A Clarilegal Interview with Aaron Crews, Chief Data Analytics Officer at Littler Mendelson, P.C.
Nov. 17, 2020
By Cash Butler, founder of ClariLegal and Jeff Kruse, President of Kruse Consulting and Dispute Resolution LLC
On November 9, 2020, Cash Butler and I had the honor of talking with Aaron Crews, the first Chief Data Analytics Officer for the international law firm Littler. As someone who views math as a hobby, data is central to Aaron's perspectives on delivering value through legal services.
Aaron describes his journey from studying technology and early coding at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to leading the Data Analytics team as one of “luck and happenstance,” and he humbly credits numerous mentors for his success. Initially a litigator, he began focusing on e-discovery issues in 2004. Eventually, he became one of Littler's e-Discovery Counsel. In his position as e-Discovery Counsel at Littler, he learned a lot about systems and architecture, and that knowledge helps him in his current role.
Aaron credits Paul Weiner, the head of National e-Discovery at Littler, for his career development. After a few years as e-Discovery Counsel at Littler, one of his biggest clients, Walmart, hired him to be its Senior Associate General Counsel and Head of e-Discovery. In that role, he helped Walmart build its internal e-discovery capabilities.
After a stint as General Counsel and Vice President of Strategy for Text IQ, Aaron returned to Littler in a new position as Chief Data Analytics Officer. In this new role, he leads a team of over two dozen attorneys, statisticians, economists, data analysts, data scientists, coders, and actuaries. His team focuses on “using big data and artificial intelligence to help provide legal advice to clients.” In short, Aaron embodies the intersection between legal, technology, and business.
Legal Issues are Really Business Problems
In Aaron's opinion, for attorneys to deliver value, they must first understand that “lawsuits and legal issues are really business problems that require lawyers.” Aaron praises Michael Bennett, the Senior Vice President, General Counsel --- Litigation at Walmart, for teaching that “legal and litigation are crucial aspects of the business.”
Unfortunately, Aaron sees that “a lot of lawyers lose the thread that legal issues are business problems, and they try to get to risk-free even though risk-free is not possible in most situations.” To avoid losing that thread, “lawyers need to understand the business and understand the wants and needs of their clients."
Aaron's experience in-house at Walmart shapes how he views the provision of legal services today. His goal is to provide the kinds of solutions that he wanted when he was in-house but had difficulty finding. To Aaron, “value is identifying as quickly, sufficiently, and efficiently as possible what the facts and circumstances are of the business problem and then to identify what legal restrictions exist and then identify the options” for the client. The key to ascertaining the full range of risks and options, lawyers must understand their client's objectives. By understanding the client's business and objectives, legal service providers can determine “the most efficient way to deliver the needed legal advice or service.”
Data to Deliver Value
For Aaron, data is vital to the delivery of value to clients. Increasingly, clients and prospective clients are asking to leverage data to deal with “legal issues.” Frequently, potential clients ask whether data can be used to help with issues. Aaron firmly believes the answer is “yes if you have the right data.” But to work successfully with data, “the fundamental thing you need is a really good question.” You need “to drill down to what you are trying to understand by breaking the issue down into a series of really good questions.” Once you have “that series of good questions, you can identify the data that is available to address those questions.”
As an example of delivering value for clients, Aaron points to the data consultancy services his pioneering team at Littler provides for their clients. As businesses make more decisions based on data, Aaron believes that “legal should be no different.” Businesses can and should make data-driven decisions regarding lawsuits and legal advice. Littler built the Data Analytics team to “drive greater value” for its clients by helping clients use data to make decisions on business-legal issues.
Aaron credits Alan King, a Ph.D. in labor economics who is now a practicing labor and employment lawyer, for creating Littler's data analytics team. Aaron says that Alan had the insight a few years ago that litigation “is particularly susceptible to being understood through data.” As Aaron put it, “for the fundamental question underlying most litigation, there is data that can help give you an answer.”
Aaron's view is that most litigation can be broken down into questions and then clients can use available data to answer those questions. For Aaron, “data reinforces data, and data doesn't lie, so companies can look at the facts on the ground to get a deep understanding of the factual truths of the litigation.” Aaron's philosophy is that good lawyers can use “the holistic understanding of the facts to shape the legal strategy that moves the client's business objective forward in an efficient way.” In short, clients “armed with the data are able to make much better business decisions.”
Aaron also explains that data helps clients understand what is driving the circumstances that lead to legal issues. The data not only helps with legal-business decisions but also helps with future risk mitigation and understanding legal portfolios. Aaron describes an idea that one of his partners, Scott Forman, had about ten years ago. Scott had the idea of collecting client's lawsuit data to understand the client's litigation portfolios to determine if upstream actions could prevent or reduce future litigation. That type of data “helps the client make better business decisions to move forward.”
Procurement to Drive Value
Although “folks don't always think of Legal as space that can add value from the procurement process,” Aaron argues that “savvy serial litigants” can “gain real value” if they leverage the Request for Proposal (RFP) process for value. Companies can use the RFP process to “leverage the economies of scale” and benefit the suppliers “but also drive real value and achieve good business outcomes.” However, to drive value through the RFP process, the process should be structured in a way to allow “real apples-to-apples comparisons.”
Properly structured and focused RFP processes can lead to the benefits of “scale and unity.” By identifying and using the vendors with the right capabilities, those vendors can identify patterns in the data that can help make business decisions and can help businesses benchmark their performance against other companies.
Aaron believes that legal can team with procurement departments to help drive that value. As he explains, procurement can help legal find the right service providers needed to provide the best value for the business needs. But the RFP process should be “a process and not a project” and that “you need a system ahead of time.”
Of course, Aaron looks at RFPs from his data-driven perspective. A good RFP process starts with looking at available data and asking the right questions. With the right data, companies can develop scoring and ranking systems to help in the evaluation proves. He also notes that third-party vendors like ClariLegal can provide real value “by doing the leg work” for those who are leveraging ClariLegal's capabilities.
Thinking Forward to Drive Value
Sometimes lost in the procurement discussion is that “forward-looking law firms are rethinking their core businesses by building ancillary services into the fabric of their firms.” Instead of needing a law firm and a separate e-discovery vendor and then an analytics firm, these more forward-thinking law firms are decreasing the inefficiencies associated with purchasing separate services by providing these services from within the firms.
Aaron thinks that savvy purchasers of legal services are asking firms which services they can provide more efficiently, and which services are better obtained through other vendors. Essentially, it is an issue of alignment – aligning the best most efficient providers to meet the specific business needs of the client.
Advice for Legal Service Providers
With his extensive experience as both a provider and consumer for legal services, Aaron has great advice for legal service providers. His advice is to ask really good questions. First, ask really good questions about yourself. Ask questions to determine your strengths and your weaknesses and identify ways you can improve. Ask about the market space in which you want to operate. Do you want to be the best, a value player, or a bespoke legal service provider? Then, decide which one you want to be.
Then, ask your clients a lot of questions. Find out from them what they think about your strengths and weaknesses. Ask your clients how you can provide better service. Ask about their pain points. For instance, ask your client to identify the one thing you can do tomorrow to add value to the service you provide. Aaron sometimes sees that clients do not appreciate the need for certain services until a provider offers the option for adding value.
About the Authors
Jeff Kruse is President of Kruse Consulting and Dispute Resolution LLC where he consults with law firms and legal departments to help them operate more efficiently through technology implementation and Lean Six Sigma techniques to improve their bottom lines. He specializes in assisting firms and companies on the RFP process. www.kcadr.com
Cash Butler is the founder of ClariLegal. A seasoned legal technology innovator, Cash has over 18 years of experience in the legal vertical market, primarily working in eDiscovery, litigation & compliance. Cash is an expert in legal vendor, pricing and project management.
This interview was published in LegalBusinessWorld.