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Kate Jansons Johns on Evangelizing Lawyers on AI: Step One is Deleting the Jargon

Liz Roegner

AI Visionary Kate Jansons Johns, litigation support manager at Nutter, considers communication to be the key to good business practices and successful implementations of artificial intelligence (and other emerging tech). That means using empathy, skipping the jargon, and sharing your passion for a better way with your colleagues and clients.

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

As I see it, the biggest barrier to adoption of new technologies in the legal sector is the law firm culture that has been shaped by the billable hour business model. In its simplest form, technologies are generally developed to increase the speed of which a task can be completed. The timekeeper/billable hour model does not incentivize law firms to find more efficient ways of performing legal work.

Another barrier is the typical attorney mindset. What makes attorneys incredibly driven problem solvers and strong advocates for their clients can also result in resistance to change for fear of failure. A reactionary mindset doesn’t always prioritize time to figure out how to prevent a crisis from happening, or to analyze the outcome of a project to make improvements for a similar future project. It’s hard to improve upon a process if time isn’t taken to analyze how a task was executed and what changes can be made when the task is performed again, and inserting some technology into a process is often a way to make improvements.

I believe that intentionally using technology to spend less time on a task gives attorneys back time in their day that can be spent on other things, like attending an event with an affinity group, having lunch with a mentor you’re unable to find in your office, or spending an extra hour with your kids at night.

My interest in AI was born out of joining my firm’s equity, diversity, and inclusion committee. I believe that intentionally using technology to spend less time on a task gives attorneys back time in their day that can be spent on other things, like attending an event with an affinity group, having lunch with a mentor you’re unable to find in your office, or spending an extra hour with your kids at night. I also focus on the transparency of legal tasks, particularly in litigation matters.

The traditional apprenticeship model between partner and associate can unintentionally exclude people from historically marginalized communities. I spend a lot of time training our associates on all stages of the e-discovery process to help them build important legal technology skills, no matter how much experience their partner has with e-discovery. I strive to give our associates the skills needed to navigate the e-discovery process and legal technology in general, regardless of which partner they are working with.

How can the legal sector acclimatize to rapidly changing technology? In that context, can you share any anecdotes or lessons on how you drove the adoption of new technologies such as AI?

My main strategy for encouraging case teams to consider using analytics or technology-assisted review is to normalize the concept of AI. One way I do this is by omitting technical jargon when teaching and talking about legal tech.

Technology keeps evolving to be more user friendly for audiences with varied competencies. It’s my job to help attorneys understand what’s available and guide them through workflows that use technology to efficiently execute their work. However, I think it’s important to talk about legal tech without using a vocabulary unfamiliar to a layperson.

The average person is constantly using AI—this is how Netflix suggests a new show you might like based on what you’ve previously watched, or ads targeted to your interests appear in your Facebook feed—so it seems natural that the same AI would be applied in business uses. Pointing out how attorneys are most likely already using some form of AI in their personal and digital life can help them understand how it can be applied in their practice.

The average person is constantly using AI. Pointing out how attorneys are already using some form of AI in their personal and digital life can help them understand how it can be applied in their practice.

For legal professionals who are passionate about technologies such as AI, how can they make a habit of working more closely with it and evangelizing its use?

I have found it helpful to be able to articulate why you are passionate about technology applications in the legal industry, and have that reason be your north star to help guide the way you work.

When I peel back all the layers, I find that I am motivated to help people working in a high-stress, high-stakes profession achieve a healthy work-life balance using technology. Although it feels as though I am constantly at odds with the billable hour model, I truly enjoy helping case teams improve the way they work, whether it’s a partner helping her client understand the value of a technology-assisted review, an associate using email threading to significantly shorten a document review to be completed in one day instead of over a weekend, or brainstorming with a paralegal on the best way to manage electronic trial exhibits in the document review workspace.

Whenever I get frustrated at a perceived lack of progress, or doubt creeps in, I remember my purpose for working in this industry, and it helps me soldier on.

What have you learned from your experience at your firm so far? What wins are you most proud of?

A recent development I’m proud of is how my firm is seeing the value in using litigation technology in non-litigation matters. The technologies we’ve used in litigation for years are now being leveraged in our corporate and real estate departments. I’ve always felt as though the litigation department has been sitting on some valuable tools to help all attorneys work better, and it is exciting to see other departments start to see the value in legal technology and AI.

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

I was a music major in college who stumbled into the law firm industry by way of the law library, and have worked my way up from there. While I never saw myself with a career in the legal industry, I think my less-traditional path to this job has given me a different perspective that is valued in the litigation department. Attorneys are incredible problem solvers, and I am constantly trying to stop a problem from happening, so these two different perspectives working together can lead to some very creative problem solving for our clients. The skills I developed working in libraries, primarily organizing, searching, and retrieving material, have been instrumental in my career in the legal technology industry. I want to help you find what you need before you know you need it, and I use legal technology to do that.

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

I try to participate in some type of musical activity, whether it’s singing with my church choir, or being a substitute percussionist for a wind ensemble’s concert at a local university—but my two young children keep me busy these days. Becoming a parent and no longer having a commute have severely cut into my reading time, so I now wake up an hour before the rest of my family so I can read every day, which has always been an important hobby throughout my life.

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

I have a great amount of admiration and respect for one of my college professors, Dan Lutz, who is thankfully still living! He is an amazing musician and has a wonderful way of helping his students navigate how they think and feel about music. Not only does he have a unique and creative way of talking about music, but he is a wonderfully kind teacher and all-around human being. Although I have not pursued a career in music, I am incredibly grateful for the years of musical education I received, particularly from Dan, and I know it’s had a strong impact on my career so far in the legal industry.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

I think that being able to effectively communicate electronically is a very important skill in this current environment. It is hard to avoid electronic communication these days, especially in this new world of hybrid working. More conversation is happening via email, text, or chat, which requires a different set of skills to communicate. The ability to inject emotion and intent into your written words is necessary for effectively communicating in an electronic world.

In a world where most interaction is now electronic, inserting as much humanity as possible in your emails or work chats can help foster a connection that has been significantly altered by the pandemic. Taking the time to carefully choose your words in an email and considering your audience can go a long way. Words matter, and electronic communication can come across as cold or unintentionally aggressive if tone is not considered.

2021 Data Discovery Legal Year in Review

Liz Roegner is an account executive at Relativity. Before joining Relativity, she was a practicing attorney with Choate Hall & Stewart LLP in Boston, where she focused on commercial litigation, government investigations, and insurance/reinsurance arbitration.