law Firm Life: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get a lawyer to attend a technology training course. That said, there’s a couple of more senior partners in Commercial Property who claim to be technophobes yet have no difficult knowing which way to “swipe” when they are using Tinder. (We had to block them from using Ashley Madison for security reasons.)

As I mentioned, The Boss is new to the job – and keen. Wants “to make a difference.” Even added “Director of Change” to his job description. Worse still, from my point of view, wants to “leverage digital technology so that the firm is at the forefront of legal service innovation and client satisfaction.” Poor naive soul. Still, it will get him onto a few panels at industry conferences, which will make Marketing pleased. However if he really wants to make the clients happy, getting the rest of the firm to just quote a price for a project – and then stick to it – is the quickest way to make that happen.

Being keen on technology means he also falls for all the hype vendor marketing departments and self-appointed industry guru churn out. And in the spring of 2017 that can mean just one thing: artificial intelligence, or AI. Well, we say AI but most of the stuff being touted as AI is either machine learning or semi-automated workflow management. In fact I had a vendor from a startup in here last week claiming their system “contained some clever AI” when it was actually just an Excel spreadsheet using autofill formulae. 

“Ah but,” says The Boss, “we need to start dipping our toes in the water with this leading edge technology because they say full blown AI is only ten years away.”

One of the other Golden Rules of Law Firm Life: Never stand between a partner and their ego – flashes across my mind but I still go for it and point out that “experts” have been saying full blown AI is only ten years away since the late 1950s.

The Boss is shocked. “But the industry experts I follow have only just started evangelising about AI.”

That’ll be because they’ve only just jumped onto the AI bandwagon, having previously been equally zealous advocates, in no particular order, of knowledge management (KM), business process re-engineering (BPR), legal process management (LPM), outsourcing, BYOD (Bring or Buy Your Own Device), project management, “deconstructed” law firms, Big Data, and the Cloud.

“Listen Boss,” I say, “I know you want to make a difference but a lot of technology is just about keeping the lights on, so we have systems that support everyone in their work. It’s not sexy, headline catching stuff but it keeps the firm running and the money coming in.”

I see the glint in his eyes. I’ve yet to meet a partner who doesn’t believe that you can never be too rich. “For example,” I add, “A cyber attack could cripple this firm in minutes yet last year the firm spent more money on flowers for the office than it did on cybersecurity.”

“Really?” says The Boss. He sounds interested, like maybe he understands. “I was thinking of restructuring some of the back office functions. Would it make sense to bring infrastructure and facilities under your remit?”

Damn, he’s got me cornered. “Will the new responsibilities come with a raise and a C-level job title, say CIO or Chief Technology Officer?”

“Of course,” he replies.

Hmm, maybe I can get used to the new Boss.

About The Author

The fictional protagonist of this story is an industry veteran, which mean he’s old, been around the industry for years but kept his nose clean, not been involved in any major implementation disasters, and not taken to drink. (This is in contrast to an “industry legend” who is old, been around the industry for years, forever getting into scrapes, has lurched from one implementation disaster to another, and drinks enough alcohol to single-handedly keep a small brewery in business – but does it all with such style and panache that they still get away with it!).

Charles Christian

Charles Christian

Charles is a former barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer and the founder of the Legal IT Insider newsletter, website and resource.

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