When GC surveyed and interviewed a host of general counsel at some of the biggest corporate players in Latin America, what emerged was a variety of approaches to the question of how best to incorporate technology into the daily life of the in-house legal department. But whether the response was a wholehearted embrace, a cautious side glance, or something in between, what many agreed on was the fact that technology has made a significant advance into legal teams over the last five years – and that advance is set to continue.
‘In my three years at Bayer, I’ve seen the introduction of many systems. For example, a new tool was just introduced this year for contracts and Prime for data privacy was introduced last year. Comcat (a compliance tool) was in diapers three years ago, but it has gained significant importance around how we report on compliance cases. In my three-year period, it has moved very much towards a technology-based or technology-oriented profession,’ says Catalina Morales, data privacy manager for Central America and Caribbean at Bayer in Costa Rica, currently in an assignment based in St. Louis, US.
Bayer has taken a global approach, with the Central America region assimilating accordingly. But general counsel at Archer Daniels Midland Brazil, Patricia Ulian, has added personal momentum to the tech wave.
‘I myself am a person that really thinks that technology is important, because you really can replace operational work that I think is not a priority for senior lawyers – I try to prioritise the strategic issues and benchmarking, in order to check the other companies and really understand what we have in the market. I try to improve and, if this is the case, we invest externally,’ she says.
‘Five years ago, information control was totally dependent on human action. In-house lawyers were much more operational and less strategic, as they had to dedicate their time to fill in Excel sheets and other reports. The margin of error was high, the time of responses was longer – and those aspects directly influenced the quality of the decision-making process of the company.’
A race to technology?
In this spirit of striving to minimise administrative tasks, the GCs we interviewed for this report have much in common with their counterparts around the world, who have bid farewell to the paper-based days of yore. But some feel that parts of Latin America have further to go to catch up with peers in certain jurisdictions. Selim Erdil Guvener, general counsel at the International Potato Center in Peru, is one such person, having moved to Latin America six years ago after a career that has taken him to London, Istanbul, Nairobi and Benin.
‘I think the legal profession in Peru is behind the US and Western Europe in terms of adopting new technology. Here, I can still only see technology use at the word processing and some systems levels. But lawyers will need to adapt quickly, as digital transformation is picking up speed, especially in the government,’ he says.
Of course, in a region the size of Latin America – including 20 countries for the purposes of our research – and with the unique character of each country, it is impossible to draw conclusions that are too general.
‘Latin America consists of many nations,’ says Ulian. ‘For example, you’ve got both Mexico and Bolivia – these are two totally different countries with different levels of development. When you think of Mexico, there are many differences in culture, and you must also consider the dependency on the US. You also have Brazil, which speaks Portuguese, whilst all other Latin American nations speak Spanish. You have many differences, but Brazil is a pioneer in this area compared to other Latin American countries.’
Vastly differing economical, commercial, societal, and geographical landscapes across the numerous countries making up the Latin American region have resulted in similarly different priorities for the governments governing those countries. Regulatory differences therefore exist across the region and, in some cases, technology regulation might not be the most pressing or significant issue for the relevant country regulators and the legislature.
Despite the inherent differences between the various countries that comprise the Latin America region the counsel who participated in the quantitative aspect of our research were near unanimous in their agreement that technology had become an essential component of any in-house lawyer’s role. Indeed, 96% of respondents reported using specialised legal tech within their departments, with only 11% saying that the use of technology within their legal department hadn’t changed in the last five years.
It’s hardly controversial to posit that technology is changing the legal profession. Afterall, the general counsel who took part in the research for this report were near unanimous, at 94%, in saying that technology had been disruptive in the past five years. All but two of the 140 surveyed predicted further disruption to arise in the coming five years.
For providers of external legal services, the prospect of change and disruption will be cause for concern in some corners of the profession.
But it needn’t be.
Since its inception in 2002, World Services Group has made technology a core component of its network offering, an ethos that has extended to its member firms around the world.
‘Technology is at the core of the administrative activities within our firm, but also part of the essence of the legal services that we provide to our clients,’ says Fabio Luiz Barboza Pereira, partner at Veirano Advogados – the World Services Group member for Brazil.
But the actions of some firms operating in insolation isn’t going to be sufficient to move the needle a meaningful amount. Rather, it will require a collective effort from all of the profession in order to achieve real progress. It is abundantly evident from the report that in-house counsel are embodying the evolution that they want to see, but they can’t be expected to assume all of the responsibility.‘At Veirano, we firmly believe that our legal analysis is enhanced – and a more time efficient process – with the support of technology. To this end, we have hired developers and implemented custom platforms for timesheet accounting, pricing, document filing and performance valuations, as well as almost all administrative activities. This gives both associates and partners alike more time to focus on core business activities, which is of course the provision of top-quality legal services.’
‘The legal profession needs guidance from true technology experts if we are to drive a digital transformation. Lawyers can be reluctant to embrace technology. We are seeing legal tech companies and multinational law firms taking the first steps towards a digital revolution, but it will require a real effort to convince the profession of the benefits and potential of legal tech,’ says Victor Manual Barajas Barrera, partner at Basham, Ringe y Correa, SC – the World Services Group member firm for Mexico.
‘At Basham, we will be conducting a digital transformation process together with our technology partners, will a host of changes expected to be implemented this year.’
At present, it appears that the pressures are beginning to mount, if only on the margins. At 97%, almost all respondents said that a firm staying abreast of new technologies was at least somewhat of an important consideration to them. Interestingly though, that hadn’t yet translated into a criterion on which firms were explicitly judged, with only 35% of respondents saying that the question had arisen when undertaking a panel review. While firms may not yet be feeling the impact of a lack of innovation on their bottom line, the responses compiled suggest that moment may not be far away.
If in-house legal departments are going to be the ones to spearhead technological change in the profession, then the rest of the legal community must be prepared to join them, or risk being left behind. By the time clients begin voting with their business, it will already be too late.
General counsel report benefits across several areas of the in-house team. Increased efficiency has been a major boon, with technology enabling a more precise focus on aspects of work that are deserving of significant time and energy, while straightforward administration work can reliably be automated and left to tech tools. Improved organisation has been another advantage, particularly an enhanced ability to keep track of and access information. The possibility of detailed and speedy data extraction extends the scope of teams and their broader organisations to retrieve information to employ in internal analysis.
Says Ulian: ‘I believe legal technology is already helping us to work smarter and can make in-house teams more efficient, improve knowledge retention, accelerate professional development and reduce potential burnout.’
Some general counsel stressed the importance of technology in bringing closeness among parties, be they internal, external, or even customers.
‘I think the future is about AI and connection, because as much as we can be connected now, we cannot connect things and people – AI helps with this. When you can make out as many links as you can between people and information – for example, you can now make a complete profile on and of anyone… This is powerful because I can have a conversation with them and convince them of something, because essentially, I know them now,’ Ulian explains.
‘We can see this when purchasing items on Amazon: when you buy a product, Amazon offers you other related products. This is embryonic and I think the future will be more like that. The more connected we are with information, the more connected we are with people.’
But on a more prosaic level, the existence of technology can foster a greater understanding between legal department and business partner.
‘We are now a lot closer to our clients, thanks to technology. Not only from a telecommunications and technology point of view, but also because we’re able to follow their work and provide support almost instantly. Now that we have significant information technology support, we can understand what the client’s business actually is,’ says Guvener.
‘Let me give you an example: we have a monitoring and evaluation platform where we gather all the information – this is not necessarily legal information. But, we do have the key performance indicators in there. We can look at it and identify the key challenges colleagues are facing. We can see if there is anything related to legal challenges. Therefore, we can pre-empt project implementation challenges before they become real bottlenecks for projects. The ability to work on legal documents in real time is a real big change.’
The human touch
Much discussion on the topic of technology centres on the issue of how much professionals have to fear from technological advancement. But many of the general counsel we spoke to were relaxed about any potential ‘threat’ posed by machines.
‘Technology is not here to replace a lawyer’s work, but rather to enhance it. There is a human factor that lawyers provide – interpretations, judgement, decisions, solutions and knowledge of legal systems and a particular business situation – that need to be part of the entire law system, that is why technology and human knowledge are complementary. On the other hand, if a lawyer keeps up with the different technological changes and embraces new technologies, the exercise of the legal profession will be improved. In fact, I believe you will become a better professional,’ says Juan Pablo Ovalle Arana, country counsel at IBM Colombia.
Rather than replacing lawyers, those we surveyed for this report were strongly in agreement that technology was a tool to be used to enhance the outcomes provided by lawyers, not replace them. 66% said that technology could enhance outcomes for in-house departments to a great extent, with a further 31% agreeing but to a moderate degree. Only 3% of respondents had a divergent opinion.
There was a sense among general counsel in the region that the increasing use of technology tools was unlikely to remove lawyers from a role as ultimate architect of legal solutions, primarily because of the importance of the human element in contributing to productive outcomes.
That humanity was defined as communicating through body language, reading through the lines, and responding to the emotional component of client representation, identifying the exceptions that prove the rule, and the quirks of life and law that build the richest understanding of any situation.
Applying emotional intelligence – be it with opposite parties negotiation or litigation, or in internal client interactions – is far from an exact science, yet the lawyer’s role relies heavily on these essential interpersonal skills alongside technical expertise. As in the healthcare profession, while a machine might contribute pinpoint accurate analysis and speed to a diagnosis or treatment, there is currently no automated substitute for bedside manner. For this reason, some of the general counsel we spoke to pointed out the limitations on true disruption to the legal profession, and the potential for hyperbole when applying buzzwords and jargon terms perhaps more suited to analysis of tech trends to the nuances of practising law. Rather than a discussion of disruption, those general counsel felt, a more accurate description of technology’s impact would be in terms of incremental time-savings rather than replacement of core duties.
‘There is an element of “frustration” that is recurrent for the legal professionals, and it is a client saying “My lawyer doesn’t understand me”. I have been in situations where I have to go through a call center bot and they give me a number of options, but I am not always sure that my question will fit any option. So, the interaction with the machine is not always perfect, and “the human touch” is still needed,’ says Ovalle Arana.
‘I think we, as lawyers, would need to learn to interact with new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and others. The work between man and technology has never been so important and efficient and it is up to us to take advantage of it to make our profession evolve.’
But, for some, even outside of AI and any mythology about the robotisation of the profession, the cold touch of technology can already be felt – ironically aided by the very tools developed to improve communication.
‘Today, you can negotiate and close a big deal without meeting the other party in person. That’s a dramatic change, because it allows you to work remotely, even in complex fields. The challenge is that by losing the personal touch, it will hurt the lawyers in their capacity to develop negotiation tactics and so forth,’ says Alberto Vergara, head of litigation for Scotiabank Chile.
‘You save cost in matters like travel and meetings but, on the other hand, you will lose some useful tools that only the experience of personal relationships provides to lawyers. Right now, you have general lawyers that don’t have external meetings – they work exclusively by their computers, so they don’t have any real relationship with their counterparties. I would say that is problematic.’