If we use the public debut of the World Wide Web on August 6, 1991 to demark the old information order (scarce and expensive) from the new information order (free and accessible), I spent only 4 years as a lawyer in the first order and over two decades as a lawyer in this new information order. Yet as I contrast those first 4 years as lawyer in a private law firm with my last 3 years there just a couple of years back, the nature of legal services has not changed significantly. Even though telex was supplanted by fax and then email; numerous case report and legislation books were replaced by on-line services; and typewriters and centralized word processing yielded to desktop computers and then laptops with remote access, legal advice remained scarce and expensive and is still measured out by lawyers in 6 minute increments to individual clients who can afford to seek it. In other words, law firms remain entrenched in the old information order prompting Mark Chandler, the Cisco Chief Legal Officer, to famously describe them as the “last surviving medieval guild”.
But that is not to say that the legal profession has been untouched by the new information order – in fact, its impact on the in-house lawyer has been profound. This truth was first brought home to me in 1994, shortly after I joined Bell-Northern Research (BNR) as in-house counsel, as we were working to tackle the day to day challenges of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). While NDAs were important to the BNR legal department, we realized that our team of 2 lawyers, which provided legal support for the R&D activities of some 10,000 engineers, could only afford to spend a very small portion of our time on them given the demands of the more important documents and tasks. Yet, NDAs were almost inevitably time sensitive and very often the initial stage of those “more important documents and tasks”.
While it took me some time to realize it, our solution to the NDA challenge proved to be one of my early steps into the new information order. We began by hiring a para-legal who was tasked with the design and development of an internal BNR NDA portal. The portal provided all BNR employees with access to the legal department approved NDAs and guidelines for their use and was combined with a corporate delegation to the Director level to allow them to sign these standard NDA forms. Any changes to the standard BNR NDA forms, together with any third party NDA forms, required BNR legal department review and approval prior to signature. This review was done by our paralegal, whom the lawyers provided with guidelines and pre-approved alternative clauses and back off positions, and she would only bring us in on an “as needed” basis. The resulting system allowed NDAs to be handled promptly, professionally, and efficiently and freed up my colleague and me to address the more important documents and tasks.
In short, certain legal information, which remains scarce and expensive in most private law firms, became essentially free and accessible through the deployment of the BNR NDA portal. This delivery of information was combined with both delegated authority to support a degree of self-service and efficient tiers of review as warranted.