May 18, 2022

Stephen Poor on discerning relevance, distilling facts, thriving for lawyers and legal students, and consciously seeing connections (Ep21)

“It’s about not getting so constrained by the channel of information and see it as a sole purpose, but being able to see the connection points to other things that are relevant to you.”

– Stephen Poor

Tim O'Reilly

About Stephen Poor

Stephen is Chair Emeritus of leading employment law firm Seyfarth & Shaw, which has 900 lawyers across 17 offices and multiple continents. He led the firm as Chairman for 15 years, introducing a range of industry-leading innovations, and he now focuses on the firm’s client-facing technology strategy which includes robotics, AI, and cognitive computing.

Website: Stephen Poor

LinkedIn: Stephen Poor

Twitter: Stephen Poor

What you will learn

  • What is a good practice when reading books (01:48)
  • How to keep on top of changing legislative information (05:09)
  • How law firms keep up with information overload (08:56)
  • Why focus not on information but on connection points (15:06)
  • How to define your need and look for outside solutions (17:25)
  • Why structured thinking is needed to filter information (19:26)
  • How to apply your frameworks to new and different scenarios (21:31)
  • How to occasionally go broad to find context and relevance (26:38)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Stephen, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Stephen Poor: Ross, thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

Ross: You are a lawyer, you also run…

Stephen: Do you have to say that with such hesitation, Ross?

Ross: There is so much more than that. That’s why I’m saying, your starting point is you’re a lawyer, you run a major law firm, and you also delve deep into the emerging technologies that are changing the legal industry. There’s plenty to keep on top of there. I’d like to just actually go back to the beginning when you were a law student, when you were studying law. Did you have any practices that enabled you to take in the amount of information that it requires to pass your legal degrees?

Stephen: I’ll give you some context first. I’m old enough now that when I was in law school, it was pre-internet, computer-assisted research was only just starting. We had these fancy things called Lexis and Westlaw terminals, but nobody knew how to use them. The information you needed was in these things we used to have called books. I know you’re writing one. As you are looking at information for learning to be a law student, you’re getting it from your colleagues, your other law students, the professors, and the books. What’s interesting about the books, it’s something I picked up in your book, a theme you picked up on, which was that one of the things you had to learn was what you referred to as keynotes; synthesized information where they’re trying to sort the cases into topics.
Oftentimes, you got the most useful information, not by the keynote you’re particularly on, but by ones your eyes happen to catch by going through the book, by going through the pages. I always found that to be fascinating. It’s replicated itself over the years in different formats where useful information is not always exactly what you’re looking for, sometimes peripheral or in a framework, that’s not usually capturable that easy. It was a lot of time in the library. I was on the law review so there was a lot of information, each member then reviewed, distilled and shared with other members of the review. It was that sort of thing, and I’m still not sure we capture the information we needed to become a good lawyer. In fact, I’m certain we didn’t. We became good law students, not necessarily trained to be good lawyers.

Ross: Yes. We can always point to ways our education system can improve to create people ready for the workforce.

Stephen: Yes, I’ve got a whole riff on that but that’s not the point of this discussion.

Ross: Moving on to the next step. To a point when you’re a legal student, it’s relatively static law, that is the law as it stands and you’ll be able to then grasp that, and understand that, and be able to use that as a foundation for practicing law. The next step is that the law is changing, and bringing in new cases or changes, or different legislations, or different situations, so as you are evolving as a lawyer, what are the practices that enable you to keep on top of the change that mattered to you?

Stephen: One of the things the firm was always good about, still is good about, is trying to make sure its lawyers stayed abreast of changes in the law that were applicable to their practice and there are many specific areas of the practice of law. I grew up as an employment lawyer here in the States. The firm was always good about everyday publishing digest of new cases, of legislative developments. Now you couldn’t keep abreast of what was going on in all 50 states. It was mostly federal cases and cases in the state in which your office was located.
Particularly early on, you didn’t do a lot of work outside of the state in which your office was located, at least as an associate. You had a more of a confined sphere, that you had to keep track of, that changed over the years. Every day you would get some publications, CCH, PNA, where they would distill this information and they would sell it to law firms who in turn would distribute it to their attorneys. Every day, you’d get a list of blurbs of cases or legislative developments that you had to look at and see how they fit within the practice you’re developing, and some did and some didn’t but that’s basically how you did it.

Ross: That’s reading material, part of it is being able to flag as you say, the degree of relevance to you. It is then ways of taking notes or to referencing or other ways to pull that into that… when you know that it is relevant, it just starts to become part of your own knowledge base.

Stephen: That’s right. Obviously, it’s moved to electronic format now, but the same systems still exist, different companies, different sources, but yes, you would get it either back in the day in written format, or now electronically, and you had to discern its relevance and how it applied to you, and how that fit sort of depended on where you were in your career. As a young associate, you’re responsible for writing briefs, writing memos, knowing the specific case law. As you moved into partner and more senior attorney level, you needed to know more trend lines, as you’re advising your client, trying to understand the developments in the sense of where things are likely to go, what it means going forward, as opposed to what it meant going backward. You’re looking at the same information, but as your career is evolving, you’re looking at the information differently, and using the information differently.

Ross: I would like to come back to flush that out a little bit, perhaps going on to this additional theme, which almost all lawyers need to be across and certainly you are deeply, is how technologies are changing the nature of law. That involves understanding the technologies, or the underlying technologies to a degree, what are some of the new offerings, the new companies, the ways in which it still is being applied? How are legal firms changing? How have you gone about keeping abreast of all of these shifts?

Stephen: It’s a real challenge, Ross, because just to give a sense for your listeners of my career, I ran a law firm for 15 years. Then five or six years ago, I stepped down and now I help lead our Tech, R&D function. To your point, my job now is exactly what you just described it as. I thought about that piece of it in preparation for our discussion today, we sort of broke it into two parts. One, when I first took on the responsibility of working with the units called Seyfarth Labs, when I first started working with labs, I had a baseline knowledge of technology, but I was not and am not a technologist. I don’t know how to code. I now know what Python means from a technology standpoint, but at the time, I thought it was a snake.
The first thing I had to do was to find the information I needed to get up to a baseline knowledge set, to be able to simply function as one of the leaders of this particular part of the organization. I did that in a variety of ways. One, by talking to the fellow who now has day to day leadership with a function, who’s a fabulous technologist, a fellow named Byong Kim, and Byong was kind enough to help educate me on the technology side of it. I was already pretty facile with changes in the profession, and the functionality we needed to provide but I wasn’t that facile with the technology and how the technology fit within that changing functionality. As I got more facile with that, then the question becomes, Okay, what’s next? What’s developing out there?
The world of legal technology, and technology in general, is moving so quickly and developing so fastly. So fast, that it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with it. I use a couple of sources. One, I also have a podcast. On the podcast, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are legal technologists or in the field. Simply by preparing for their discussions, I learned a lot about what’s new and what’s developing. There’s a conversation piece with people who are experts in the field, that’s a key component to me. Then there are sources you have to find on the internet, that talk about it. Now, you’ve got to filter the information, because a lot of it’s run through company’s marketing functions.
You have to learn how to look at the information and pull out from it what’s real, what’s not real? What’s hype? What’s substance? There are a few organizations out there who’ve been around for a while, Ed Walters at the Fastcase, for example, has been around for a very long time. They’ve got a solid organization, and you read his writings, you read his blogs, Bob Ambrogi is another guy, you read his writings, you listen to their podcast, you always get quality information. It’s a matter of figuring out what sources you need to get the information you need.

Ross: What are the reliable sources, the ones which will give you insight, which you pre-assess that you don’t need to keep on working out whether it’s biased or not?

Stephen: Yeah, particularly in this space, there’s so much excitement, and people get so worked up about the promise of their idea. Promise is great but what I need for my job now is to know what’s real now, what’s the functionality of this particular software, this particular technology offers now? So I can figure out how it works to move the business and our client relationships forward. Now, not a year from now, not two years from now, not three years from now, but now. People get genuinely excited about their idea. You got to figure out what problem are they solving. Are they, in fact, solving it? And are they solving it now? Or are they on track to solve it a year or two from now?

Ross: What strikes me with all of this is the synthesis, as in building the foundational knowledge and legal tech in this case, and then being able to get to the point where you can discern what is present, what is promise, and how this could be applied in practice. Are there any processes in your mind to be able to draw from the elements from the input over time into building that bigger picture of what is the understanding of the space?

Stephen: It’s a couple of things. I don’t know that there’s any process that my mind works on. I haven’t trained the way I think, I don’t believe. But it’s a matter of seeing connection points. Oftentimes, you’ll see someone has developed a piece of technology, a piece of software that does X, and X doesn’t have any particular relevance to what we’re doing, for example, but you’ll look at how they articulate X and you’ll think, why wouldn’t that work for Y? Now, Y is something that is a problem we’re struggling with, what we’re trying to solve.
There have been several times where I’ve said to the developer of the software, the technology, have you applied it to Y? Well, no, we haven’t. Well, would it work for Y? Ha, maybe it would. We’ve been able to take a particular piece of technology that was developed for one purpose, and reuse it with some minor adaptations to achieve a result that we needed for the organization. To me, it’s a matter about not getting so constrained by the channel of information; channel is the wrong word; the focus of information you’re getting, and see it as a sole purpose, but be able to see the connection points to other things that are relevant to you.

Ross: That’s interesting. It’s a slightly different point but Procter and Gamble has been very big on open innovation and one of the ways they’ve done that is articulate their needs. Each of the business units says this is what we need to be able to be clear for themselves. In this case, actually opening that out, not just to people inside the organization but beyond; But that articulation is saying this clearly, that’s what we need, then there’s number of other junctures for you to come across, which then can say, Oh, well, that doesn’t plug right in, but having identified the need, there are all sorts of things which could be adapted to solve that.

Stephen: Yes, it’s about identifying what the need or problem is you’re trying to solve. Too often, people who get enamored with technology, or get enamored with software, fail to identify the problem they’re trying to solve or their need they’re trying to meet. They find something that does something cool but then they don’t know what to do with it. I had not heard the Procter and Gamble example before, but it’s a great one. I need X, I need this problem solved, help me solve it; if you articulate it that way, you find people can frame their solution sets much more precisely, and much more accurately for you.

Ross: You’ve been educated as a lawyer, you’ve been a lawyer all your life, and now applying that in a quite different way; it is a very specific thought way of thinking, which has, arguably, some strengths in a particular domain and may not always be the most applicable to all situations.

Stephen: It has its downsides, yes.

Ross: Would you point to any strengths of the legal ways of thinking as it were the structure of legal thinking, which are valuable in being able to make sense of the world, because that is part of what lawyers do, to be able to make better action, make better decisions, and pull that all together?

Stephen: It’s probably better to describe all the downsides of legal training, but I’ll give it a go with the upsides. The major upside is you’re trained as a lawyer, you’re trained to distill facts and to look for what’s relevant to a set of analytical structures that are typically pre-existing, piece of legislation, case law, structure, it may be ambiguous, it may have room for dispute but you’ve got a basic framework. For most legal problems, you’re taking these facts and you’re pulling out what’s relevant, and you’re applying them to this framework. That ability to have this critical thinking component to be able to sort through what’s relevant to your inquiry or what’s not relevant to the inquiry is a very useful trait, particularly when you’re dealing with so much information it’s going on now, being able to parse through it with that skill set is useful.

Ross: Yes, the word distill is very important because that is part of the training and the approach is to take things and boil it down or distill that to the essence of the fundamentals. This is a fundamental skill today as we have more and more things that we need to distill in order to get to the essence.

Stephen: Yes, that’s right. The trick for me, as my career morphed and evolved over the years, and the job changed dramatically, two or three different times, was about applying that ability to distill information to the second half of it, which is the analytical framework for the problem you’re trying to solve. Because as you move into law for management or now leading a tech function, learning the framework against which you are applying the information changed. As I said before, I had to learn some of the structure around legal technology and legal technology development, to be able to apply the information.
I give an example. I was keynoting at a conference in Nashville several years ago now, five or six years pre-pandemic, whatever that was. I struck up a conversation with a woman from one of the big four, and their consulting group. She introduced herself saying she was in the robotics practice group. I thought that was pretty cool, so thinking that they have developed Jetsons kind of robotics, I said, what does that mean? And she gave me a primer on robotic process automation. I was able to take that information and take what she described and put it in because I had gotten up to speed on some of the frameworks we needed. I was able to see the connection point to what we’re trying to achieve. I said, has anybody ever applied it in legal? Has anybody ever applied it to this type of scenario? She said, no, I don’t think so. Well, could we? Well, I don’t see why not.
Pretty soon we were the first firm to apply robotic process automation into the legal practice, which now a lot of firms are doing. But it’s that two sides of the coin, the ability to distill the information, and the ability to understand the problem set or the analytical framework against which you’re applying it. That’s key to figuring out the relevancy of the information.

Ross: In crude terms, you can think of the analysis as the reduction and synthesis as the aggregation. These are both critical skills. Those fit together, the analysis and the synthesis or bringing the antithesis, but in many domains, in engineering, and accounting, and then legal practice, and so on, the emphasis is so much on the analysis, it is the breaking down into the components, and this has its value, it is critical, it is part of the process, but, it also needs to be balanced with this synthesis us to be able to pull that together and being able to see the connections, as you did in this case with the robotic process automation and seeing, understanding, having the context to understand that and then see the applications on how that could be applied with that more syncretic or broad perspective.

Stephen: I encourage everyone who’s listening to this to get your book because you provide some fascinating structure to deal with the information flow that we’re dealing with. What I found, it gave me a structure I hadn’t thought about before, but one that makes a lot of sense. This flood of information if you’re not able to quickly parse it, and sort it mentally, and then put it into context for what’s relevant for you, you make the point in your book about the different areas of various domains in which we gather information, we’re talking about professional domains, but the same applies to personal or cultural or general information, because there’s so much information out there, if you’re not able to distill it and apply it, you get overwhelmed by it.

Ross: One of the things I’m picking the most out of this conversation is that idea of the relevance. This idea is not purely for the legal domain but this is something which is very central to the legal ways of thinking. Relevance requires you to have that context, you need to know what is the context for which this is relevant. I think this is the form where the analysis can be very valuable in being able to have that clarity where you can identify relevance or potential relevance, and then to be able to, hopefully, make the connections between those pieces, as you observe those and hopefully discard the things which are outside, that you don’t need to pay attention to right now.

Stephen: Yes. It’s very easy to go off on paths that aren’t connected to what your main purpose is. Sometimes that’s just fascinating to do because you wind up in places you never expected to do. You turn right, as opposed to going straight, and next thing you know, you’re looking at a beautiful sunset off of a beach, that you never expected. Lawyers have a tendency to stay on the straight path as opposed to very off. I’m not suggesting there’s not a time and a place for an adventure in the information gathering, because it can lead you to interesting places, but one’s time is not infinite.
If you’re going to make that journey off the path you think you’re on, I tried to do that consciously to see how the connections are bringing, see if it’s likely to lead to something interesting, if it is, that’s cool. I’m at the point in my life where I’ve got a little more time to do that but particularly back when I was running the firm, time was a really precious commodity. One of the decision points you had to make was, how much can I go off on this frolic and detours? And how much do I have to stay on what I need to know? And what’s important to my job, or to my family, or whatever it is? And you’re constantly adjusting that as you go through life.

Ross: Yes, that’s a really important lesson. Both, this consciousness of how much is appropriate to stay on the straight and narrow as it were in terms of attention or go more broadly but also that that is changing. There are different phases or times. Then there are times when it is entirely appropriate to go a lot broader or sometimes not so much.

Stephen: Yes, sometimes if you go broader than you think you need to, it can lead you to really interesting places and can bring you back around to more useful information. But if you do that too often, you wind up spinning more in circles than anything else.

Ross: Stephen, do you have any closing advice for those who are seeking to make sense of change, and massive information, and shifting technologies, as you are?

Stephen: For me, and this echoes some themes in your book, it’s about being mindful about what you’re using the information for and the purpose of it. By mindful, I don’t mean it has to be just business-oriented or a specific set, it could be gathering information just for the pure joy of learning something as well, but to be thoughtful and conscious about how you’re using information, because if you don’t, you just get overwhelmed by it.

Ross: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Stephen, we really appreciate it.

Stephen: Well, thank you very much for having me on and good luck with the book.

Ross: Thank you.

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