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Sweet Potato, Rwandan Rain and Lessons in LegalTech

By Conan Hines.

In September 2022, I traveled with colleagues from the UK and Spain to Rwanda as part of Cornerstone – Clifford Chance's award-winning pro bono initiative. This five-year program aims to create sustainable change among the poorest communities in the country's capital, Kigali. The projects undertaken range from education to food security, wildlife conservation to mental health, and business financing.

One theme that struck me immediately was how Rwandans make tremendous use of their resources. It's kind of the opposite to what we observe from developed countries. We have so much, yet waste so much. Do we, westerners, really need the most modern things? We certainly think we do in the world of LegalTech. The hype around technology, and the need to innovate absorbs attention from those of us who have predominantly one goal - improving the experience of providing and consuming legal services.

In Kigali, rain barrels are common. Every house has one. Each school has several. They are simple to install and maintain. They power handwashing stations and gardens, while reducing the risk of runoff and flooding.

In the Kinunga neighborhood, Regis Umugiraneza makes sweet potato bread and biscuits. Sweet potato is high in nutrients and easy to produce but has a stigma of being unappetizing, and lower class. Regis changes hearts and minds because his product is delicious. In order to scale up his operations, he built a brick house with a layer of charcoal that is kept moist between the outer and inner walls. Now he can store his potatoes

for up to six months with zero energy costs.

All around the city, merchants and consumers are transacting money through SMS. By using MoMoPay, anyone with a flip phone can pay bills or buy groceries. It's secure and egalitarian.

Data and Cost Efficiency

On reflection, I thought about what we are not doing well with our current, pedestrian tech. From a strategic perspective, let's look at data. There are a lot of players out there selling us on data analytics and business intelligence software. To be clear, I'm a proponent of these endeavors, but ask, "Is your firm ready for it?" The marketing function requires data to pitch experience; Knowledge needs it to train lawyers; and Finance uses data to price work. Those juicy, valuable business insights demand investment in data management. The science doesn't work if the Petri dish is polluted.

But this is a cultural shift. Firms must first build a community around their data; uncover what's important; incentivize contributions; and then, and only then, hire data scientists to derive formerly inaccessible insights.

Want to keep energy costs down for lawyers? Be more proficient in MS Office tools. We are often focused on the periphery of Microsoft, and not enough on the inside. Do we, as an industry, truly understand the value lost by not being efficient with Word, Outlook, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote, and Teams? Future lawyers should be thoroughly trained in the aforementioned; a session on Styles, one on creating an Excel workbook ready for data analysis; sessions for Animation and Presenter Mode; Outlook Rules; running a meeting in Teams; using OneNote as your catchall; throw in keyboard shortcuts and you may have created a Master Chef of legal efficiency. Take that AI chatbot!

An Easy Win (In Your Backyard)

Who likes submitting or reviewing timesheets? I know everyone hates the billable hour (we're coming for you next carpenters!), but in the meantime let's make one of the most important things we do, easier; Timekeeping! Are we investing enough in this ubiquitous legal activity that impacts solo practitioners through to BigLaw? On a matter-by-matter basis, it may not be perceptible, but when aggregated across the industry and the world, there is major inefficiency at play. It is up for debate whether "old technology" can solve this problem, and there are some intriguing "new technology" players in the market, but investment in this space lags behind automation and AI tools. If timekeeping is a sweet potato, how do we reimagine it as a nutritious, tasty treat?

While Rwandans do the best with what they've got, this is not a reflection of a modern, developed world. Utilizing old technology is not prima facie worse than using the latest modern innovation. In fact, it challenges us to know and understand where modern technology can best serve humanity – or lawyers and our clients. It challenges us to get the most out of the resources that we already have, and not think that the latest software can overcome our inability or unwillingness to dig into the fundamentals of how we conduct business.


About the Author

Conan Hines is a senior legal technologist for Clifford Chance in New York. He divides his time between advising lawyers and clients on how to use tech, and developing new solutions for the practice. Conan's passion is in justice tech and supports several pro bono initiatives within the Firm. He is also a longtime tech advisor for ICAAD (International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination). In his free time, Conan struggles to maintain his vegetable garden and raise three diva chickens.

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