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Q & A with Mark Tamminga
Chief Information Officer
Seyfarth Shaw LLP
After you went through law school, you decided not to enter private
practice, starting a legal clinic instead. That's where you first began to look at technology's implications for the practice of law. What happened, and what from that experience informs what you do now?
DH:When I was deciding what to do after law school, I carefully considered whether there were any particular areas of practice—litigation, corporate, tax and so forth—that captured my interest enough to make a living at them. At the same time that it was becoming clear to me that the answer to that question was probably "no," I was struck by the concept of combining teaching and public interest law. The decision to help create the Loyola University Community Legal Clinic turned out to be a wonderful, eye-opening experience. I spent four and a half years as a clinical instructor there.It was during my early days at the clinic, around 1981, that we decided to improve our papyrus-based system of tracking our caseload. Somehow I volunteered to take a shot at using a database program (I've no idea which one!) to create a system to do this. Because what I came up with wasn't terrible, I had "resident computer guy" added to my job description. At the time I had no clue that this would be an indicator of my career path, but I certainly realized that it didn't take much real knowledge to be considered an "expert" back then.
Along the way, you took time off to get an MBA. I would wager that a lot of lawyers contemplate that option. What did it do for your career? And would you recommend it to others?
DH:It seems that the major impact of the MBA was to allow me to be seen as someone else besides a lawyer. (Although don't get me wrong, it's not that being seen as a lawyer is a bad thing!) My rationale for pursuing the degree: Since I was interested in being involved in the legal profession even though I wouldn't be actually practicing, having a business background would prove to be quite beneficial in broadening my abilities beyond "thinking like a lawyer."While it may be extreme to say that I would recommend the MBA option to "everyone," I certainly would encourage those planning a career in law to get a healthy exposure to the ways of the business world, including finance, marketing and strategy.And in case you were wondering, yes, all of my student loans are now paid off.
Your next step was working for the ABA, serving as director of its Legal Technology Resource Center. After more than 12 years there, you finally joined a law firm. Your ABA experience was all about technology and the law. Were you able to translate your understanding of technology into real change for the firm you joined?
DH:I joined Winston & Strawn, which as you know is a large firm, and it's always somewhat difficult to determine one's impact in an organization of that size. But I did seem to make an immediate difference in areas such as client communications, by being a fairly early developer of client extranets, and in knowledge sharing, with databases that captured some interesting details about closed corporate transactions.I would say the key to my approach was, and still is, to downplay the underlying technologies and focus on solutions to business problems. That allowed me to develop very comfortable relationships with the firm's lawyers and other knowledge workers, sharing a common language and building the credibility to be involved in solving many other large and small issues throughout the firm.
You're now the CIO of Seyfarth Shaw. A role like that must be thick with knowledge capture and client communications projects. Have tools emerged in the recent past to make these slippery areas more manageable?
DH:While there's certainly a set of more sophisticated tools available for these purposes, I have long been a proponent of an approach that has been well articulated by knowledge management legends like Chris Boyd of Wilson Sonsini and Ron Friedman of Prism Legal Consulting. Their basic method is to, whenever possible, avoid having to rely on extra "human effort" and, instead, employ more predictable resources—it's the difference between a "treadmill" and a "windmill."
Okay, I'll bite. What's the difference between a windmill and a treadmill?
DH:Let's say you are trying to collect information about certain matters. The most realistic approach would be to look to the intake process (a mandatory step) for the data you are seeking rather than relying on some other process that is much more optional. Why? Simply put, the former will get done and the latter likely will not. The data you need is already in one or more of your systems (for example, your financial system) as a result of something that had to be done (like opening a matter so that time can be billed to it). So, just as a windmill uses energy that occurs naturally, a well-designed knowledge-sharing system will be "powered" by information that is organic to the organization, rather than artificially produced by players outside of this "flow."Without question, projects that have adopted this approach have been more successful more quickly and more consistently.
You've been looking at technology and the law for a long time now. Has it panned out the way you thought it might when you were starting out?
DH:Exactly the way I predicted, of course! Really, though? To use a rather technical term, I'll say "kinda." In my early days, I was certainly excited about the prospect of a wide-sweeping adoption of state-of-the-art technologies throughout the profession. However, I quickly learned that we seem to have a limited capacity for rapid change. Also, I originally thought that tools like voice recognition and document assembly would become de rigueur in law offices, but it turned out that the Internet and e-mail have had a far greater impact on the profession than any other technologies. Something else I've learned: Don't bother too much with predictions!