Legal firm CIO embraces new opportunities in the digital era

Legal firm CIO embraces new opportunities in the digital era

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May 19, 2016
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Even the tradition-bound legal industry is undergoing digital transformation and in some areas, it goes far beyond lawyer productivity and the intricacies of e-discovery. For Vince DiMascio, CIO of San Francisco-based Berry Appleman & Leiden (BAL), security goes hand in hand with delivering a client-facing web and mobile application aimed at helping global companies manage immigration issues and processes.

One of the world’s largest corporate immigration law firms, BAL provides clients access to a propriety Corporate Immigration Management System and web-based tracking system that clients and their employees can use to initiate visa applications, track the process, and interact with BAL’s legal professionals.

DiMascio joined the firm in the latter part of 2015, after more than a decade at PwC, to lead its next phase of innovation. “BAL has sustained 20 percent growth each of the past three years, which makes it an exciting place, and it is undergoing a massive transformation with a focus from a technology point of view of enabling the business and getting products that are our firm’s differentiator out to market,” he says.

Industry security concerns mount

Security and compliance with ever-shifting global privacy regulations is paramount, especially considering the data the firm collects on clients’ employees. Security, according to the American Lawyer 2015 survey is the top concern of law firm CIOs. It’s ratcheting up in light of recent law firm breaches and the stunning so-called Panama Papers release of more than 11 million documents that reveal how one Central American law firm has helped politicians and public figures set up offshore accounts to shelter funds from taxation.

DiMascio says recent revelations will hasten recognition within law firms that are potential targets and need to invest in security. “It’s a No. 1 priority for us,” he says. “When I go in and talk to clients about what we do, I start with security. That’s not a differentiator, that’s a qualifier, you have to have it.”

Change management challenge

Taking over an IT staff of about 65, “and a lot of vacant seats,” in a highly competitive region, DiMascio needed to set a new vision for his team and get a fast alignment. “We’re transforming this organization so that it can help lead and drive growth for the firm in a rapidly changing world,” he notes. The day after presenting his strategic technology vision to the law firm’s managing partners, he implemented Workboard’s collaboration and goal management application. “That may sound crazy from a change management perspective, but I wanted to leverage the momentum from my vision presentation and drive action,” he explains. “More importantly, I desperately needed people to start with the right focus on the right things from day one.”

Still, the legal profession is less than renowned for technology innovation. Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition Survey in 2015 observed that the majority of change efforts within U.S. legal firms “can be characterized as limited, tactical and reactive.” Nonetheless, that survey also found that almost half of survey respondents envision an artificial intelligence system such as IBM’s Watson could replace paralegals in the next 5-to-10 years, and nearly a third believe that AI could replace first-year associates.

Automating the mundane

DiMascio says lawyers today are well aware of the technology dilemma. “They automate out of the mundane lower value tasks that can be outsourced to a system, or even overseas, and they focus on high-value work,” he says.

AI is already at work at BAL replacing some of the critical, if mundane tasks that are susceptible to human error. That includes classifying documents and scraping data to spot inconsistencies that could imperil an application. “With the U.S. Department of Labor, if you’re missing a middle initial, or you don’t put an ‘N/A’ in your surname or add your suffix, and you need to, your application can go to the bottom of the pile. That has tragic consequences for someone who is looking to move up in the world and move on to a job at a big tech company,” he explains.

Pete Bartolik writes regularly about business technology and IT management issues for IDG. He was news editor of the IT management publication, Computerworld, and a reporter for a daily newspaper. He resides in Naples, Florida.

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