Systems And The Emer ...

Systems And The Emergence Of AI In Law Practice | Ernie Svenson

June 15, 2023 | by D. Todd Smith

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So many technology tools exist today that can enable attorneys to practice more efficiently and effectively. But attorneys often either don’t know about these tools or fear implementing them. In particular, much anxiety surrounds the implications of AI for the legal industry. In this episode, Todd Smith and Jody Sanders visit with Ernie Svenson —a former big-firm attorney who focuses on helping solo and small-firm lawyers leverage automation, outsourcing, and efficiency—about ways lawyers can incorporate legal technology to improve their practices and lives. Ernie sheds light on the strategies, tools, and trends that can shape the future of legal services. He also discusses the rise of AI and ways lawyers can use tools like ChatGPT cautiously but effectively.

Our guest is my friend, Ernie Svenson. Ernie is from New Orleans. Welcome to the show, Ernie.

It’s great to be here.

I’ve been wanting to have you on for quite some time because I don’t know if you define yourself as a legal technologist, but you certainly know a whole lot about legal technology and what lawyers should be doing and paying attention to in that area. We’re going to have quite a conversation about that. Before we get into that, let’s talk about your background, where you started out, and tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

I don’t come from a family of lawyers. Nobody in my family was a lawyer, but I watched a lot of Perry Mason on TV and thought, “That’s a great profession where you seek the truth, go to court, and battle it out.” I had this weird idea that that would be something fun to do. I majored in Philosophy in college, which apparently is one of the many roads you can use to take to get into law.

I like to practice law or like law school because there were decisions being made as opposed to in philosophy where they’d argued for thousands of years about something. I liked law school, I did well in law school, then I got a job clerking for a federal judge for two years here in New Orleans. He is a federal trial judge who I learned so much, and I’m sure we will talk about some of that.

From there, I went to work at a big firm and did commercial litigation. I was interested in technology. That was the other thing I thought would be cool. I had a computer. I got the first Mac when it came out. To me, it made sense that this would be a tool that people would use to process information and write things. I was always playing with technology more so than other lawyers.

I discovered how to be paperless in around 2000 and realized, “This is going to change everything if I can put all my documents on my laptop and walk around with them.” That’s what I did, then I realized, “I could do this on my own as a solo lawyer.” I went out as a solo lawyer, did that, then lawyers who were in solo small firm practices said, “Show me how to do that,” so I did. They paid me, and now I do that full-time.

One thing that I wanted to ask you about is I know you spent your early years outside the U.S., which I always thought was an interesting fact about you. Will you explain that a little?

My mother was Panamanian. She was born in Panama. She met my father there. They moved to New Orleans. Back in those days, moms raised their kids, dads went to work, and that was that. I was home all day with my mom and she had a caretaker that she had brought with her from Panama. I heard two people speaking Spanish all day.

I learned Spanish before I learned English. My father would tell the story like, “It was strange. You went to nursery school and you didn’t speak English. You had to learn English.” I don’t remember any of this. I just learned English. When I was like eleven, my mom decided to move back to Panama and took my brother and me there, and shoved us into a Panamanian school.

He didn’t speak any Spanish. I at least understood it and could get by. I had to learn to adapt to a new culture and to learn a new language. That does inform how I operate because once you break free of certain strong patterns of thinking, which learning another language and another culture does, that opens your mind to things. I hated it when she did it, when she took us to Panama. Now I look back and think that was probably one of the best things for me in the grand scheme of things.

You mentioned your clerkship. It was Judge Duplantier there in New Orleans. I’ve heard you tell some stories about your time clerking there, and we talk a lot about it with this being an Appellate Law show. We talk a lot about judicial clerkships, experiences working for judges, and how much influence that can have on a young lawyer. I assume that was your experience.

That did more to shape how I looked at the practice of law. When I went to clerk for him, he was one of those people who had systems in place. He was taciturn. There wasn’t a lot of like, “Let me show you how to do this.” It was like, “This is the Bible over there, go read it. It will tell you how to do everything.” When he said something, it was usually momentous. I remember one time he said something in an offhand way, but it was momentous because he was commenting on what I would get out of the clerkship. He said, “You’re probably not going to realize what the value of this is for a couple of years. By a couple, I mean 5 or 10 years. After about ten years, you’re going to realize you learned things here that other people coming into the practice did not learn.”

I understood conceptually that could be true, but I didn’t know what that meant until I went into the practice. Sure enough, every time I would reflect back, I’d think, “Why don’t other lawyers know this? Why don’t other lawyers know that you should look at the world from the perspective of the judge and try to figure out what they already know and believe? Why aren’t more lawyers aware that this is the secret pathway to better persuasion?” A lot of them didn’t, and that was one of the things I learned.

You mentioned the Bible. You’re not talking about the good book when you talk about the Bible.

No, he was very Catholic, so he liked the name Bible because, to him, it was the operating manual for Section H. I showed up. After he’d interviewed me, which was the only time I’d talked to him before he gave me the job and I showed up for work, there was none of this, “Come to my office. Welcome to Section H.”

None of that. He was on the bench and the Bible was sitting on my desk. His secretary, Ms. Dotell said, “The judge uses this. You’re going to have to look at this whenever you need to do something and figure out how to do it.” I thought, “This is interesting.” It was a very thick printed-out document that she’d printed from her word processor, and it covered everything like, “You’re the odd clerk. The odd numbered clerk, you hit all the odd docket cases. The even numbered clerk’s going to handle this other stuff.”

For the odd number clerk, there were all these special things like I was in charge of putting the pocket parts in the books that came in. I was also in charge of watering the plants. There were instructions on how to water the plants because the judge had a very green thumb. He liked plants, but he wasn’t going to water them himself. He wanted to make sure they wouldn’t die and, apparently, they had died when he hadn’t given the clerks instructions. Everything was in the Bible, literally.

Was this your first exposure to systems?

It may not have been my first exposure to it because I worked at a restaurant in New Orleans as a waiter, and they had systems. That’s where I said, “Okay.” Like at Commander’s Palace, they have systems, although they couldn’t write them down because that wouldn’t work in that environment. Here, they were all written down. I remember thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen when something happens that isn’t in the Bible.”

Sure enough, that would happen and, usually, the judge would say, “Why isn’t that in the Bible? You did that?” I was like, “No, it’s not in the Bible.” The judge goes, “Put it in.” Meaning, look at whatever we just did and now you update the Bible. That makes perfect sense. He shouldn’t be updating the Bible. Somebody else should, so that was me.

It’s a little bit like putting a pocket part in it.

I can’t help but notice your reference to Commander’s Palace, which is one of my favorite places to go, still to this day in New Orleans. It is an amazing restaurant. If you go to New Orleans, I highly recommend it.

Can I say one thing about Commander’s Palace?


There’s a movie called Commanding the Table about Ella Brennan, who pretty much made it what it is now. She’s passed away, but through her came a series of chefs. One of which was Emeril Lagasse. He was there when I was there. What’s good about that movie, besides learning about Commander’s Palace, is you talk about systems. She talks about how she did things. She didn’t know how to do anything, but she had a vision for what she wanted to have happen there. If you look at it through that lens, that movie, you can see what it’s like to think systematically about that business.

One of the major benefits is you produce the same result every time.

That’s the goal, to produce the same result and not have to explain to people who are new how to produce that result.

You practiced in the big firm, and that was quite a long time you did that. That was twenty years, then you hung out your own shingle. What year was that?

That was in 2006 right after Katrina.

That was about the time I first got wind of you because you were one of those guys that discovered blogging early. In fact, if am I remembering this right, you were in the first 3 or 4 blogs ever created.

The fifth lawyer blog, according to Bob Ambrogi who did the research, which I know it’s true because I remember the list of people who were ahead of me. I remember when I looked around and said, “This blogging thing looks cool as an easy way to reach a lot of people. I wonder if there are any lawyers,” and there weren’t many lawyers.

That’s when I first came across you, then you had what I think is still a brilliant handle of Ernie the Attorney and you still use it to this day.

The story behind that comes about because when I was clerking in Federal Court, one of the magistrates was a woman named Michelle Wynn. I liked her a lot and Judge Duplantier thought highly of her. Whenever we had a case where the case was assigned by reference, the attorneys agreed to go have a case tried to magistrate. If it went to her, whatever magistrate it went to, I would go with the case.

When I would go and watch her try these cases, she was good. What was amazing about her was she had been an assistant U.S. attorney. She had this very commanding presence, but she could also be lighthearted in a way and balance those two things. I found that interesting because she could be commanding when she needed to, but then be lighthearted and people didn’t get confused.

She would refer to me as Ernie the Attorney. She’d go, “Ernie the Attorney, come over here.” She had these interesting names for people. I didn’t think of myself as Ernie. Up to then, I was Ernest. Nobody called me Ernie. When I started this blog, I noticed that all these other people had because it was all the cool kids on the internet. I said, “I can’t have a name that’s weird. I got to blend in somehow.” Somehow, to my head, it popped, “Michelle Wynn used to call me Ernie the Attorney,” and she had passed away, so I thought of her fondly. I thought, “I’ll call it that. This is an experiment. I’ll do this for a week and then I’ll give it up.”

With that name, it caught on like wildfire, then the ABA asked me to come to speak to the ABA Tech show because I supposedly knew a lot about marketing when, in fact, I knew how to start a blog and get attention online, which apparently was one small segment of marketing. The name caught on for sure right off the bat.

That was the beginning. You started putting your name out there. You had your nifty handle that was easy to remember. I’d say it was good marketing. It seems like that stage vaulted you into making the change that ultimately led to where you are now, which is you’ve left the practice of law. You’re not a practicing lawyer anymore and haven’t been for quite some time.

That’s true.

One thing I’m always curious about when I talk to lawyers who don’t practice anymore is what was the tipping point on that. You had this momentum from having gotten a lot of attention from blogging and from your paperless lawyer writings and encouraging folks to take advantage of technology, which is something you do to this day and do it smartly. I’ll add that little caveat there. What was the tipping point? You said being in solo practice was a better situation for you, and you’ve said this publicly many times. What is it that made you think, “I’m going to go do this other thing that is law adjacent but is not the practice of the law?”

It was a confluence of factors. It was a difficult decision even though it was what I wanted to do. This is true for anyone who does a certain thing for a long time, owning a company, and having a profession. Your identity becomes that thing. My identity, when I was practicing law, was I am a lawyer, and that applied when I shifted from the big firm to going solo. I had an identity as a big firm lawyer and then I had to say, “I’m not a big firm lawyer.”

The identity thing was one hurdle but what drew me forward was, by that point, after having litigated as much as I had, it wasn’t as fun to figure it out. I’d figured it out. Now, what I saw more while practicing was the friction. You can’t schedule something. Everything was hard. On the other hand, there are these people who are lawyers who are wanting to pay me and were paying me to help them with their technology problems.

While those could be tricky and I had to help them figure it out, there was no opposing counsel saying that everything I told them was wrong. It was a lot less friction and I could get them a result. If I got them the result and their lives were easier and better, they were happy. I thought, “This is wonderful. How can I have more of this and less of the other?” It’s like, “You’d have to leave the practice of law.” It was hard, but I knew it was the right decision at that point because I knew I could pull it off. I figured if I can’t pull it off, I could always go back to practicing law, but I didn’t.

It is nice to have that safety net, I suppose. Let’s talk more about what it is you’re doing now, but before we launch fully into that, we talked a little bit about systems and how important they are. I would love to throw out John Fisher’s book here. John Fisher wrote a book. It’s been several years ago now called The Power of a System. You introduced me to that because it was one of your live seminars that John attended. I know he wrote a follow-up book that is also good. As a systems dork myself, thanks to Ernie, I’m privileged to have autographed copies of both of those books and have met John in person.

That’s the book that firmed it up in my head that, “This is something that lawyers need to pay attention to.” At the time, I was a sole practitioner or maybe I had 1 or 2 people in my firm. I was trying to take those lessons to heart that you can become more efficient if you create systems like what we’ve been talking about so far. I assume you’ve never hesitated to give John credit where credit is due, but that was my introduction to a lot of what you continue to teach.

When I came across it, it was Parker Layrisson, who you may remember because Parker was at this conference. He’s the one who told me about it. He said, “Do you know about this book called The Power of a System by John Fisher?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “You should check it out.” I got it, and I was like, “This is like the Bible.” I immediately analogized it to that, which I had forgotten about because when I went into the practice of law, nobody else was saying, “We have an operations manual for practicing law.” I thought, “Lawyers don’t do that.” I didn’t think about it. I didn’t try to replicate that, but when I saw that book, I was like, “This is what Judge Duplantier would’ve created for practicing as a lawyer.”

I dissected it, analyzed it, and recommended it highly. I reached out to John, who is a wonderful person. He’s very giving and gregarious. If you emailed him and said, “I’d like a copy of the book,” he’d mail you a hard copy and probably still will. I reached out and said, “I’m going to do this conference. I’m going to recommend your book.” I forget what I said. He said, “I’ll send you a bunch of them. I’ll send you however many people are there.” It was like 50 or 60 people.

He sent them, and I gave them away. The next year, I said, “Would you want to come speak?” He came to speak. He’s a wonderful guy. I can’t say enough good things about John. His first book is called The Power of a System. The newer one is called The Law Firm of Your Dreams. The Law Firm of Your Dreams is basically The Power of a System is included. It’s a more refined version of it. If you’re going to go look for one of them, I’d get the latter one to start with now.

The Power Of A System: How To Build the Injury Law Practice of Your Dreams

Let’s talk a little bit more about the importance of developing systems and how that’s playing into modern law practice. You’ve been teaching this stuff to lawyers now for a while, and I know you’ve been keeping up with the times. We’ve had a lot of change in the legal industry in the last ten years and, certainly, in the last 15 to 20. It’s changed monumentally. Some of the advantages are obvious, having systems in place like we talked about reproducing results and so forth, training staff, and having staff know what to do going back to the Bible. What is it that lawyers need to know about systems and how they can benefit from implementing systems in their practices?

This is important in any business. You want to think systematically about how work is done, how decisions are made, and so forth. You can do this inside your head up to a point, and it’s a very limited point. After that, you need to externalize what are you thinking of, and that is accomplished through writing. You write it down, you can see it and everything benefits from writing. I’m sure everybody on this show would agree because that’s what we do as appellate lawyers.

AI In Law Practice: In any business, you want to think systematically about how work is done, how decisions are made, and so forth. You can do this inside your head up to a point. After that, you need to externalize and that is accomplished through writing.

You have to write it out. When you write it out, you can look at it and say, “I need to refine that. This needs to be done this way.” You get into the granularity of not thinking systematically about the whole business and how big parts of it connect. You start to think nuts and bolts about, “How do we accomplish this specific task?” That’s where you get into documenting SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures.

What a lot of knowledge workers, including lawyers, have tended to think is, “This is knowledge work. We can figure it out. Smart knowledge workers will know what to do and they’ll adapt. We don’t need to write all this stuff down.” That’s not true. Like the book, The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is a good example, surgeons forget things, even though they’ve done it a bunch of times.

Operating more like pilots who have checklists is a better way to operate and say, “We’re doing this, and we’re going to do it again. Let’s document it. The next time we do it, let’s see how the person who didn’t know how to do it as well as I did, does it. If they missed a step or they didn’t understand something, then let’s update it.” That’s the nuts and bolts boring but necessary thing. That was always necessary and important in any business.

Now that most businesses work with a large element of remote work and virtual collaboration, it becomes even more important. In fact, I’d say it’s essential because you can’t walk down the hall and say, “How did you do this?” You need to write it down, share it collaboratively through the cloud, and update it. The more you do that, every time you create and update a procedure, you’re incrementally compounding the knowledge interest in your business.

It’s not something that’s going to change your world overnight when you start doing it because it takes time. It seems like three years or something around three years if you start doing it diligently is the point where you sit back and go, “We accomplished a lot here.” I say three years because Judge Duplantier took him three years to do it. I remembered that because his secretary told me. He says, “It took him about three years.” I got there and the systems were already done or documented.

John Fisher told me the same thing. I found with working with lawyers to help them do it, I can get them going now more easily than I used to because I’ve learned systematically how to do it faster and better. Once you show people how to do it, you can’t say, “There it is. Now push a button and all the systems will flow into your documented procedure.” You have to create them. It takes time. It’s not like it takes three years before you go, “This is amazing.” It’s just after three years, I’d say you go, “I will never go back to not documenting systems.”

There are some things that when you do them, some things you do, and this is true of a lot of technology, you’ll do it and you go, “That was great. It seemed like a good idea, but it turned out not to be.” No one has ever said about the following things. Nobody has ever said, “I went completely paperless.” I’m not meaning that you got rid of every scrap of paper, but you learned how to be paperless.

Nobody gets that point and goes, “I’m tired of this. I’m going back to the paper.” Nobody. Zero. Also, nobody says, “I’ve learned how to use the cloud. I’ve embraced the cloud. Things are working with the cloud. I’m going to go back to no more cloud. I’m going to have people come to an office.” Nobody does that. The same is true for systems. Once you get over that hump and document it, everything’s flowing smoothly. You don’t go, “I need to go back to this world where we make things up on the fly and nobody writes anything down.” What does that tell you? That the long game that needs to be played is that.

When we talk about systems in legal practice, we’re talking about it in the abstract, but what are some more concrete? When you say systems in legal practice, what are you talking about?

When lawyers ask me, they say, “Let’s take something that every lawyer has to do in every practice type.” That is onboard new clients. Onboarding new clients is something you have to do. This is a good example of how when you start to think about this, you start to realize things. If I say to a lawyer, “Create some systems for onboarding a new client,” they’ll think about one part of it and then they’ll start writing it out. At some point, it will become long and then you’ll start to examine. That part there, the early part, that’s before they became a client. That’s where they contacted you to see about if they wanted to hire you. That’s not a procedure for onboarding a new client. That’s a procedure for working with a prospective client. There’s a whole bunch of elements there.

Now you’re talking to them. There’s a tipping point where they might become a client. That’s another procedure, and then they become a client. That’s the first part is the procedure, and when you ask them for their homework and give you the files and everything else, that’s another procedure. Breaking all that down and seeing how there’s a lot more to any of those parts than you first realized when you started thinking is one of the big a-has. You say, “You’re going to have that same a-ha about everything you do.” You’re going to realize there’s a lot more going on in there. There are the actual boring, easily described steps like, “Do this.” There’s also, “This is a decision point.”

It’s like in the onboarding or let’s say evaluating. They come to you. They’ve been to three other attorneys, “Red flag, let’s think about that.” There are things that you can sit down, write out, and say, “This is a decision point. What are the factors that go into that decision?” That’s also part of the documenting of the procedure. It gets more intricate.

This is where I will say that I used to not care what I would tell people, “Use whatever system you want to document these procedures. Google Docs? Sure, why not. Evernote? Fine, go for it.” No, I now have a strong conviction that you need a tool specifically built for documenting procedures, sharing them with other people, collaborating on developing them, and also assigning those procedures, and tracking the assignments.

The one I recommend is SweetProcess because it’s the most affordable, but it doesn’t matter. My opinion is strong. Do not use a tool not built for this because as this becomes more granular and intricate, you’re going to start to see the friction points where something that you’re adapting that wasn’t built for that specific purpose isn’t going to work as well as something that wasn’t specifically built for that purpose.

You can build in and update the processes within the SweetProcess itself is what I think you’re saying.

That’s what SweetProcess and I’m sure other tools do. I know that one well, because you can say, “I need to review this procedure policy every 12 months, every 4 months,” or whatever you want. You set it, and it will automatically remind you to review that procedure or policy. It makes perfect sense.

Technology is amazing. One of the things as an aside that you’re good at is educating yourself on the technology that’s trendy at the time and filtering through it, advising the people that consult with you or you consult for, and separating the wheat from the chaff there. That’s nice to hear that you’ve got something that you specifically recommend. I have to admit, as we were sitting here, I was thinking, “Links within a Google Doc.”

It could be done. It may not break in the sense that it will cause a thing to not work because if people are sophisticated users of Google Docs, they can chug along, but there’s going to be friction. I have the advantage of seeing a lot of lawyers doing a lot of different things and I can see where if there’s common friction, I go, “You probably don’t want to do that.”

We talked about reproducing results, and that’s very important. One thing that seems pretty obvious, maybe not to everybody reading, is this is one way that that lawyers can scale their practices and be more efficient.

It is the secret because the word scaling is beloved in Silicon Valley, like, “Let’s scale.” First of all, do you want to scale? Do you want to run a huge operation? Beyond that, scaling is hard, and you get into complexity fast. What you want to do is create the foundations that, regardless of whether you want to scale or not, are going to create operational efficiency. Documenting procedures is one of those things.

There’s no business that doesn’t benefit from being very intentional and focused on how we document how we do the work. Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant, said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” By documenting the procedures, you’re enabling yourself to measure the performance. You measure it by looking at, “Did everybody follow the steps and understand how to do it? Great. Somebody got tripped up by something. Let’s add a step that explains that so that nobody gets tripped up in the future.”

It’s one thing for a federal judge to tell his clerks, “You’ve got to follow the Bible.” It’s another thing for a lawyer in a law practice to tell his or her staff, “These are our procedures.” How do you advise practicing lawyers on getting the buy-in from their staff required for this to work?

One of the big revelations to me, which shouldn’t have been a revelation because my dad was a psychiatrist, is psychology drives everything. That’s another Peter Drucker saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Meaning if you don’t factor in human nature, you’re going to have a hard problem even if you have the right strategy. That’s every business. Every business has this problem. Charlie Munger, the highly successful lawyer and partner with Warren Buffett, discovered the importance of psychology and he’s talked about it. He’s got famous talks on the psychology of human misjudgment because it also factors into decision-making. It factors in everywhere.

Getting buy-in is a psychological problem as well as how much information we introduce. Part of creating systems or doing anything is explaining things, and this is part of persuasion. Persuasion is, “I have information, let me explain it. Ideally, let me explain it in a way that doesn’t confuse you, bore you, or cause you to resist what I’m telling you.”

Every lawyer should be learning psychology and persuasion. It applies to everything, including how you get buy-in, and specifically on how you would get buy-in if you’re going to create systems is very slowly and methodically, and making sure that people feel like they’re being listened to as part of that. People who have helped people get buy-in, consultants who come in and say, “Here’s how we’re going to do it,” they know how to do that. That’s where hiring a consultant can be useful because once somebody in their brain forms a negative opinion of something, it’s very hard to remove that.

You guys know this. That’s true in arguing in front of a judge. You say something that causes them to think, “I disagree with that.” Even if they misunderstood, trying to get them to understand the correct way is harder because they’ve already planted that seed in their mind. You have to be very careful about disarming the bomb. There’s a lot of bombs and they’re going to go off. When they go off, it’s going to be a problem.

You have to disarm the bomb ahead of time by saying things that cause people to think, “I’m going to be listened to. I get it. We’re not going to go too fast. This is going to help me.” If you come in and say, “Everybody, we’re going to be paperless tomorrow and you’re going to have to do it because it’s going to be better for everybody,” that’s a huge bomb. Stand back.

I love that analogy. That’s pretty great. You talked a little earlier about outsourcing and how it relates to creating systems. COVID happened, and there’s been a trend toward more remote work. It opened a lot of doors for different work arrangements. What are some of the specific ways aside from the benefits of having systems applied to outsourced work that outsourcing can help lawyers improve their practices?

Outsourcing is good for two reasons. The best one is you get somebody else to do work that you don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing. If you’re going to get somebody else to do that work, you ideally want to get somebody who you can afford and you don’t want to overpay if you don’t need to. Outsourcing is wonderful. You can outsource to people overseas or in foreign countries.

AI In Law Practice: Outsourcing is good because you get somebody else to do work that you don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing.

When I went to work at the big firm, my secretary was across the hall. I could bellow out, “Lisa, come in here, and let’s do stuff.” She could adapt to how I worked and learn in that environment. That’s no longer the situation in most cases. It’s not the situation if you’re hiring an outsourced assistant. You’re going to have to figure out how to communicate with them asynchronously.

You can get on phone calls and Zoom calls, but that’s going to get tedious and that’s a friction point. You have to learn how to communicate asynchronously. If you’re going to tell them how to do things, the greatest way to do it is back to documenting the procedure and say, “Here’s how to do it,” then tell them to go do it.

When you’re working with an outsourced person, even if it’s part-time, you hire somebody off of some service like UpWork, Fancy Hands or Fiverr, you’re going to have to learn how to give them the instructions. That’s going to help you because if you can give instructions, like here’s the acid test, if you can hire somebody in the Philippines, which is great because that’s $10 an hour or $8 an hour and give them work and have them do it and do it successfully, that means, by definition, you’ve gotten good at describing how to do the work.

You can anticipate. You’re not going to be good at that unless you’ve learned how to document procedures at a certain level. You’re working through cultural barriers and communication barriers. There are barriers, but I know and a lot of people know who have done this that it’s totally doable. It’s just you have to have extreme rigor in the description of how to do the work. The description of how to do the work involves three different things.

There are three building blocks that you can use. One is you can use words and describe it in words. That’s great, but you can also use pictures. Pictures would be screenshots or things because when pictures are in play, people don’t have to understand as much and they can get it quickly. The other way is through video. If you could video yourself doing the work and it’s on your computer, you could say, “Here’s me doing the work. Now, you go do the same thing. By the way, would you mind taking screenshots and taking that video and turning it into a procedure?” They can, so then you don’t even have to do that. It’s all doable. You have to approach it methodically and understand what the components are.

AI In Law Practice: The description of how to do the work involves three different things. One is you can use words. Two is you can also use pictures. And then the other way is through video.

Following up on that thread a little bit is tech tools and ways that lawyers can use tech tools. I know a lot of lawyers who have been doing the same thing for a long time and are technophobic a little bit. For people that maybe want to dip their toes in or maybe want to dive in completely, what are some tools that they can use to systematize and automate better?

There are thirteen.

That may be a whole episode.

There were only twelve, but then ChatGPT came to the fore, so I added that one. I tried to break down and decide, “What are twelve tech tools that I see most lawyers either not using at all or not using well enough?” Part of the reason why they’re not going to be using these tools is because they’re not little shiny objects that you download and immediately you get it and it works. It requires a little more understanding.

One of those tools is SweetProcess. I mentioned that one. The other one is Loom. Loom is a way to record yourself doing what you’re doing. As soon as you finish doing it, you get a link. As you’re doing it, the recording is going up to the cloud, so you don’t have to go look for it on your computer. It’s there, you grab the link and send it to the person. It’s very frictionless. SweetProcess and Loom are two of those tools.

There are others that are the thirteen for any lawyer who’s doing remote work. By remote work, I mean anytime that remote work might happen, you need to have a system in place that supports that. You could be doing remote work some of the time. You could be doing it only when there’s a hurricane or some disruption, but everybody’s doing some level of remote work or has to be able to.

These tools are those things. I don’t include Zoom in that list or Microsoft Office tools because those are obvious. People know about those. They’re using them already, but SweetProcess and Loom they may not know about. TextExpander, Todd, I know that you know about that because you’ve heard me harp about how great that is. That’s one of those tools. If you can get somebody over the hump, they go, “Look at this, automation with text. This is a good thing. Let’s do this.”

I have a download that I give people. That’s one of the most important foundational things. When you start to say, “I don’t need to cover the waterfront. I don’t need to cover every new tool that’s coming out.” These are the ones that have been around for a while. They’re stable, they work, and they’re foundational. That’s what lawyers need.

That’s the key. I refer to you as a filter guide. It’s well worth listening to you talk about how to use these specific tech tools. It is the process you went through to identify those twelve tools. You think about how many hours went into that and figuring out, “Why Loom over YouTube or Vimeo or one of those?” I’m sure you have very good reasons and you’ve already touched on some of those. For someone who is starting out to try and not only adopt systems but also implement technology in their practice, which we hear over and over, “Use technology. Technology is great.”

It’s not great if you can’t ever get started because you don’t know where to start or you’re intimidated by it. One thing that you’ve managed to do is whittle down the concepts that we see in legal technology into things that can and do impact lawyers on a day-to-day basis. I still am on your email list and I’ve seen what you’re talking about. We’re going to get to ChatGPT. I want to get to that before we run out of time. Being able to have someone who’s identified what lawyers need to be paying attention to is extremely valuable.

I’ll say one thing. I’ve had the benefit of not just trying to figure this out for myself, which I do. Also, I look at other lawyers and go, “They all have the same problem. This is the same problem for most of them.” I can see what the common problems and challenges are. I think of Jeff Bezos’s quote when he gets asked often, “What’s the new thing?” He’ll say, “I focus on what’s not changing. I want to see what’s not changing because that I can handle.” He’s able to handle things that change. He built Amazon, obviously, but he’s saying to keep things sustainable by saying, “You can’t be spending too much time chasing these things that are changing.”

I love the 80/20 rule, and these thirteen tools I’m talking about, to me, are the 20 of the 20. If 20% of something gives you 80% of the results you want, that’s great. How about at 20% of the 20%? That’s 4%. What is the 4%? What is the small part that’s going to change 64% of the things you do? That’s awesome. That, to me, is what those thirteen tools are.

On the subject of the new stuff, I want to jump in on what Todd was saying. I’ve seen and heard from attorneys a lot of anxiety about AI and ChatGPT and being replaced. I’m curious about your take on that and how lawyers can use AI and ChatGPT in a way that is helpful.

Here, I will invoke Charlie Munger’s principles, which he says, “Stay inside your circle of competence.” That is generally a good thing to do, but sometimes something new is happening and you go, “No one has a circle of competence,” and that’s AI. There’s nobody who’s nailed this. It’s so new. It’s changing so fast. Nobody knows what’s going on inside the black box of the AI to begin with because the computer’s learning on its own.

It’s a very dangerous area to spread yourself thin. If you’re going to learn it, and you should, then I would tune out as much of the wonderful, exciting and enthusiastic discussion of it. I pay attention to it and I tune a lot of it out because I have to. What lawyers should do is get a ChatGPT account through OpenAI. is their website, and you can get an account and it’s free.

I would pay the $20 a month because, with the $20 a month, you get to keep the history of your chats. Also, if they get busy, you get the fast lane and you don’t have to wait in line to use it. All kinds of benefits flow from paying them $20 a month. You could pay other people something and get benefits. That’s great if you want to. There are some specialized things in the legal sphere that might be worth paying attention to.

You need to learn how to use that tool for a lot of different kinds of things like we needed to learn to use Google. We’ve forgotten this, but Google was a thing you needed to learn how to use. There is an art to using Google or searching. You’re going to have to learn how to use this tool. I would stick to one, ChatGPT. Don’t download too many things. Stay there and ask it different kinds of questions and learn, “It does well with this. It doesn’t do well with this. Here’s how I ask a follow-up question,” because it’s a conversation you’re having with a chatbot.

That’s the beauty of it. You can ask it something. If it doesn’t quite get what you want or there’s a part you want it to expand on, you can ask it to expand on that. How I’m helping lawyers understand it is I figure out what they need. They need somebody to keep them focused and give them bite-size amounts of information, so I created what I call an email course because I’m delivering the information by email to keep it manageable, bite-size, and so forth.

It’s free, and I walk lawyers through like, “Here’s the first thing you need to pay attention to. Now you’re wondering about ethics questions. Let’s talk about that.” I can help people that way, and that’s probably the best way for them to learn unless they’re super adept at wading through an area in which they have no circle of competence like everybody else and fending for themselves. I figure that most lawyers don’t want to do that, so that’s how I help them.

We have heard so much about how AI is going to take over the practice of law. We, appellate lawyers, like to think we’re immune from that because most of our work is bespoke. We’re not a foreign-based practice, for example. We are entering a time of some pretty significant change. You can’t pick up the legal newspaper or whatever it may be in your area and miss that AI is gaining influence in the legal industry.

I’m trying to think about how, in my practice, it might have practical use. You’ve given a suggestion there of starting to use it and ask it questions. I’ll profess that I haven’t paid the $20, but I do have an account with ChatGPT. It’s been fun to play with. I’ve used it a little as an alternative to Google to say, “Instead of typing in a Google search, I’ll type that into ChatGPT and see what comes back.” I’ve been somewhat impressed with the results. As a practicing lawyer, what I’m looking for is, “How is this going to help me get my work done?”

It will help you get your work done. There are things that it’s good at that you can understand quickly and easily. The first one is it can summarize information well. While it was built on a large language model and you can query it, you could say, “Give me a summary of a book.” If that book was written and it’s popular, and it was written before 2021 because that’s when the cutoff is for the large language model, it can query its own database and give you an answer. If you give it information like, “I’m about to give you a bunch of information,” what you can ask it to do with it is anything from translate it into another language, summarize it in bullet points, create a Twitter thread, create a poem, or write a song in the style of Bob Dylan. It will do this stuff and you’ll sit there and go, “This is crazy.”

For basic summarizing, think about it. As a lawyer, you get information and you need to go, “What are the key points?” Here’s the key thing about ChatGPT. Again, we’re talking 80/20 rule. When you give it something to summarize, is it going to do it perfectly? No. If you give it the right prompt or the best prompt, it will do a better job than if you don’t. In the end, let’s call the prompt 10% of the work, it will give you 80% of what the work is that you would’ve had to do quickly.

You have to use another 10% of your time and energy to assess it, figure out where to go next, and QC it or whatever. If you treat it like an amazingly smart, hardworking, fast intern, think of what a smart, hardworking, fast intern could do for you for $20 a month with your stuff. All you have to do is figure out how to give it baseline instruction. You don’t have to be super precise, chunk it in, look at it, and decide what to do with it or tell it to refine it. That in essence is what can be done with ChatGPT that every lawyer should start investigating post haste.

That’s a great way to think about it, the intern or young associate model.

That’s it, and that’s one thing it can do. It can do other things. If you get into specialized software, I recommend this in the email course. There’s a software called

We both used that. It’s a great tool.

We had Jackie on the show.

She’s fabulous. She was a lawyer at a big firm. She went in-house, so she gets it. That product is a good example of taking that power and applying it to your own documents or documents you have in your possession.

Clearbrief is a great tool. For those that maybe didn’t read that episode, you can load in appellate records and it can help fact check, pull up relevant documents, and find suggestions that you may have missed. It’s interesting how it does that. To wrap up on ChatGPT, clearly it is something that we as lawyers cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand about because it does seem like this technology is there. It’s continuing to improve, and how could it not disrupt the legal industry, or almost any industry for that matter, but the legal industry specifically? There are a couple of things to know about it. There was a pretty recent update. Was it version 4 or 5?

Version 4. It’s up to 4. It was at 3.5 and now it’s at 4.

The capability increased substantially with the release of that new version. Can you give us a quick snippet of what the difference is?

It’s famous for having passed the bar exam with 90% and those exams. Basically, it’s a larger language model. The way that it analyzed that large language model and figured out what to do with it is better. Version 5 or the next incremental version is ready to go and will probably be coming out in a couple of months so some people who read this may want to look at that.

As a practical matter, if you sit there and use ChatGPT 3.5 versus 4, what you’re going to notice is 3.5 is fast and probably does things that if you use 4 to do it, you won’t even notice a difference. Four is better for some things, but it’s slower. That’s the practical difference for people who use it now. For me, I can’t explain how it works because it’s a black box to me, but it’s powerful. It does amazing things.

In the latest version, is it still restricted by the snapshot in time on the internet like in September?

September of 2021 is when ChatGPT 4 is limited in all previous versions, the same thing. Therefore, Google has Bard, and Google Bard supposedly has the same capability but it can search the internet. At the time of this recording, there’s no clear consensus about whether it’s better. In my opinion, the consensus is it’s not better, but it’s better at some things involving the internet. All of this is a moving target that’s moving very quickly.

I don’t even try to predict where it’s going to go. I’m busy enough trying to figure out how to make use of it now. That’s what everybody else should try to do too. By the time it becomes whatever it becomes, you’re at least armed with some foundational knowledge, but it’s going to work to search the internet. It’s going to work on your documents and disrupt all kinds of things because the best description of this that I’ve heard was in The Economist magazine, which I highly recommend generally, especially their discussions of AI.

They quoted somebody who’s a Stanford professor saying that, “What we learned from these LLMs, Large Language Models, is they represent a model of how the world works because they represent a model of language. Language represents a model of how the world works.” That’s why they work because, in some ways, they model the world in astonishing ways. Do they do it perfectly? No. When they fail, they fail spectacularly.

I asked ChatGPT and, in the course of asking it some questions, I said, “Tell me the top three people in the legal world about cybersecurity.” It gave me three names. The first two, I recognize and those are the top two. The third one was Ernie Svenson, who was renowned for having written some book that I did not write that had a very specific name. That’s the definition of a hallucination. I didn’t even have to research that. I knew I did not write that book. I know I’m not a security expert, so I know it’s wrong. How did it reach that conclusion? I have no idea, but what I do know is you need to check its work like you would check the work of the smart and hardworking intern.

Ernie, as we’re wrapping up here, first, we appreciate this. Second, our tradition is to end with a tip or a war story. You’ve already given us some great tips, but I don’t know if you’ve got anything you want to offer here at the end.

I will give you a tip that is not in the thirteen tools because I can’t add another tool. Otherwise, I would maybe add this one. The hang-up with documenting how you do something is that you have to think about it and so forth. If you’re doing it on a computer, it should be frictionless. “I’m going to go into Cleo or whatever you’re thinking. I’m doing this and this.” If you have to stop at every point and take a screenshot, that’s annoying. That’s friction. SweetProcess is great. I highly recommend it.

It does everything you need to do. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it. In that part where you’re documenting the steps, there’s a tool called Scribe. If you go there, that tool is free if you use the Google Chrome browser. If you’re in Google Chrome doing whatever you’re doing, it will follow your steps. When you say, “I’m done,” it will already have the procedure documented with all the screenshots and hyperlinks, and so forth.

You can pay for it if you want, but even if you pay for it and get the extra features, it still, in my opinion, won’t do all the things that SweetProcess will do. You’re still going to need SweetProcess. It’s free for a lot of things. It will start to show you how those steps are created and you’ll have a tangible result. It’s powerful, so I can highly recommend it.

Ernie, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate the time. We could talk for another hour, so we may have to do this again. We would love to have you back some other time.

It was great talking to you, folks. Thank you so much for having me on.

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About Ernie Svenson

Ernie Svenson helps lawyers create better systems for automation, remote work, and outsourcing.