This episode of Stellar Women features Farrah Pepper—chief legal innovation counsel at Marsh McLennan, a 2023 AI Visionary, and “the Mary Poppins of e-Discovery”—discussing the modern demands of leaders, change management, and more. Farrah and I also chat about the necessity of tech in the current practice of law, why e-discovery pros are basically superheroes, and what it truly means to be successful in a business environment.
Farrah says she got comfortable with technology simply because there was no other way to do her job well, and she uses that experience to help colleagues and clients come around to welcoming innovation: by focusing on how it can make their lives easier. Listen for more of her amazing advice.
Chief Legal Innovation Counsel
Blair Cohen: Something I've heard you say a couple of times—which I absolutely love—is that “e-discovery professionals can take over the world, if only we let them.” Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means to you?
Farrah Pepper: Oh, I would love to. I think e-discovery professionals can take over the world. And in fact, many of them have gone out and started to do so. If you are an e-discovery professional, you have a very wonderful and unique set of skills and talents. You're basically the Swiss Army knives of the legal team. You can do it all. But the danger is that you can also be typecast. And you know, when you talk about e-discovery to people who are not perhaps as jazzed up about it as I am, you can almost watch the lights go out in their eyes. They get focused on the terminology and not the underlying problem solving skills. And so what I mean by that phrase, is that if you take someone who has managed to battle through e-discovery and solve all the thorny, intractable problems around data and new sources—and it's ultimately a people problem as well, so change management psychology is also in the mix—you've got someone who can basically solve any problem you put in front of them. They're at that epicenter of problem solving and that sweet spot of people process and tech. And so if we can rebrand it and open up people's hearts and minds to what e-discovery professionals have to offer, and not just the naming conventions, you find this this Avengers-style team of heroes who can solve problems.
We've talked about how some skills that typically get coined as being feminine, actually are the secret to success for a leader. Do you find that to be to be true?
I think that there are there's gendered thinking out there. I think when people picture in their mind a leader, there is a certain image and set of expectations around behavior—whether someone is hard nosed or soft, whether someone is tough or empathetic. And I just reject all of it.
The only reason we expect to see a certain thing and to experience a certain set of traits is because that's what we've been conditioned to expect. But if we start from scratch and think about what makes a good team and the concept (that I love) of servant leadership, you know what a leader should be and what a leader brings to the team. You see teams all over the place where a leader isn't someone who has the title. A leader is someone who people willingly follow because ultimately, at their heart, a leader cares about their people; a leader supports their team. So when we talk about the classic, typical image of a leader, it's the old style, 1950s, barking CEO.
Everybody brings a set of distinct traits into every leadership role; it's not just gender in the mix. If we're talking about real inclusion and belonging in the workplace, it needs to be a place where people bring their whole selves—whether they're type A or type B, whether they process things visually or they like to talk it through. I love the idea of taking a fresh look at what it means to be a good worker, what it means to be a good leader, and starting over so that we don't have those predispositions to a certain way of doing things.
Leveraging technological innovation is key in your career, but it's not for a lot of legal professionals. How did you manage to integrate technology into your day to day?
This was inevitable for me because I got interested in discovery for how the whole essence of it was dealing with unmanageably large sets of data. The question was not whether to use technology; it was which technology, and how much of it could we get right away? So I got very comfortable very early on by viewing technology as an accelerator for my objectives. I got comfortable because there was no other way to do it, and it just made sense.
Once you get over any sort of mental hurdle about learning how to use technology and getting comfortable with it, it just becomes second nature. It was an aha moment for me and later in my career, when I had to be the one explaining to people the value proposition and bring them along for the journey, I realized an essential truth: it has to be easy, and it has to be intuitive. It can't be something that adds time to someone's day. The whole point is to make life easier.
If we stop focusing on technology for technology's sake and instead focus on solving the problem—in most cases: “You're overburdened, my beloved in-house colleague. You need more time in your day, you need to be able to get to outcomes that are better, faster, less expensive, more reasonable. We have a toolset that can help you to do that.”—well, then, that's the story. That's the narrative.
It's not just, “hey, look at this shiny new fun tool we got; and we want you to try it because it's a shiny new tool.” It's: “we have something that's going to bring you joy.” That's actually one of my core principles.
My team and I have coined the Pepper Principles for Innovation Value, and there's four of them:
- Is it saving time?
- Is it saving money?
- Is it improving quality?
- Is it increasing colleagues’ joy?
And I want joy just as much, if not more than, all the others. Because if you're saving money, but you're making people miserable, that's not a great solution.
We're conditioned early in our lives, hearing people say things like: you can pick fast and inexpensive, but not quality. You can do all those permutations, but you can't have it all. I like to look at everything and say, well, why not? “Aim for the moon. And if you miss, you still hit the stars.” I'd like to think we can get to a point where we are getting all of those things all in one nice, neat package. And if we're going to compromise on anything, user experience is not the one to go.
“You can't have it all”—I think women especially are told that as it relates to their career, their marriage, their family life.
To be very candid, I have a little inspirational quote that I have framed on my desk. I look at it sometimes absentmindedly when I'm on calls. It says: “The question isn't who's going to let me; it's who's going to stop me?” And it's almost a reminder to me that instead of expecting that you're going to hit that wall and stopping yourself in anticipation of that, just keep swimming and wait for someone else to tell you no. And then when they do that, keep going anyway. Sometimes we all need that pep talk to just keep going.
What's the piece of advice you would give to your younger self or as a baby litigator?
I realized fairly early on, but not early enough, that when you look back on your career and the choices you made, inevitably you are more frustrated with yourself when you didn't take a leap than when you did. Even if you fell on your face when you tried that thing, you tried. I am motivated by that concept. There's that quote out there about how, 20 years from now, you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. That's so true. I think my advice to my younger self would be to just go do the thing. What's the worst that happens?