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Qualcomm's Pam Schieffelin Uses AI to Dig for Answers in Big Data

Phil Naess-Gross

AI can fuel not just e-discovery, but its adjacencies—like information governance—to turn tedious tasks into high-value analytical exercises. That’s what drives AI Visionary Pam Schieffelin, vice president and legal counsel at Qualcomm, to embed machine learning into her team’s strategies.

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 the legal sector from adopting new technologies? How and why did you take an interest in AI?

It is true that the legal sector is slow to embrace new technologies. As your question implies, there is no single structural barrier, but a multitude of factors that the legal sector sees standing in the way.

My experience with AI is largely in the context of e-discovery. In what I assume is the case for many e-discovery practitioners, my interest in and adoption of AI was born of necessity. With the explosion of data created and maintained in the normal course of business, we have had no choice but to consider more efficient and effective ways to collect, process, review, and produce data to fulfill our discovery obligations and keep pace with court-ordered schedules. One way to accomplish that is to leverage AI, in the form of machine learning, to conduct document review.

Traditionally the province of associates and contract attorneys, document review can be a costly, time consuming, and manual effort. So, it begs the question: why wouldn’t every attorney jump at the chance to change that? In a word—risk.

Years ago, the use of machine learning for document review was not judicially approved. Without some precedent to rely upon, many attorneys were reticent to make use of this emerging technology. Even since receiving judicial approval, however, a fair number of attorneys remain reticent to use machine learning for document review. I think the issue is still risk, though it has evolved from the risk of using machine learning to the risk of reliability.

Reliability is a function of both understanding the technology and proper implementation. I encourage attorneys struggling with one or the other (or both!) to engage an expert, test machine learning alongside that more traditional review, and leverage validation metrics to measure its efficacy and efficiency. Doing so can give attorneys confidence in the technology and establish the case for change.

The legal function is often considered an expensive cost center. How do you prove your value to your organization? Can technologies like AI help you create more value, and if so, how?

When it comes to the legal function’s value, I most often think it terms of risk mitigation and, at its best, risk avoidance. As an attorney, I find that both are difficult to quantify—especially in the business and financial terms most meaningful to the organization.

Difficult to quantify, however, does not mean impossible to quantify. It sounds simple, but establishing and tracking key metrics is a great first step for measuring the legal function’s contribution. These metrics can provide insight into how the legal function is spending money, time, and resources as well as opportunities to streamline process and automate tasks. It can be extremely effective to leverage technologies like AI to accomplish both. In that sense, technologies like AI can absolutely help you to create more value.

Could you briefly summarize your work with AI at Qualcomm?

As I mentioned earlier, my experience with AI is largely in the context of e-discovery. There, we leverage machine learning to conduct document review. Machine learning has been an effective tool in establishing workflows that make efficient, effective, and reliable use of human inputs across large sets of data. I’m keen to expand my work with AI to the information governance context, however, to combine the experience, process, values, and information held by our employees to create greater opportunity for business continuity and to develop institutional knowledge.

What have you learned from your experience at Qualcomm? What were the wins and contributions that you are most proud of?

This is a tough one! I think the overarching theme is that we—the members of my team and I—have learned an exceptional amount about who keeps what data and where within the company. I’m incredibly proud of how the team has put that knowledge to work to support litigation and investigations, but even prouder of how we have leveraged it to extend our support to other practice areas and to establish the need for and value of an information governance program.

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

Before going to law school, I studied archaeology and anthropology at Cornell University. During my time there (including two years after graduating), I worked at the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory for the Aegean Dendrochronology Project. The project is working to develop a 10,000-year tree ring chronology with the goal of providing a precise dating method to study human and environmental history in the Aegean and Near East.

My work with the project afforded me the opportunity to travel throughout Italy, Greece, and Turkey during the summer to collect samples from archaeological sites, shipwrecks, millennia-old buildings, and present-day forests. These travels instilled in me a deep appreciation for Turkey’s rich cultural heritage and the challenges it faces in protecting its cultural property from looting and the sale of antiquities. When I made the decision to go to law school, it was with the hope that I could practice cultural property law and work toward the repatriation of ancient or looted art to its country of origin, former owners, or their heirs.

As I am sure you can surmise from my current practice, that hope did not come to fruition. I like to think, though, that regardless of whether it’s in the dirt or the data … I’m still digging for answers.

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

When I am not working, I am spending time with my husband and our two young boys. Our youngest just turned two years old and it is, to me, the most magical age. He is observing us all intently and practicing important things like running, jumping, and skipping, not to mention communicating with us about how he feels (mostly about his big brother and dinosaurs). It’s a joy to watch the boys grow together and they make time spent as a family fun and funny.

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

The list of people I admire—both personally and professionally—is long. Carol Lam, former Qualcomm senior vice president and deputy general counsel, is one of those people. Recently, I was reflecting on my growth and development and thinking about leaders with whom I’ve had the good fortune to work. Carol came to mind and, with a quick Google search, I found a podcast on which she was featured as a guest. This podcast provided meaningful context to the woman I worked with and demonstrated to me how intentional she was about her leadership, particularly when it came to exercising the authority of her position and the importance of acknowledging and learning from mistakes. I aim to be as intentional about my own leadership.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I think my greatest achievement, to date, was my recent promotion to vice president and legal counsel. It is the culmination of an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, and not just my own, but that of my entire team. I grateful to them and to my leadership for recognizing the importance of the work that we do.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

One thing that I tell myself often is that I don’t have to have all the answers, I just have to be able to find them. With this comes the recognition that, to be a successful leader, I have to be willing to ask for help from those around me. It may seem counterintuitive, but I think this is surefire way to build confidence, competence, and credibility.

Phil Naess-Gross is an account executive at Relativity.