UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Rebecca Holdredge of Husch Blackwell

on Topics: Future Law | Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Rebecca Holdredge of Husch Blackwell

If you were to find the definition of what a legal engineer is in a dictionary, you’d likely see Rebecca Holdredge’s picture next to it. With a background in mathematics and computer science, experience working as an actuarial consultant, a practicing attorney in BigLaw, and an Innovations Manager at a forward-thinking AmLaw 100 firm, Rebecca is a leading innovator focused on improving the way law firms combine law and technology.

We loved talking with Rebecca about her pathway into legal innovation, challenges law firms face, tips for lawyers and law students, and much more. We hope you enjoy learning from Rebecca as much as we did!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

Rebecca Holdredge: I never would have imagined ending up in the legal innovation space, especially after being a geeky math/computer science major! It must have been fate, because after working as a consulting actuary for several years (and yes, having spent a ridiculous amount of time on those actuarial exams) I got an amazing opportunity to go to law school on a full scholarship. I was worried that the analytical skills that worked so well as an actuary wouldn’t translate well into law, but I was surprised how much those skills came in handy. After the recession put a kink in my plans of returning to the actuarial world, I luckily got an opportunity at an AmLaw 100 firm as a benefits attorney.  

I must have made a reputation for myself for doing things a bit differently than other associates as I started getting calls from across the firm from attorneys wanting help with things like spreadsheets, large data sets, analytics, or translating formulas into legal terms. While I can’t say the head of my practice group was thrilled, that reputation led to meeting the firm’s chief innovation partner. We began having monthly lunch meetings, discussing wide ranging topics such as law firm operations, artificial intelligence, project staffing, new pricing models, to even how we could use things like algorithms to solve client problems. I secretly loved these meetings so several months later when he asked me to join his team, I couldn’t resist.  

While it was difficult to give up practicing, I knew I could add more value to the firm and its clients on the innovation team than I could practicing. At the time, the firm was the leader in the innovation space and leadership was very supportive, so my team got to do everything from pricing/LPM, to data analytics and visualization, to AI software testing, to client facing consulting projects. I loved being able to be creative and strategic and test new solutions to old problems. That role led to other opportunities, and the rest is history! I finally feel like I found my calling being part of the legal innovation community and feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be in this line of work.

UC: With your background as an attorney and a data scientist, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges that law firms face connected to gathering intelligence from data? How are law firm innovation managers like you taking on those challenges? 

RH: Firms have access to enormous amounts of data, but struggle to find actionable intelligence in it. Currently, a big hurdle is much of the data is unstructured. Natural language processing and AI tools, like Kira, are helping but it’s still a challenge. As that hurdle shrinks, the real challenges will be culture based – data governance, siloed teams, integration of different source systems, lack of understanding of data architecture fundamentals, and an historically private culture. Gathering and maintaining clean data requires a fair amount of resources and many firms are reluctant to dive in (but the longer they wait, the further behind they get). Also, when integrating different internal systems, often there is not “one source of truth” and that can lead to confusion and errors.

A huge problem I’ve seen, and one I’m currently working on, is not having the right mix of technical and legal resources working together to gather intelligence. Having attorneys collect data is expensive and often not done in an effective manner, as they don’t have a background in data. However, collecting data without attorney input is also problematic. To combat those challenges, a lot of my job is education, showing what is possible with the right data strategy and even how that data can be weaponized to get ahead of the competition. The key to overcoming these challenges is firm leadership. Now firms are often siloed between legal practice and operations, but firms will need experts in upper management that understand both sides to help develop a clear data strategy.  

UC: What are some of your top pieces of advice for law students and lawyers interested in working in legal innovation roles and other alternative legal careers?

RH: My challenge to law students or lawyers interested in working in legal innovation would be to figure out “what does legal innovation mean to you”? Legal innovation covers such a variety of topics right now. What drew you to law school and do you still have that passion to practice? I love being creative and solving old problems in new ways but, when I was practicing, it wasn’t widely accepted that the industry was changing, and my creativity was more of a burden than an asset. Entrepreneurial young attorneys now have lots of opportunity to practice, learn the craft, and also use their creativity to practice differently than the partners who came before them. In many ways, I miss practicing because I am now one step removed from the actual problems that clients are having.

For any attorneys interested in legal innovation, I recommend practicing in some way and figure out what you like and what you don’t and hone in on those aspects of the job you love. Ask lots of questions, learn as much as you can about law firm operations, and read as much as you can about what new things are going on in the legal industry. While I don’t think attorneys need to code, the more you know about data, no code platforms and workflows can really help you. There will be a shift to different types of lawyer roles – more creative and versatile roles like knowledge management attorneys, analytics attorneys, R&D attorneys, and customer success attorneys – making it easier to find an innovative niche doing what you’re passionate about.

UC: Tell us about the book you contributed to, The Future of Legal Innovation, published by the ARK Group. What are some of the key takeaways from the chapter you co-authored with Husch Blackwell’s Chief Growth Officer, Dean Boeschen?

RH: The chapter outlined how to gather, manage and rank innovative ideas. Often attorneys feel too busy to share the innovative ideas they have and/or don’t know who to share these ideas with. Then, these ideas often get lost if they are not immediately acted upon and the same ideas get suggested over and over again. Or, the good ideas get lost and the bad ideas get implemented. “Shark tank” type challenges are great at eliciting ideas from attorneys, and firms should consider idea hubs to store and manage those ideas. To rank those ideas consistently, make sure to have a clear vetting process to determine which ideas to implement.  

UC: You presented a great session at ILTACON 2021 back in August entitled, “The Legal Engineer Consultant.” Why is the role of a legal engineer needed now, more than ever? What roles do data, automation tools, and no code solutions play in bringing about innovation and change in the legal profession?

RH: Legal Engineers understand how to combine law and technology. Given how software is revolutionizing the legal industry, it’s imperative that we’ve got professionals that understand the complexities and potential consequences of mixing these. In that presentation, I used the example of a kitchen designer as a parallel to a legal engineer. As a homeowner, let’s say you know you want a new kitchen – you want white cabinets, a double oven, and a big island. If you were to go to an electrician, plumber, and carpenter with those requirements, what are the chances you end up with a kitchen that is functional, looks good and you love using? Probably slim. Each of those people are experts and are integral to the final outcome, but you need someone else (i.e. a designer) that understands how all of the parts come together. They are the translator between you and the craftsmen. They foresee problems you didn’t even know you should ask about. This is akin to how I see the legal engineer – they are the translators between lawyers and technologists.

Automation tools and no code solutions help facilitate the combination of law and technology. Would you rather see your future kitchen on graph paper or as a digital 3-D model? No code solutions are a great way for legal engineers to prototype (and sometimes even build) entire solutions, without the need to burden already swamped IT teams. Since attorneys are often applying technology to legal solutions in new ways, it’s incredibly useful for them to see and work with a prototype. How many times have you heard this story? An attorney asks IT for a solution, IT gathers the requirements and invests a lot of resources building it, only to hear that it’s not what the attorney wanted. This is certainly no fault of IT, but attorneys are not software engineers and didn’t know how to ask for what they wanted, or more likely, didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted. Having a legal engineer in the middle helps avoid this scenario.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

RH: “Done is better than perfect” – Sheryl Sandberg

“If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong” – Charles Kettering

“If you’re not pissing someone off, it’s probably not innovation.”  – Philip Auerswald

“I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

This one is so true in legal right now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown an attorney a solution they absolutely loved, and they had no idea they even wanted it in the first place.

I also love the books Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christiansen and Loonshots by Safi Bachall, which have really shaped my view of how firms should approach innovation.

UC: What are your goals for the next year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?

RH: Education – A big goal is just getting out and showing attorneys what is possible with new technology and explaining why they might want to consider changing how they practice. While I love to come up with creative solutions, having 800 attorneys think more creatively about how they practice is the real goal. No code tools have been extremely helpful in prototyping these ideas.

As far as events, I LOVE the “Legaltech Week Live – Journalists Roundtable” that happens every Friday, hosted by Bob Ambrogi. It’s my weekly news program on legal innovation and also quite entertaining. The next in-person event I’m attending is Legal Tech in New York.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

RH: I love discussing legal innovation and related topics so please feel free to reach out and connect.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebecca-holdredge

Husch Blackwell: https://www.huschblackwell.com/professionals/rebecca-holdredge

Conclusion Section

For someone who never would have imagined ending up in the legal innovation space, Rebecca Holdredge is leading the charge in law firm innovation management through creative problem solving and by recognizing and acting on the need to educate lawyers about how to best blend law and legal technology together. We’re excited to follow her career in the years to come and look forward to learning more from her on new innovations in the law.