Imagine the situation: a client calls you to ask about some information held in an old deal bible. You find it on the firm system and click to open – but it won’t open. Instead you get the message: ‘Error – this file type is no longer supported.’ You click again, same message. The client is waiting. And then you realise: you’re locked out of your own deal bibles because of outdated software…..oh no!
This is where Travers Smith found itself, a leading UK-based law firm with a strong focus on transactional work. As Shawn Curran (pictured below), the firm’s Head of Legal Technology, explained to Artificial Lawyer, partners had started to find they could not access deal bibles made in the recent past because they were created with software such as Shockwave, a multimedia system that is now out of use, or made with other outdated formats.
Curran and team saw the firm-wide need to find a solution and swung into action. But, first, what is a deal bible? Put simply, it’s a collection of all the documents involved in a transaction. Traditionally they would have been collected together in large paper folders at the end of a deal and kept in case they were ever needed to be referred to again – hence the term ‘bible’. As tech changed the world they were made into lasting digital versions, using whatever was the software of the moment.
These bibles can contain hundreds of long and complex documents, with tons of useful information about how a past deal took place. Often that data has been lost over the years by the client, but when they do a new deal they can sometimes want to know about the last time they did something similar. So, they call the law firm and, well…… you can see what happens next. And no law firm wants to tell its clients: ‘Sorry, we can’t open our own files.’
So, Curran launched a project to solve the problem. They found that in some cases they could unpick the digital folders, but even then because of old software what they ended up with was just a mass of unlabelled documents that was almost impossible for the lawyers to make sense of.
‘The answer was to reverse engineer them all, going back 25 years. We developed software to convert the various file types to HTML, which we expect to continue to be in use for the next 20 years,’ he said.
‘We have to do this as an organisation because clients want answers really quickly, such as a client asks for a share purchase agreement term that was used in a past deal, and they want to be told the wording over the phone. Our lawyers need that information at their fingertips,’ he noted.
Curran added that this was not a problem unique to Travers Smith – any law firm that built deal bibles in the 1990s, for example, using older software formats that are no longer supported, could be in exactly the same boat.
He noted that as they worked through the process they found that some of the software they’ve developed internally for the conversion could be used on a whole group of bibles that were made from a particular format, which has also helped to speed up the transition to HTML.
Travers Smith is now working its way through over 4,500 deal bibles affected by the outdated software problem. They are now about 50% of the way through the HTML conversion project.
At this point Curran makes a special mention of one project member, Jed Mark Acosta, who is a contractor based in the Philippines, and who has been working non-stop on this.
‘He is a hero, he is doing five to ten of these per day, it’s a full-time job,’ said Curran with admiration.
All of this also raises some interesting questions for CIOs and KM heads at law firms about the survivability of software formats that hold critical information.
But, it’s a situation that is hard to avoid, Curran explained. Back in the 1990s and 2000s there were a plethora of new formats coming into existence that at the time looked like they would presumably last for a very long time. Except, they didn’t.
As Curran noted, there were plenty of Betamax vs VHS moments, and some formats were abandoned. The outdated deal bibles are a testament to that. Which then raises the question: will HTML last, or will it also become outdated and firms will have to do this all over again?
One could say that eventually all formats one day will go out of date, but HTML is such a foundational piece of software, described as ‘the most basic building block of the Web’, that it will likely stand the test of time at least for another decade or two.
In conclusion, it’s a great example of a law firm’s tech team really helping in a substantive way, and doing so with their own initiative and engineering.
The final question is: how many other law firms around the world are facing exactly the same challenge right now? Probably quite a few.