From the CIA to Legal AI: Bryan Cave’s CIO, Katie DeBord

When Artificial Lawyer heard that a large US law firm had launched an internal innovation group called TechX, which would be an ‘incubator designed to grow legal technology awareness’, covering areas such as AI by ‘centralising thought leadership’ and ‘enabling participants to market innovation excellence’, there was a degree of scepticism.

It sounded great that another major law firm was embracing the new wave of legal tech, but was this for real? Artificial Lawyer caught up with TechX’s creator, Katie DeBord, Bryan Cave’s Chief Innovation Officer, to find out.

DeBord has just got back from a trip to Panama where she had a chance to delve into a local cave system there. It was a lot of fun by the sounds of it. But, what made her want to delve into the world of legal AI?

‘I was a commercial litigation partner for around 15 years,’ she says, underlining that her interest in legal tech is grounded upon a solid foundation of legal practice.

Katie DeBord

Then in 2015, Denver-based DeBord decided to change focus, taking on a lead role in shaping the future direction and adoption of legal tech at the firm, including the trialling of multiple legal AI technologies. Although, she remains a partner in the firm despite the additional CIO title.

‘I wanted to change how the firm delivered client services and also increase the understanding of legal tech among our attorneys,’ she explains.

However, the leap into legal tech provided a couple of cultural shocks. ‘I was suddenly part of the tech side of things. That tended to mean that the people involved were not practising lawyers.’

She notes that a frequent refrain from the techies was ‘lawyers are tech averse’, an industry cliché that she disagrees with.

‘It’s just not true that lawyers are tech averse. Even when I got started in my career [back in 2002 as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis] tech was vital to get a good result.

BeBord, who before becoming a lawyer spent four years at the CIA as an intelligence officer, says that the truth about tech and lawyers is closer to this: ‘Technology cannot get them all the way there.’ I.e. tech is not a complete answer, even the very best AI systems need human interpretation of the findings. And that can sometimes frustrate lawyers.

Legal tech is indeed not a complete solution. But, seeing legal tech as either a 100%, complete solution, or not worth using is something BeDord does not go along with. Instead her view is that the firm needs to pilot and trial all that new tech out there, including the AI systems, and see exactly what they can do with it.

The trick is to get everyone engaged with the tech and to let them find out how to integrate it into their day to day work, not present it as a replacement for an associate, or something that can handle a client’s problem from start to finish.

Hence the creation of TechX, which perhaps is less of an incubator and more of an experimental test department for advanced legal tech. The group is now trialling RAVN, ThreadKM, ROSS, Neota Logic and Kira Systems, among others.

She adds that in November last year they launched BC Xponent, a group that is there to help corporate clients better deal with legal process management issues. It is a collaborative venture, as is the new TechX group.

‘The idea is that TechX is multi-practice, multi-functional and is not just lawyers,’ DeBord states. Nor is it all techies. ‘I want to get everyone together and drive these pilots through the firm. I want us to become thought leaders so that clients can see how they can use AI and how we can use AI for them.

She adds that the group is not just about different parts of the firm coming together and sharing with clients; Bryan Cave will also be sharing their findings directly with the legal AI companies.

‘We’ll be telling companies such as ROSS what we see as the possibilities of the tool and where it should be going in terms of development,’ says DeBord.

This welcoming in new legal tech, testing it with firm-wide input, evaluating and then sharing results with clients and vendors may well be a win-win for all involved. The end result should be a better informed client base and legal AI companies with insight into how lawyers want to make use of the tools they’ve been given.

This is more important than ever before because clients are now proactively asking Bryan Cave about how they could/should use legal AI.

And, DeBord welcomes the interest. She is a firm believer in the potential for AI in the legal market. ‘AI gives a lawyer the chance to see patterns [in legal data] that a human would miss,’ she says, perhaps channelling the former CIA intelligence officer side of her when it comes to analysing information to reveal actionable insight.

‘There are massive possibilities,’ she concludes.

But what impact will this have on the firm? She notes that their junior lawyers will likely need to become more tech proficient and if they are not then the firm will need to train them.

And for the partners? DeBord is pragmatic: ‘Clients are not standing for inefficient work now. We’ve moved on and it’s incumbent on us to stay ahead in terms of legal technology.’

All in all, the TechX project is far from being just a cool name. This is a substantive and well thought out effort to bring together the best strengths of the firm to engage with legal tech companies in a way that will benefit all involved.

In fact, as Artificial Lawyer ends the interview the thought is hard to shake that if all law firms approached legal tech and AI this way it would have a profound impact on the way law firms operate today.