Does the New M365 Initiative for Legal Show a New Phase for Legal Tech?

I remember first hearing about the new legal tools built into Microsoft O365 (as it was known then) and how they were going to be an industry game changer at Legalweek in 2017 (ancient history, I know). I also remember hearing a lot of naysayers in the legal industry at the time talking about how the tools were very basic, that it only worked for data stored in O365, that automatic updates around data retention were a nightmare for compliance teams, among other perceived drawbacks. At the same time, though, there was a quiet sense of acknowledging that Microsoft’s entry into the legal tech world could have wide-ranging effects.

Fast forward a few years, and it’s clear that’s true. In that time, the legal world has become more comfortable with the idea of housing data in public clouds, but the big shift came after the COVID-19 pandemic transformed legal teams, both within corporations and at law firms, into work-from-anywhere organizations, something that most folks in the industry were resistant to prior to March 2020. Then, almost overnight, video conference apps like Zoom and messaging apps like Slack became household names. Microsoft Teams is the third standout of those new apps, namely because it combines video conferencing and chat, while merging with other existing Microsoft 365 tools like email, OneDrive, SharePoint, Office, etc., which together make up the lion’s share of enterprise data creation.

In response to this new way of working, Microsoft has launched a 4-phased Microsoft 365 and Teams Deployment Initiative for Legal in January 2021 “to help law firms overcome privacy barriers and a dedicated team to support and accelerate law firms’ 365 journey.”

A few weeks ago, ILTA hosted a Fireside Chat with Jon Kefaloukos, Sr. Enterprise Solution Specialist at Microsoft; Karen Del Vescovo, Vice President, NorthEast Region at Microsoft; and Joy Heath Rush, CEO of ILTA, to discuss this new initiative.

Many technology companies come into the legal space with the mindset that they can convince the legal world to adapt, and while it’s true that attorneys can be slow tech adopters, it’s also true that the technologists can be blind to the unique challenges that come with legal.

Kefaloukos acknowledged this, saying, “We’ve failed, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve had to be empathetic and customer-centric,” and the result is this new legal initiative with a focus around the unique risk, compliance, and privacy needs legal teams face, while enabling them to utilize the tools of the modern workplace.

While Microsoft’s theme for the project is “We Hear You,” highlighting that attitude of listening to legal customers, a theme that I saw within the presentation is Choice. One example is with the 4-phased approach regarding deployment. Kefaloukos called it a “walk, crawl, run” approach, meaning that law firms or corporate legal teams could deploy at their pace in ways that fit their needs, rather than going all-or-nothing.

Probably more importantly with regard to choice: not only has Microsoft included features around data retention and governance, but they have given legal teams the ability to turn off features — such as OneDrive and SharePoint storage and backup — as well. Kefaloukos noted this shift, saying that instead of trying to tell legal teams how great it would be if they used every feature, they instead gave them the option to use only what works best for their unique situations.

This is a key approach for legal tech. We all like the option to turn off features we don’t like (I can’t help but think of the lane change warning many new cars have, beeping every time you cross a lane line without a turn signal. At first it seems like a good safety feature, but it started driving me crazy after a while. I was so thankful for the ability to turn it off). And in legal, each organization is unique, their data needs and risks aren’t cookie cutter, and depending on the segment of the industry, the same feature may be loved and hated.

For example, as Joy Heath Rush, CEO of ILTA brought up in the Fireside Chat, “Unlike corporations [whose M365 data is mostly their own], most of the data a law firm houses is not their own.” Yet so often, legal tech companies will try to sell the same solutions to corporate legal teams, law firms, and service providers. Because the solutions aren’t customizable, it often leads legal teams to use a conglomeration of tools, often from different vendors, in order to create a solution that meets their needs. And maybe this is unavoidable and will always be the case. But the ability to turn features on and off is definitely a step in the right direction.

As a final thought, I can’t help but wonder: if more tech companies who are business and legal data creators — collaboration tools, social media, Internet of Things, etc — include more legal and governance tools directly into their products, then how will this change the legal solutions many of today’s legal tech software companies are building? Whatever those may be, it’s clear the more BIg Data and Legal Tech work together and listen to the customers whose problems they’re trying to solve, the more they will transform the industry.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by my employer, my partners or my clients. eDiscovery Today is made available solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Today should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.

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