Viewing technology’s value from the law firm perspective: assessing ‘technocapital’ in BigLaw

Bruce Green – Fordham University School of Law;

Carole Silver – Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law

-- There is increasing commentary about how technology is reshaping legal practice in private law firms. Our article, Technocapital @ BigLaw.com, considers this phenomenon by taking the perspective of law firms and examines whether they also view the use of technology in legal practice as a core asset, as it is presented in press reports about the legal industry. Our work considers whether law firms’ use of technology in legal practice is reflected in the professional images they convey on their organizational websites, and whether firms use their use of technology as a mechanism for competition for clients, talent and overall recognition.

Our study focuses on a particular slice of the legal profession, namely, the United States-based law firms that generate the highest profits per equity partner. These firms, referred to as “BigLaw” in the legal press, have traditionally grounded their reputations on their lawyers’ credentials and achievements. They pride themselves on having the most elite and talented lawyers and representing the most important clients in cutting-edge work. But do they also promote themselves as technology users, and perhaps even innovators? That is, is technology emerging as a new form of capital that firms use to promote themselves, much as they have described their more traditional assets of legal talent and client relationships? We explore these questions through a deep review of the websites of 51 top-ranked US-based law firms, to see how these firms describe their expertise in all-things-technology-related, which reveals, in turn, how technology serves as a form of symbolic capital.

Law firms in 2020 adopted one of three distinct approaches to discussing technology on their websites. The most prestigious firms (based on American Lawyer ranking according to financial measures of profits per equity partner) were the most conservative. They generally refrained from making claims about technology that might undercut the preeminence of their lawyers. Rather, technology was simply one among many organizing themes for describing what their lawyers do, whether on behalf of an industry, such as biotech, fintech or general technology, or regarding legal issues arising during legal representations, such as technology transfer or protecting intellectual property assets. Absent from these descriptions, however, was any indication of how the firm utilized technology in legal practice.

A second group of firms coupled their description of work for tech clients and on tech matters with claims of expertise in harnessing technology to provide conventional legal services better and faster. About two-thirds of this second group limited their claims about using technology in practice to descriptions of e-discovery, but the other third also described technology as an asset in other work, including due diligence. Generally, these descriptions were tied to claims that using technology enabled a firm to gain in efficiency or effectiveness compared to other firms, which presumably were not using technology in the same ways.

The third group took a notably different approach to describing their use of and relationship to technology. They characterized technology as transformative not only of their practices but also of their identities: technology was integral to their claim to be innovators. Firms in this group were also more likely to describe investments in technology, including through acquiring talent with tech expertise. These firms used technology as a kind of capital to distinguish themselves both from traditional law firms and from new entrants to the legal market.

Despite these differences, there were also similarities in the firms’ websites we studied. Evidence suggests that all the firms invest in technology that supports their practices and organizations, but only a certain segment of the firms find it useful to describe these investments. The firms that appear to face greater competition from new entrants to the market for legal services, such as the Big Four, were more likely to tout their tech investments on their websites. We presume this was with an eye toward competing with new entrants (also known as nonlawyer providers) who contend that their technological expertise enables them to provide greater value to clients. At the same time, all the BigLaw firms we studied still tie their reputations to the skill, credentials, relationships and judgment of their lawyers. No firm gave technology as much prominence as their legal talent. Despite alarms sounded by some commentators and competitors, none of the firms we studied appears to regard technology as a threat to the prominence and preeminence of lawyers.

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