Legal Consultant Limelight: John Sweeney

The role of technology within a law firm’s operations has never more been more important, or more challenging, with competition between firms and data-security threats at all-time highs. To take their businesses to the next level – not to mention for peace of mind – many firms turn to John Sweeney, President of Logicforce, where the company motto says it all: “Giving law firms a distinct competitive advantage through our New Style Legal IT.” Sweeney and his team help firms optimize their IT operations while providing eDiscovery, document review, cybersecurity and data analytics services. It’s a passion for Sweeney, who stays ahead of the curve on technology issues so that his clients do, as well.

Lawdragon: Can you discuss how you got into the legal profession on the business consulting side? Where did this interest come from?

John Sweeney: I was introduced to the legal business when conducting an enterprise consulting engagement for DuPont. I lead a team of consultants to assess the people, process and technology the company used to deliver document-related services around the world. After three months of analyzing the data it became very clear the economics no longer made sense for DuPont to provide these services internally and they needed to explore alternative means to improve efficiencies with a lower total cost of ownership. We made the recommendation to sell off several of their internal businesses that were delivering these services and outsource anything related to document services they needed.

My company eventually bought what was once DuPont’s legal support operations business and I was on the team responsible for the integration into the company. This initiative allowed me to work with the DuPont legal teams and their outside law firms. As my relationships grew so did my opportunities to consult and provide analytical expertise to the business problems they face every day.

LD: What are a few things you find satisfying about working with lawyers and law firms – what is unique about working with this population?

JS: I have worked on law firm projects varying from law practice acquisition to organization restructuring and business development strategy for attorneys. What makes it interesting is every firm has its own distinct culture which greatly impacts their view of the legal market and the best way to remain competitive. I get great satisfaction having those types of conversations with firm leadership and providing them with empirical evidence I’ve gathered to make the best business decisions possible. It’s gratifying to see ideas come together that are acted upon and improve the firm’s business performance.

My most rewarding projects lately involve helping mid-size law firms structure their business model to effectively use IT to compete and win against Big Law. In this day and age, it’s pretty rare to find stories of the little guy or gal going up against a big competitor and actually winning – especially in law. However, that is possible today primarily because emerging technologies can enable mid-size firms to quickly scale to greater capacities when needed while still providing the personalized service and subject matter expertise their reputations are built on.

LD: Can you discuss the mix of firms LogicForce tends to work with?

JS: LogicForce has amassed a significant law firm clientele over the last 21 years of being in business. We currently provide services to top 50 law firms, super regional firms and boutique firms. Our primary focus is on mid-size law firms that have litigation practices in a 13-state area encompassing the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest. However, we do have clients in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

LD: Can you explain a bit about how technology and business-related services have evolved over the years as they relate to legal?

JS: Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, the cloud, mobility, cybersecurity and eDiscovery have had a dramatic impact on law firm’s ability to compete for their corporate client’s wallet share. Firms can no longer unilaterally raise their rates every year and expect to keep their clients because technology has become a great equalizer. More now than ever before mid-size law firms can affordably acquire the technological capacity to target clients, collaborate and take business away from Big Law. So regardless of the size of a law firm they all must modernize IT if they hope to unleash the productivity necessary to keep their fees in line while providing the legal subject matter expertise their lawyers are paid for delivering.

It is interesting to note that in 100 percent of the projects where I have conducted enterprise IT, cybersecurity and eDiscovery assessments over the last five years, every law firm would benefit from moving away from strictly relying on their in-house service delivery capabilities to a model that offers a set of services and technology paid for on a monthly subscription basis. The smart firms are starting to do this today because the model is scalable, allowing them to keep technology operational costs low in a secure environment while freeing up funds to reinvest in growth initiatives.

LD: Over your career, is there one area more than any other that you have consistently seen as interfering with law firm profitability, or interfering with the successful management of litigation?

JS: Great question! Moving to a true profitability model is harder than it sounds for law firms. Many Managing Partners will tell you it is more “art than science.” The simple fact that there are three different revenue numbers a law firm can use as a measurement is only one of the issues: hours worked times hourly rate; bills rendered; and cash receipts.

Determining actual costs is even harder when you consider support cost allocations and other overhead expenses. Most firms talk about cost-based project management as the way to profitability but very few have the technology or resources to implement a program that accurately captures all of the financial elements that go into delivering their services.

In the end the client gets billed and argues with the law firm’s relationship partner about the fees making it difficult for both parties to come to a mutually desired outcome. This scenario often results in billing write-offs, other concessions and non-accrued time. Basically a lose-lose scenario.

LD: If you can, please talk about why you developed the “Synthesis E-IT” analysis for law firms. How you came to develop it? And how it’s used by law firms?

JS: I want to first state that every law firm who has underwent Synthesis E-IT has measurably profited on a short and long-term basis.

Big data, the cloud, mobility, cybersecurity and eDiscovery are changing the way information moves across organizations and when leveraged correctly, can give a law firm significant competitive advantage. Every interaction between law firms and their corporate clients should be quick and responsive, whether it’s late at night, on the weekend or during rush hour on Monday. Every decision and piece of advice provided by outside counsel is now expected to be data driven much in the same way corporations evaluate data and make their business decisions. So I developed Synthesis E-IT in response to several requests from law firm managing partners and COO’s who were struggling with developing the right business model to deliver these capabilities to their lawyers and their corporate clients.

Synthesis E-IT is a proprietary methodology and tool set designed to provide law firms with analysis of the functionality and return on investment of their IT, document management, cybersecurity and eDiscovery ecosystem. It is non-intrusive and involves a combination of process analysis, technology diagnostics, data gathering and functional interviews conducted by a highly trained team of experts. Clients receive a detailed report outlining their current state of operations and a scalable blueprint to transform their business into a lean, agile, customer-driven machine that improves lawyer productivity and firm profitability through a “New Style of IT” that resolves the limitations of current legacy systems and obsolescent applications. Smart law firms use it to gain competitive advantage, collaborate more efficiently and gain the ability to quickly scale to meet the demands of any size matter or project that may arise.

LD: It’s hard to turn on the news these days without seeing a troubling story on cybersecurity. Where are law firms in terms of dealing effectively with this threat? If there were a few critical pieces of advice you would give a firm what would they be?

JS: The legal and ethical obligations of law firms to protect client data are very well documented. A variety of federal laws like Health Insurance Portability Act “HIPAA” and Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act “FACTA” clearly obligate lawyers to protect certain types of data in their possession. States have also imposed obligations on law firms and businesses to protect personally identifiable information “PII” including driver’s license and social security numbers. Failure to do so can result in civil action, suits and penalties.

Lawyers are also tasked with complying with their ethical duties as spelled out in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 and 1.6. Any violation may result in a malpractice lawsuit and potential disciplinary action.

To compound matters almost every law firm today goes through a myriad of IT security audits per the demand of their corporate and government clients. Failure to meet client’s requirements may result in a significant cost outlay to bring the firm’s infrastructure into compliance or worst case, loss of business. This is particularly true of firms who work in the financial and healthcare industries.

LD: Can you lay out for us what you think that firms should do to comply with these demands and regulations?

JS: I recommend that firms pursue either an internal examination or external independent audit that looks at the following areas of information security. While this list doesn’t delve into great detail, it is a good first step to making security-conscious decisions and laying the groundwork for a holistic approach to security.

  1. The cloud. Law firms should use cloud providers that can reasonably protect and provide assurances on overall data security.
  2. Email Security. Law firms need to consider using email encryption.
  3. Bring Your Own Device or “BYOD.” Best practice is to have a clearly written BYOD policy regulating usage with the law firm having ultimate control over all devices.
  4. All portable devices (phones, tables, laptops, media, etc.) are subject to loss or theft. Encrypting them not only makes sense, but with today’s technology this is a very easy step to accomplish in mitigating the risk to critical firm or client data.
  5. Password Policy. All firms should have a policy that mandates passwords are changed at certain intervals throughout the year.
  6. Everyone in the firm should understand the ethical and professional responsibilities they have to ensure the data in their possession is protected. General counsel should clearly articulate the data governance and IT security policies of the firm as well as the expectations for compliance.
  7. Wireless access points should be considered untrusted devices. The ability to exploit laptops that are utilizing “public” Wi-Fi does not require any skill. Mobile employees should be equipped with company or personal hotspots to protect company assets.
  8. Cyber Errors and Omissions Insurance Policy. Every Law Firm should have Cyber E&O coverage. The very survival of the business may depend on it!

Data breach is a very real threat and has become an ever growing concern to managing partners and CIOs of law firms around the world, regardless of size or practice areas. Complicating matters are law firm clients who are becoming increasingly more sophisticated about data security requirements and demanding their lawyers and their firms have systems in place to ensure compliance. Failure to protect client data by a law firm can result in disastrous monetary and reputational consequences. Therefore, instituting a comprehensive data security program at the enterprise level of every firm has become a necessary cost of doing business.

LD: How do you make sure you are in a position to provide critical advice to law firms on their business and their technology?

JS: I really like what I do for a living. I get to meet smart people at law firms and corporate legal departments, investigate the latest technologies at innovative companies and learn from legal policy makers about where our laws are headed. The fun part is synthesizing all of that information and developing strategies that will benefit my clients and their respective businesses.

An average day for me starts at 6 a.m. when I read certain news feeds, trade publications and email. After that it’s strictly business most days. I try to assess at least three-to-five software applications and or legal services a week. I’ll speak at some conferences and attend a few others but most of my time is spent with my teams of experts and clients. I think the best way to remain relevant is by doing. I think my clients and staff know that about me.

In the end if my client isn’t winning then neither am I.

LD: How do you see your own business evolving? Do you expect to provide new services or a greater portion of time in one particular area?

JS: I wear two hats at LogicForce, President and Consultant. So as far as my practice is concerned, I will still consult with managing partners, COO’s and litigation chairs on strategies to effectively address the critical business issues facing them today. The use of IT and data analytics will have an increasingly direct correlation to revenue growth of law firms and will continue to be a focus area of mine for the foreseeable future. More and more I see law firm leadership acknowledging the need to move from their traditional business models to a more modern approach. It’s my job to help them get there.

LogicForce’s New Style of IT will revolutionize the way law firms use and pay for their IT and eDiscovery ecosystem while unleashing the capabilities it affords to gain competitive advantage. Most law firms have built their IT and eDiscovery capabilities over time with little coordination between the two. When conducting a Synthesis E-IT analysis at law firms to which I referred earlier, I usually find a mixture of hardware and software technologies with little integration, upgrade or financial discipline. Their approach to cybersecurity has been pretty much an afterthought until recent highly publicized data breaches became a focal topic of the media. I know of no other company with the legal industry expertise that can analyze, implement and oversee all IT functions, cybersecurity and eDiscovery under one roof. When you package these services in a subscription based financial model and analyze the return on investment, working with LogicForce makes good business sense.