Debbie Reynolds is a global thought-leader and advisor to Fortune 500 Companies on data privacy and electronic evidence handling in high-stakes litigation.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
I was a Philosophy major in college and stumbled into both the technology and the legal industry by happenstance. After college I purchased a computer and taught myself to use it then started a desktop publishing business. As a favor to a friend, I was asked to assist a university library that needed to convert from card catalogs to databases for their digital and multi-media collections, so I learned how to create databases. A few years later a Chicago publishing company contacted me to ask if I would create databases of legal documents for law firms. I said yes, and that was my start in the Legal Technology career over 20 years ago.
What do you do for a living right now?
I am currently the Director of eDiscovery and the Data Privacy Officer for Eimer Stahl LLP, I am an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and Cleveland Marshall College of Law teaching Legal Project Management and eDiscovery, and I speak, write, and do media interviews on eDiscovery and Data Privacy topics around the world. My current roles encompass many things that I enjoy including managing data flows, building legal services operations, writing, speaking, teaching, complex problem-solving, and being a geek technologist.
What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
The greatest triumph in my career has been to turn my interest in data into a career, out of thin air. My interest in data is in how it moves and flows so, for me, eDiscovery and Data Privacy are just different types of data flows. It has always been fascinating to me that technology allows us to do most anything with data but laws and our ability as humans to make decisions about data is often the only thing preventing data flows that may present problems with regulations and privacy. Seeing my interest in data turn into a career has taught me that we have no idea how our skills can be applied in the future. If you are good at something, keep doing it, because it may open doors that you never imagined. My greatest success in the legal services industry has been creating the document review operation business for Orrick in Wheeling WV. A mentor recruited me to Orrick to build legal services business solutions. As the Manager of Special Projects at Orrick, I was charged with creating and incubating a document review business for the firm. It was very tough and everyone said it could not be done, but in one year we went from zero attorneys in the Ohio Valley to over 100 attorneys. Today, Orrick’s Global Operations Center (GOC) is still thriving and is often cited as one of the first in-sourcing businesses related to managing document reviews inside of law firms. From this experience, I learned that thinking outside of the box can yield extraordinary results.
Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?
The legal industry continues to be very conservative and slow to adopt new technologies and new business models. For example, when predictive coding technologies began to emerge in the mid-2000’s, many law firms waited until the 2012 Da Silva Moore v. Publicis Groupe & MSL Group, (11-CV-1279) case ruling by Judge Andrew Peck, before they felt truly comfortable about endorsing and adopting the use of this technology. Still, in 2018, there are many firms who will not use predictive coding technologies on their cases because they don’t trust it or don’t understand it. Our firm, Eimer Stahl, was one of the first law firms in the country, many years before DaSilva Moore, to understand the benefits of predictive coding immediately and fully embrace this technology, so I am very fortunate to be at a firm with trailblazing lawyers who are progressive in their adoption of legal technology. Also, another example of the legal industry being slow to adapt to change is playing out now with the idea of allowing non-attorneys to have ownership stakes in law firms. In the modern age it takes many types of talents to run successful businesses, not only attorneys. If the U.S. begins to contemplate these types of rule changes, as we are now seeing in the UK, the legal industry could turn into an unstoppable force in terms of its ability to innovate more rapidly and create new business models to service clients.
Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
The person who inspires me most in my mother. She was the kindest person I have ever known and taught me to be my best and have integrity in everything I do. I always think of her as an angel on my shoulder, and I pray that I make her proud every day. The thing that inspires me most is to see people I have advised, hired, taught, or trained take what they have learned from me and become forces of nature in their own careers. It is truly gratifying to witness their successes and humbling to be told that I have played some part in their careers.
What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
My advice to the younger generations who are contemplating law as a career is to learn as much as you can about technology and be nimble enough to seize the opportunities that come your way. Also, don’t be content to follow someone else’s path when you can create your own path. If the law is what you enjoy, there are many ways to be involved in a legal career, so don’t limit yourselves.
How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
Change is inevitable so a few organizations in the legal market will be far ahead of the pack while many more will have to play catch up. I have witnessed countless cycles of organizations in the legal market not eager to adapt to technological changes as they emerge. Those innovative organizations in the legal industry who introduce or embrace legal technologies will always have top clients seek them out time and time again. The lagging organizations in the legal industry who do not want to innovate will be forced to move ahead eventually or be left in the dust by their competitors.
Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
I think the legal industry needs more talented people who are not only good at what they do but are also frank with clients instead of telling clients what they want to hear. When organizations can be frank with their clients, only then can they start to solve real problems more effectively. For example, a Fortune 50 client once tell me that folks in the legal services industry say yes to him all day long but what he really needs and wants is an organization that will let him know the unvarnished truth so that their company can make the best plan to deal with any challenges before they become real problems.
How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
The inroads in technology today seem to be driven to better adoption if people are able to experience these technologies outside of the legal space. For example, it was difficult a few years ago to have firms embrace the Cloud because they thought it was less secure than on-premise data solutions. However, with many people using the Cloud at home, like backing up their photos on Apple’s iCloud or using Google Drive to store personal documents, these experiences provide more comfort by making emerging technologies less foreign when applied to their work in the legal world.
In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
The legal industry in ten years will be vastly different than it is right now. The major change that I see, which is already happening, is clients leveranging alternative legal business providers to take on select tasks as part of the legal life cycle. Companies that succeed and hone their skills in these select areas will take away some traditional business from law firms. Also, legal services providers who are able to integrate these new services or invest in developing these new capabilities, will be far ahead of their competition and even some of the firms they work with. For example, contract evaluation and contract update work are areas which are seeing alternative legal service providers offer this function especially now with companies needing heavy contract review work as a result of the changes required by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Consulting firms and alternative legal service providers are doing this work in innovative ways that are outpacing traditional law firms. This trend will continue and it is not necessarily a bad thing for law firms, just a different way to solve a new client problem that we all must acknowledge and embrace.
Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
Consultants and lawyers are very different and they should be. I think there is a danger to assume that any lawyer can successfully wear every hat in a legal business. Consultants bring different skills and experiences and can really have a positive impact on legal businesses when utilized appropriately. The clear distinction between the value offered by a consultant verses a lawyer should continue.
What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
Knowledge of legal costs and transparency is key to clients being able to make informed future decisions when they are procuring legal services. The procurement challenge is that it is not always quantifiable to differentiate legal services based on costs alone. For example, if one legal service provider has higher costs than another legal service provider, it may be difficult to express in numbers to procurement, why the lower priced legal service provider is not necessarily the best choice. In cases where clients are tracking costs for future legal services procurement, they should also track how much of their internal time is spent managing these legal services providers and if any issues with their legal service providers caused delays, or worse, adverse actions as a result of their work. Legal service providers who offer alternative fee arrangements tend to know their internal costs better than most other providers, so this cost information can help clients make more informed decisions in the future.
Lawyers have typically regulated to keep non-lawyer investors out, but that’s a two-edged sword these days. What are your thoughts?
Someday, non-lawyer investors will be allowed to own a stake in law firms like they are doing now in Europe. We are seeing many U.S.state bar associations already ruling on things like fee-sharing with non-lawyers or alternative fee sharing with legal services providers, so the non-lawyer ownership question will likely be the next big question on the agenda. The complexities of emerging technologies and increasingly complex client businesses make it more likely that lawyers will have to rely on external funding, non-lawyer business people, and technologists to be able to provide all the legal services that a client needs in the future. These new developments related to non-lawyer investment in law firms or legal services companies will not degrade the law but will enhance the legal services that can be provided to clients.
What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will have a significant ripple effect on changing the way that lawyers work with technologists. In eDiscovery, U.S. Judges have opined for many years that lawyers should rely more heavily on technologists. When lawyers make technical representations to the court about technologies and the art of the possible with data, this detailed information may be lost in translation if lawyers attempt to convey very technical information when they are not as well versed as the technologists doing the work. With GDPR, having a lawyer misunderstand technologies that companies must explain to consumers in terms of service, privacy policies, or to regulators in enforcement actions could result in massive fines due to providing misleading information. Especially in GDPR enforcement actions, companies may have to prove, by presenting technical evidence, that they are not operating outside of the GDPR law. GDPR makes it imperative that lawyers and technologies work more closely to improve understanding and convey this information accurately. Hopefully, GDPR will usher in a new era when it becomes more natural for lawyers to collaborate with technologists in a more fulsome way..
Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
Any company that does not view or treat law as a business will not be in business in the next 20 years. Clients must continually innovate to succeed in their own businesses, and they will expect lawyers to be in step with them in the future to retain them as clients. Treating law as a business does not diminish law as a “profession”, so it should not be a surprise that savvy legal businesses will fair best in the future with their clients.
What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
The greatest challenge facing legal today is the threat of becoming complacent and doing things the way they have always been done for no good reason. To move forward and not be left behind, legal businesses should be asking why they are doing things a certain way and to have the courage to take a different approach, if needed.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
The greatest opportunity in the legal sector is to genuinely embrace technologies like Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, etc. Even before lawyers contemplate using these technologies in their own business, understanding these technologies will give legal folks stronger relationships with their clients who are likely already exposed to these technologies.
Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
Law is considered one of the least diverse professions. To make meaningful change in the area of diversity and inclusion, we must all admit that this is real problem for the future of the legal industry. To truly address diversity and inclusion, it should not be seen as a arduous chore or a check the box exercise, it should be seen as a way to incorporate diverse skills, talents, and perspectives which will aid organizations in having more profitable and vital businesses. For example, if I were to give a team of people a camera and have them take photos of the same object, all the images would be from different angles, because each person has a different perspective and point of view. If I combined all the team photographs, it would be like looking at the same object, but in three dimensions (3D). So, if embracing diversity and inclusion can take your business from one dimensional (1D) to three dimensional (3D), why wouldn’t a business want to make this a reality? I have always insisted on having diverse teams and because of this, I have worked with some of the best talent in the world. It is no coincidence that these diverse teams are the best and we all learn so much from each other. There is diverse talent out there waiting for opportunities, so we must step out of our comfort zones and our inner circles and look for new diverse resources to bring into the fold. If each person in the legal industry included one diverse person on their teams, it would make a substantially positive impact on our legal profession.
Will the current regulatory framework around law help or hinder it in the future?
Technology is future-focused in a way that law is not. In some ways, because law can’t keep up with technology it creates a “just in time” or reactive dynamic that does not encourage those in legal to fully focus on proactive ways to innovate before it becomes critical. Hopefully the trailblazers in the legal industry will influence others to innovate now or be left behind.
Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days?
The greatest influencers on the legal industry today are those folks who think like jazz musicians. Classical musicians play the notes exactly as written, while jazz musicians know all the classical notes but choose to improvise and create something new like jazz music. So, I am always drawn to the jazz musicians of the legal industry. Some of my favorite legal industry influancers are Mary Mack (ACEDS), Cash Butler (Clari Legal), Robert Childress (Masters Conference), Chis Lacour (Ing3nious), Jonathan Hiroshi Rossi (CJK Global Group), Brent Dreyer (Direct Services, Inc.),Mark Smolick (DHL).
If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
I believe that sometimes things happen for a reason and I do my best to have no regrets, so I am happy with my choices and the roads that lead me to where I am today and would not change a thing, good or bad.
If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?
I would absolutely be an investor in a law firm without question or hesitation.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t doing legal technology work, I would probably be an architect, interior designer, or graphic designer.
What would you like to be known for?
I would like to be known for being fair, for always being true to my word, and for encouraging others to be their best.
What would surprise everyone if they knew (they may now).
People would be surprised to know that I am also a webmaster and internet search engine optimization (SEO) expert.
What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?
Outside of law, I Iove to take long walks, cook, garden, and bargain hunt.
What’s your favorite sports team?
My favorite sports team is any Chicago team who is winning games at the moment.
What’s your favorite city?
Chicago is the “First City” not the “Second City” and is my favorite city, hands down, no competition whatsoever! San Francisco and London are a tie for second place in my heart.
What’s your favorite food?
I love all kinds of olives.
What’s your nickname – and why?
I have never been granted a nickname by anyone and I am still quite upset about it! I think my nicknaming window may have passed me by decades ago.