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Genentech's Stephanie Mendelsohn Shares How AI Shuts Down Legal's 'Cost Center' Rap

Phil Naess-Gross

Over her 30 years of practicing law, AI Visionary Stephanie Mendelsohn has seen the evolution of e-discovery from the very start—and helped guide its path. Today, she sees artificial intelligence as an essential ingredient for legal teams, and as a great tool that increases the value of in-house legal work.

The legal sector has a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies, but you stand out as an early explorer of AI. What are some of the structural barriers that keep these teams from adopting new technologies? How and why did you take an interest in AI?

My observations are that cost and awareness are two barriers that limit how legal departments embrace technology. Costs associated with new technology can include market analyses, evaluation, implementation and professional services, and license fees. Demonstrating ROI to justify expanding technology can be a high burden, and lawyers are so focused on doing impactful work that it may seem the benefit doesn’t outweigh the burden. Beyond the costs, simple awareness of new, disruptive technologies that can increase efficiency or defensibility is a barrier to implementation. Without active benchmarking, market analysis, and collaboration between legal and IT, legal department members may not be aware of new technology. Forming a technology committee, as we have, that can serve as a conduit for legal department needs and possible solutions is one approach.

My interest in AI in particular continues to grow. As an e-discovery and information management practitioner, I’ve long been interested in how technology can assist my practice and also solve business and legal challenges related to finding and understanding data faster, protecting sensitive information, and managing volume and cost. At our company, everyone is working in service of patients. That is front and center in the minds of everyone here. We have very ambitious goals around the work we do to discover and develop innovative medicines that improve patients’ lives. I’m interested in ways that legal can work faster and more efficiently to support our core mission.

Whether we conduct litigation and discovery more cost-effectively to save company resources, answer questions more quickly, or resolve legal issues related to new ways of sharing information and collaborating, AI can help us provide more value in a more efficient manner. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, technology like AI helps us help the business, which benefits patients.

Many organizations consider the legal function to be an expensive cost center. How can these teams prove their value to their organizations? How can AI help?

There are many ways that legal functions provide value to their organizations. Significant value is derived from the close relationship between the business and legal. Not only can the legal function help anticipate and address legal topics, but we can bring our expertise to bear during the development and execution of business strategies.

e-Discovery practitioners, for instance, are experienced in using machine learning and other analytics to find and understand information and to hone in on what is relevant. Outside of litigation, that experience can be applied to help the organization find information more easily, protect it, and use it for multiple purposes. AI in drug development is helping to unlock insights in data that lead to innovation. Even with regard to unstructured data, what we know about AI from e-discovery work can help us as we manage information to avoid redundant work and enable information to be more easily found and used for multiple purposes.

What were your interests early on and what drew you to the practice of law?

I was lucky to have mentors early on who let me shadow their work as lawyers, and I got a glimpse of the work involved. I was attracted to the practice of law because I liked the close analysis, deep thinking, and writing that would be part of my daily work. From the beginning of my practice, I worked on matters that seemed consequential to me and supported companies that were doing great work to impact the daily lives of people. So, the type of challenging work I would be doing drew me to the practice of law, and the ability to be impactful has kept me in this career.

You’ve had an illustrious career, having climbed the ranks at one of the largest biotech companies in the world. What wins are you most proud of and why?

It’s hard to believe I have been practicing law for 30 years, but a few things stand out when I look back on my career. I’m proud to have been involved in e-discovery from its infancy. I first started handling e-discovery topics for clients around 1998. At that point, it was eye-opening when an opponent asked for the production of email—printed out and produced as paper.

Soon after, we started receiving requests for back-up tapes and the scope and volume of data subject to discovery ballooned. As e-discovery practices developed, I’m proud to have had a chance to shape and advance the law, whether it was being involved in drafting legislation and court rules, doing presentations about novel or evolving topics, writing, benchmarking with others, or developing positions clients took in court. I especially value the relationships I’ve formed and the openness with which other e-discovery practitioners exchange insights as we seek to drive best practices.

When I think about specific wins, I’m so proud of the work our team did to support a merger agreement that enabled the acquisition of a novel way to meet patient needs. Government authorities required a large amount of data on a short timeline. Our team and our external partners successfully met production deadlines using a strategic approach and analytics.

Finally, wins related to people are those that I care about the most. It means so much to me that I’ve been able to help advance the careers of others. I’ve tried to share my expertise to develop others and I’ve also looked for development opportunities for others, even when it meant someone awesome would move from my team to take on a new challenge.

How can legal professionals who are passionate about working with technology—particularly AI—use it to get an edge in their role? Can you speak from experience?

Every single legal role can be more impactful when technology is incorporated. By being curious about opportunities to improve work processes, legal professionals can use a wide range of applications—even those that make notetaking or collaboration more efficient. Increases in efficiency free up time that can be spent on work that matters more.

For instance, we now know that AI can help legal professionals be better and faster at finding relevant, private, and/or confidential information among massive quantities of other information. That might help to decommission systems more quickly with less burden to users, or to meet compliance needs and reduce risk. With technology improving our speed and reliability in locating certain types of information, resources can be allocated differently and we can be more strategic in approaching business and legal challenges.

We now know that AI can help legal professionals be better and faster at finding relevant, private, and/or confidential information among massive quantities of other information. That might help to decommission systems more quickly with less burden to users, or to meet compliance needs and reduce risk. With technology improving our speed and reliability in locating certain types of information, resources can be allocated differently and we can be more strategic in approaching business and legal challenges.

What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?

I’m figuring out new ways to spend my down time since my husband and I just became empty nesters. Until recently, it was all about soccer and carpools and homework and college applications. I love walks with my dog along our northern California beaches and travel. During the pandemic, I’ve devoted time to expanding my challah braiding repertoire, and binge watching TV series or binge reading. I’m also pleased to serve as a trustee for the Julia Morgan School for Girls, which is an all-girls middle school in Oakland, California, that focuses on the academic and social empowerment and development of girls at a critical time in their lives.

Which person (living or deceased) do you most admire?

I wish this question wasn’t qualified by the word “most!” It’s impossible for me to pick one person because I admire writers and poets and other artists, certain political figures, activists, philanthropists, and heroes. I admire people who give selflessly and sacrifice for the common good.

Though his main contributions weren’t in that vein, I admire Steve Jobs for his massive impact on society. Under his leadership, Apple revolutionized smartphones (as well as pioneering personal computing). The Apple iPhone, and smartphones that followed, changed how we conduct business—for better and for worse—so that we could easily handle work tasks wherever we are. It also changed how we engage with each other and how we stay aware of events in the world.

From its first version, the iPhone made technology more broadly available. Apple’s vision for the smartphone led to an entirely new economy for smartphone apps and arguably, also later enabled the influencer economy. Today, over 80 percent of the worldwide population uses smartphones. Through his vision and leadership, Steve Jobs has had an inestimable impact on the daily lives of people worldwide.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

One of the historical figures I identify with is Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was a wife, mom, writer, and adventurer. Like me, Ms. Wilder also lived through a period of great social change and innovation. Although she began writing for pay in her forties, Wilder didn’t publish the books for which she was famous until she was 65. Hopefully, later in my life I will particularly identify with Wilder’s second act.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

Probably because of my training, possibly because of my cautious nature, I respect the ability to issue spot. If someone can spot issues, they then have the opportunity to problem solve based on their knowledge and experience and also to seek input from someone more experienced. Spotting issues can lead to opportunities for improvement that might not otherwise have been noticed. Ultimately, by issue spotting, you create the possibility of impact beyond the scope of your own expertise.

How do you think the legal sector can foster more diversity in the workplace? What, in your opinion, have been the structural impediments to diversity, and how can they be removed?

Unconscious bias is one of the most stubborn impediments to diversity in the workplace. The status quo is unacceptable, but there cannot be lasting change if we remain unaware of our biases. Approaches like the use of AI to recognize bias, training, discussion, and tests that reveal our biases all increase awareness. With that awareness, we can each more deeply commit to confront our biases and approach hiring decisions, performance discussions, collaboration, et cetera, in ways that are more intentionally inclusive.

Phil Naess-Gross is an account executive at Relativity.