Legal Influencer Series: A Conversation with Alex Su
Episode 17 | April 28, 2023
Episode 17 | April 28, 2023
In the first podcast in Latitude’s Legal Influencers series, Candice Reed speaks with Alex Su, head of community development at Ironclad, a contract lifecycle management platform. Best known for his TikTok videos satirizing the legal profession, Alex is the author of “The Unauthorized Guide To Getting Into Law School With Bad Grades” and the popular newsletter, “Off The Record”.
Candice and Alex discuss Alex’s fascinating career journey and the legal trends he’s identified using his own experience and by staying close to the people on the front lines of the legal industry.
Alex Su (00:00:00):
… but I do think that when you confidently say what you feel and share your experience, there are others who will say, “That’s me, too.”
Candice Reed (00:00:11):
This is Leveraging Latitude, cultivating a full life in the law, and we are your hosts, Candice Reed-
Tim Haley (00:00:18):
… and Tim Haley.
Candice Reed (00:00:20):
Please join us on our journey as we discover how to leverage the hard work of becoming a lawyer to achieving success and leading a rich and fulfilling life in the law.
Candice Reed (00:00:29):
Tim Haley (00:00:39):
Candice, how are you doing? It’s spring here, finally.
Candice Reed (00:00:41):
It is. We’ve had a string of really beautiful days here in Nashville, Tennessee.
Tim Haley (00:00:48):
I’ve been in Indianapolis. It has been cold and snowy and rainy for far too long, and we’ve just had a beautiful week here and everybody’s happy. That’s a good thing.
Candice Reed (00:01:00):
Yeah, that is a good thing. You know, we are starting a new series. We are referring to it as our legal influencer series, where we’re going to be talking to a number of soothsayers, if you will, among the legal profession about what’s on the coming horizon, what we can expect, the trends that they’re talking about right now, and some of the new things that they expect to be coming down the pike soon.
Tim Haley (00:01:39):
Yeah. The legal ecosystem is … I enjoy it, obviously. It’s fun. I mean, you’ve got lawyers who are working very hard both in-house and at firms and companies and operations folks that are supporting them, and then the industry experts who are aggregating and studying and anticipating what’s going to happen next, and that’s helpful for everybody.
Candice Reed (00:02:02):
I think so, and I hope that this series will help to stay abreast of the latest and greatest trends when you’re busy representing your clients day in and day out, all hours of the workday at least. So keeping up often feels like it’s this second job or a hobby that many of us don’t have the time or the space to do. So I’m hoping that by us bringing some of these ideas to the forefront, we can deliver them to our audience in these digestible, easy chunks of time so that you’re getting a lot of information with just a short amount of investment.
Tim Haley (00:02:47):
I love it. That sounds great. We’re going to hopefully take you from the weeds of your legal practice to the eyes of a needle above the whole industry to see what’s happening. So who do we have first?
Candice Reed (00:02:57):
So first up today, we’re talking to Alex Su.
Tim Haley (00:03:03):
Candice Reed (00:03:03):
Yeah. Alex is the Head of Community Development at Ironclad, which is a contract lifecycle management platform. Many of us got to know Alex or were introduced to him in the-
Tim Haley (00:03:20):
Yeah, TikTok and LinkedIn and, yeah, he’s everywhere.
Candice Reed (00:03:21):
That’s right. That’s right. During the pandemic, he was the bright part of some of some of our days with his humorous videos on TikTok, satirizing the legal profession, all in good fun, but making some poignant points that … Is that redundant? That seems redundant. That was probably redundant.
Tim Haley (00:03:44):
Observations? Observations? I don’t know. There you go.
Candice Reed (00:03:47):
Yeah, poignant observations that many of us could relate to who had practiced in the traditional big firm setting. Again, all in good fun, but-
Tim Haley (00:03:56):
It is its unique beast. So my wife never practiced. She’s not a lawyer, and when I was at the firm, I would say, “Hey, here’s how it’s working,” and she’s like, “No, you should do this.” I’m like, “No, no, no, it doesn’t work that way. That’s not how it works.” Whether it was vacation time or set hours or whatever it was, it was like, “No, no, no. That’s not how this industry works.”
Candice Reed (00:04:15):
That’s probably really good perspective and helpful for a long and happy marriage. My husband actually is a lawyer, and we both have had that large firm experience, though neither of us is currently practicing in a firm. Obviously, I’m working with Latitude and he is now in-house, but that said, we can both relate to some of the scenarios that Alex plays out in his videos.
What many people may not realize is that he is a prolific writer as well. He has a book that is available on Amazon called The Unauthorized Guide to Getting Into Law School with Bad Grades, which I’m sure we’re all going to be buying for the high school graduates in our life, who may be contemplating a law career down the future, but he also has a very popular newsletter and Substack column called Off the Record. In that column, he talks a lot about legal operations just to lump everything into one large category, but obviously, how tech is influencing the legal industry now, how lawyers can take advantage of some of the AI or the technology that is out there, both from an in-house perspective, as well as from a firm perspective and, again, interjecting some of his more pragmatic advice with his humor and his just good natured perspective on not just the practice of law but life as well.
So I had the opportunity to talk with him recently, which is the interview that you will hear shortly, and it was just a pleasure. He is such a thoughtful, funny, obviously, but genuinely kind and generous person with his advice and also with his encouragement for young lawyers as well. So I’m anxious for everyone to hear him and get to know the person beyond the funny TikTok videos and hear what he has to say about what’s next for the legal profession.
Tim Haley (00:06:31):
Well, I’m excited. Let’s go ahead and dive in.
Candice Reed (00:06:34):
Let’s do it.
Candice Reed (00:06:35):
Well, welcome, Alex Su, to the Leveraging Latitude podcast. It’s so exciting to talk with you today.
Alex Su (00:06:47):
It’s great to be here, Candice, and thank you so much for having me.
Candice Reed (00:06:49):
Well, it is a treat. I’ve had the honor of talking to you a few times before, and many of us know you as that really funny guy who does all of the lawyer parody videos who kept us entertained throughout the pandemic. So first, thank you for that, and secondly, I want to make sure that everyone knows what you do beyond the videos that we’ll often see on social media. You are the Head of Community Development for Ironclad, which is a contract lifecycle management platform.
In addition to the videos, you are a prolific author and writer of all things legal industry and the business of law and the intersection of technology and the law, and we’ll get into some of those topics here today, a former associate with Sullivan & Cromwell, a federal district court clerk right out of law school where you graduated from Northwestern. So you have done a lot of things and you have a very prestigious resume, but I’m curious, how do you introduce yourself? With all of that, how do you introduce yourself? What’s your elevator pitch when you meet someone new?
Alex Su (00:08:07):
Well, thank you for going through my entire resume, Candice. That helps provide context for what I tell people. I always joke that I’m an in-house influencer for Ironclad, but my role really is to engage with the community, which touches upon sales and marketing, and I do that by writing, by sharing jokes on social media, whether they’re funny skits or memes. So my goal really is to share topical issues in the legal profession, and in doing so, represent ironclad well and talk about how technology is transforming the profession. So it really depends on who I’m talking to, but in-house influencer is probably the most shorthand way of explaining it.
Candice Reed (00:08:51):
I like that. How did you become an in-house influencer? Was that what you planned on doing when you went to law school or when you graduated from law school or is this an opportunity that came about unexpectedly?
Alex Su (00:09:06):
It’s definitely not something I had ever planned to be. When I went to law school, I wanted to be a trial lawyer. That’s why I went to clerk and I worked at a litigation department at a large firm, but somewhere along the way I realized, “Hey, this is not for me.” I think it was when I did one of those discovery calls and I saw how some of the senior lawyers who had been there for decades were focused on the most minute aspects of document production. It just didn’t seem-
Candice Reed (00:09:32):
That sounds familiar.
Alex Su (00:09:33):
Yeah, it sounds familiar, right? It probably is for a lot of litigators out there, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I tried switching jobs a couple of times. A few things didn’t work out. Finally, about six years out of law school I said, “What do I like doing?” and I said, “I think I like working with people. I like putting myself out there, and so why don’t I try to start over?” and I did. I went and joined a startup in a entry level sales role, and the startup created technology that would help lawyers.
So I jumped into the legal tech startup world where I spent the next five years selling software to lawyers at law firms and in-house legal departments, which you can imagine is very hard because lawyers are so busy, they don’t want to take your call, they don’t want to read your email. So I started exploring other ways to get in front of the legal community.
That’s when I started posting on LinkedIn stories from my career journey, just talk about things that people in the legal field were talking about. Then when the pandemic hit, I tried something very, very new and unusual for me. I started filming skits, funny skits based on my career experiences. Those skits and those videos became really popular, so I went on TikTok and I started making them, and they ended up having a really powerful impact when it came to business development, but also helped me engage with the community. So that was a winding path that took me to making content on social media. Again, it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, that I sought out to do, but happened along the way.
Candice Reed (00:11:02):
There’s a lot to unpack there. I had about five or six questions that I was holding trying not to interrupt as you were explaining how you got from where you started to where you are currently. The first one is or what jumped out at me first when you were explaining your career is that you made what many people would consider a pretty courageous move very early on in your career. You said that you were only five or six years out of law school when you decided that focusing on the minutia of discovery production was not for you, but I think many of us, many lawyers, particularly because we’ve worked so hard through three years of law school and those early years as an associate in many cases, we’re carrying a lot of debt associated with those years in law school. It’s hard to make a change. It’s hard to pivot into something that seems risky or unusual or just different. How were you able to do that?
Alex Su (00:12:07):
I don’t know if I would call it courageous because by the time I realized I needed to do something different, I had changed the job and I went to a smaller firm. I got fired from that job. Then that’s when I was like, “I’m going to start my own practice,” and then that practice didn’t work out. So by the time I made the jump, I had encountered these two failures within a year, going from someone who had a very fancy resume to someone who couldn’t keep a job, couldn’t start a business. So I thought that gave me the space to start over, and that’s why I think setbacks seem scary, but they also have this upside of letting you start over without the burden of feeling like you’re headed in the right direction.
I write a lot about this in my newsletter because I think that was what made the difference. It wasn’t that I was courageous or braver than anyone, but that I had encountered this failure and shed this burden of needing to prove to people that I was going to be a successful person. Paradoxically, by shedding that, it put me on a new path, it gave me the success that I was hoping to get, and I think that it led to things that I never would’ve imagined because another thing I often write about is the world is continuing to change, especially around technology, especially around how lawyers work. The rules that made sense in the past may not make sense in the future, so the downside of starting over is not so bad.
Candice Reed (00:13:22):
I really appreciate you sharing that you were fired and that you had failure early on because I see this especially in a law school class that I teach, where there’s such concern. We are all go-getters and we’ve experienced a certain level of success by the time we get into law school, and there’s a lot of fear associated with failing or trying something that you don’t already know you’ll succeed at or putting yourself in a position to potentially fail.
So oftentimes, I’m trying to encourage students to welcome failure. I mean, obviously you’re not going to run towards the failure or make that the goal, but that it can open up space, as you said, for even more success, which, I mean, those of us who are looking from the outside in would certainly consider you to be a success story. So I appreciate you sharing that piece of it.
I read recently from you where you said that when you were a young associate that one of your partners said, and I’m paraphrasing here, you wrote it much more eloquently, but basically, the key to success is to keep your head down, work hard, and do good work. You said that that wasn’t necessarily the best piece of advice for you. What did you mean by that?
Alex Su (00:14:40):
I think a lot of people become successful through different ways that made sense for them in that particular period of time. Let me explain what I mean. A partner who’s 30 years in may have succeeded in becoming a partner while they were an associate maybe before the digital age, before the internet became a thing. So maybe back then, putting your head down, doing good work in the work in front of you would help you succeed.
I think today it’s a very different world between technological changes and changes in the profession. We’re seeing an increased value in, for example, in the law firm world, the increased value of bringing in business. So associates are not told this. They’re told, “Do a good job on the briefs, make sure you check over grammatical errors, and be responsive to the senior lawyers,” but what really has value is that ability to bring in clients.
I think a lot of these lawyers who came up maybe years ago, maybe that was less important or maybe, for whatever reason, they don’t tell that to associates. So you’ve got to come up with your own conclusions about where you need to go and how you can become successful. I keep on going back to technology because I do think that we are in a different era than even 10 years ago where we do have a lot of advancements in AI that are happening just in the last few months.
Some of the work that AI can automate essentially is very similar to what associates do. So if you get really good at, for example, summarizing large passages of text and AI can do that in the future, that’s not going to be as valuable in your career in the future. It’s going to be something else. It’s going to be, I think, and I’ve written about this in my newsletter a lot, I think it’s going to be how you deal with clients, how you’re able to bring in business and make a name for yourself, all of the detail-oriented work, doing a good job at the work you have in front of you. That’s table stakes. You do have to be good at that, but to take yourself to the next level, it’s going to have to be a different recipe and a different process. Again, it’s not always going to be what doing exactly as you’re told by the seniors at your firm.
Candice Reed (00:16:47):
Sure, and as you’re talking about some of the things that associates are now or perhaps should be paying attention to or ingredients for setting themselves up for success later on, a lot of what you’re describing like the client development doesn’t typically come to an associate or isn’t part of an associate’s core set of responsibilities until much later into their law practice when they’re five, six, seven years out of practice and they’re looking at making partner, and so now there’s this push to start developing a book. What I’m hearing you say is that that training or that focus probably needs to happen much sooner in their career.
Alex Su (00:17:36):
That’s right, and it’s never too late. I just think that a lot of times some associates get that advice because they have mentors or sponsors who guide them early on. For people like me who had no lawyers in their family, I became successful in school because I worked hard and put my head down, and so I thought I could take the same recipe and apply it to my work. I didn’t build those relationships with the mentors and sponsors, and so I didn’t get that advice. It wasn’t until much later when I looked back and I heard from other people that I saw that that was such a critical component.
I do think that for those of us who are not part of the mainstream who come from different backgrounds than the typical successful senior partner, we will have a harder time finding that type of guidance. So that’s why it’s so important to really think ahead and draw your own conclusions about what works because through my experience on social media, I have found that what I used to think makes me different, being part of an immigrant community or feeling like I didn’t really fit in into the law or having a little bit of struggles with attention to detail, all of these things, when I put up myself out there and talked about these things on social media, so many lawyers said, “Hey, that’s me, too. I relate to that.” So I think when you embrace who you are, some really interesting things happen, especially with the power of the internet and social media these days.
Candice Reed (00:18:54):
You’ve done a really good job of creating a community through your social media use. How have you done that? Is this something that people, attorneys perhaps who aren’t as funny as you, can they do it too? I mean, I really appreciate how you pull people together in a singular conversation that we would not normally be having because we’re all over the world in different rooms, perhaps having the same conversation with two or three people, but you’ve created a community where we’re now having it together. How did you do that and what are the opportunities for other lawyers to do something similar?
Alex Su (00:19:40):
So for me, I think it took a long time, and I’ve been doing this now for seven years, and while that’s not long in law practice here, law practice timelines, on social media, it’s like a really long time. For people getting started, I think you just got to engage in the comments. Talk to someone, and because when you comment, you don’t have that pressure to come up with a topic and you have an audience because when you’re responding to a comment, other people see it. Over time as you find your own voice, you can start posting, if you want to. You don’t have to. There are plenty of people who engage with my content just by commenting and they build connections that way.
The bigger point, though, I think is that what seems what’s worked for me, putting out funny jokes and maybe making fun of or ridiculing large firms, that works for me and my particular background. It’s not necessarily going to work for you or anybody else, right? We all have-
Candice Reed (00:20:28):
There’s no blueprint for being authentic.
Alex Su (00:20:29):
There’s no blueprint. There’s no blueprint for being authentic, but I do think that when you confidently say what you feel and share your experience, there are others who will say, “That’s me, too.” So for example, some of the people I reach are going to be like me, but there’s probably other people who would relate to your message too. So I think we all have to be authentic to ourselves and put ourselves out there, and you’ll be surprised by how many people will relate to it.
Candice Reed (00:20:56):
Yeah, I feel like that should be what’s on the T-shirt, right? If there’s one simple grand message, it’s, “Be authentic,” and that includes not trying to be funny if you’re not naturally funny-
Alex Su (00:21:11):
Candice Reed (00:21:12):
… but also not hiding your funny or whatever strength you may have because you feel like it doesn’t fit into this stereotype of what a successful law school graduate looks like.
Alex Su (00:21:28):
That’s right. That’s right. Exactly.
Candice Reed (00:21:31):
Yeah. I remember when I was first in a position of leadership within a company starting out, I was overseeing a team where everyone was older than me or more experienced than me. I felt this profound responsibility to be serious all the time to show that I was competent, I guess. I went through a process associated with when I went back to school and studied psychology where we identified our strengths, and one of mine was humor. I always thought I was funny, but I was pretty sure that no one else did, but one of the exercises for a class that I was taking was to use a strength that you don’t normally let the rest of the world see and pay attention to how that might change the dynamic or even just how you feel about the work.
I remember going into a meeting one morning, a staff meeting where I was like, “Okay. I’m going to start interjecting little pieces of humor without fear. We’ll try this experiment.” I remember a few weeks after doing this, someone on my team came up to me and she said, “I don’t know what it is. I can’t put my finger on it, but the last few weeks have just been a joy. I have really enjoyed our team and working together.”
I mean, I’m not necessarily saying this because I cut a couple of jokes, but I do think the fact that I was showing up more me and finding power in parts of myself that I had previously hidden, I do feel like that was allowing me to be better. So she was probably getting more of me and I was enjoying it more, and so it was extending out. So lots of ripple effects when you show up authentically.
Alex Su (00:23:24):
Yeah, and I don’t think people know what others will resonate with. When you just told me that story, I was like, “That’s me, too.” When I was at the firm, the colleagues that I used to have, when I talk to them now they’re like, “I didn’t know you were funny,” and I was like, “I didn’t think I was funny either,” but I would have all of these secret blogs of jokes that I would keep private because I’m like, “I’m a serious lawyer now and I shouldn’t share this,” but now, all of those things, my hobbies are now part of my work because those jokes connect with people and other people say, “Hey, I work on some creative things on the side too. I’m writing a book. I make these jokes.”
So I think that when we hide what we are authentically, it prevents us from connecting with people that we might not have realized that we could connect with. So I think it was the same impact that you had on your colleagues that when … I just happen to do it on social media and the audience was pretty big and I didn’t realize so many people would resonate with it.
Candice Reed (00:24:22):
Yeah. Well, clearly, clearly, it has resonated with a lot of people because I suspect that there are many, many of us who first knew you through some of those funny videos and then had the opportunity to go a little deeper and get into some of the writing and the more serious content that you’ve put out with your own newsletter and Substack platform Above the Law even.
So let’s turn now to something that you referenced a little earlier that I want to ask you about, and that’s technology. I mean, obviously, you are an expert in technology and the intersection of technology and the legal profession and how the business of law uses technology. So what would you say are some of the ways that maybe the legal profession generally is using technology now and then what’s on the near horizon?
Alex Su (00:25:21):
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of exciting things on the near horizon. Generally speaking, we all know this from practicing that our jobs as lawyers tend to be some part of counseling, high value work, and then another part of routine tasks, grunt work. So that’s just always been part of the job.
Over the past I would say 10 or 20 years, new technology has emerged targeting lawyers that solve for and automate all of that grunt work so that lawyers can do more high level tasks. What I’ve seen personally is that a lot of those technologies get adopted more quickly in in-house legal departments. Law firms, for one reason or another, are a little bit more hesitant to adopt and embrace these technologies quickly. What’s coming is that there is rapid development in AI that’s happening right now in the last, I’ll call, three to four months, where the technology is able to almost mimic what people do.
So summarizing text, being able to write an article by plugging in a couple of bullet points, they call this generative AI. I think that what’s coming is that clients like in-house corporate clients will really embrace these tools to do more with less because they’re under pressure, they have more work to do with limited budget. Then the law firms, I think, will quickly follow suit. Although I think some firms will be slower to adopt, some firms will be quicker. I just think that technology right now is just changing the way that lawyers do work and we’re all excited, but we’re also skeptical.
Goldman Sachs put out a recent report that said that 44% of all legal tasks will be automated. I think that’s a big claim, but that’s how they’re thinking about it. That’s how the business world is thinking about it. So I think that’s what’s going to be big in the conversation coming up.
Candice Reed (00:27:11):
I think we all have seen the articles about ChatGPT taking the bar, not just taking the bar exam, but passing the bar exam, and what was it? AI was either used or about to be used in a California courtroom-
Alex Su (00:27:27):
That’s right. That’s right.
Candice Reed (00:27:28):
… to take the place of a lawyer. So there are a lot of articles. Some are quirky and funny, but then I think, as you mentioned, that there is this fear, an underlying fear among a lot of lawyers that AI is going to take over real live attorneys or replace real live attorneys and take some of the legal jobs that are being done currently. Do you think that’s a possibility or how real of a possibility do you think that is?
Alex Su (00:27:58):
I don’t think AI’s going to replace lawyers, but I do think it’s going to change how we think about what a lawyer’s job is. Like it or not, right now, some lawyers make a lot of money by doing some pretty basic stuff. I always use this example because my parents hired a real estate lawyer and the contract that they use is very clearly copy and pasted, and there’s certain parts that are crossed out and it was thousands of dollars.
I think those people who are building their businesses by doing that, that will get disrupted quickly. Having said that, I think there’s always going to be a need for counseling, for guidance, for courtroom work, for all of these things that only a human can do. So we’re still far away from that, but I do think that there are some parts of our work that is probably going to be automated by technology.
What that exactly is I think we’ll find out this year. In the past, it’s been pretty basic stuff. What we see in Ironclad is just the contracting workflows. A lot of that has been automated, but with AI, you can do things like highlight specific parts of your contract that might not meet your internal guidelines on terms and conditions.
So the AI is going to really do all sorts of interesting things that you never imagined it could do. I’m just interested in seeing how it plays out because even though I am in tech and I write about technology all the time, personally, Candice, I don’t know if you can believe this, I am not an early adopter of technology, and my wife always makes fun of me because she says, “You’re the last person in the world to use technology.” She introduced to me Google Maps when we were dating, and I would have a piece of paper and I would look it up and I would write down, “Turn left on this street.”
Candice Reed (00:29:52):
This is making me feel so much better.
Alex Su (00:29:57):
I think that technology is just becoming a bigger part of all of our worlds, and some of us will be quicker and some of us will be slower, but I think part of the reason why I can be effective in my role is because I think I’m slower at adopting technology.
Candice Reed (00:30:12):
I like something that I read you wrote recently where you said, “Law follows technology at a safe distance.” So we’re probably not going to be the first in line to say, “Hey, let me try this and really put it into practice,” but as I hear you describe what you think might happen, and I tend to agree with you coming at it from a very non-technologically savvy point of view, is that much of what we know about why attorneys leave a job, for example, I’m thinking of the 2022 Stago report that I think was written by Thompson Reuters or at least published, and there were a number of factors for why attorneys chose to stay in certain firms and why they chose to leave others.
One of the common reasons for why someone chose to leave a firm was because of the quality of legal work they were asked to perform. So we know that we prefer the higher end legal work, generally speaking, like the counseling and the advising, and I think perhaps even the connection, the direct connection with our clients. That tends to be the good stuff that, one, is able to be billed at or billed out at a higher hourly rate, but I think it’s also the kind of stuff that probably most of us went to law school to do more of.
So to me, when I’m hearing you describe the work that technology might be doing or where it might be replacing attorneys, it might actually make the practice of law more enjoyable to where you’re not in the weeds on the grunt work, as you described it, but you have the space and the opportunity to do the higher end, more profitable, higher end work that only a person, let’s hope, can do, at least for the time being, at least for the next generation or so.
Alex Su (00:32:45):
I mean, I think that’s going to be true for every single technology that’s become popular in the last hundred years, whether it’s fax machines, emails, smartphones, being able to check your email on your phone, enabling laptops to be used at home to log in so people can do remote work. All of this has changed the practice, but it hasn’t replaced the core competency of a lawyer. So I imagine this will be similar, although the ways that technology changes work for each development will be different. So we’re going to have to wait and see how AI changes the work of an associate, of an in-house lawyer, of anybody in the legal profession.
Candice Reed (00:33:29):
Where do you see some missed opportunities or maybe even some potential missed opportunities where firms or individual practitioners do have a slow acceptance to technology? Where are we cutting off our nose to spite our face?
Alex Su (00:33:50):
I think it’s challenging when you have a firm that relies on billable hours. Essentially, you’re selling hours. So this technology will, in the short run, reduce some types of hours. Maybe you can find other hours to replace it, but I think that’s part of the reason why law firms have been hesitant to embrace some of these technologies. There are certainly other reasons too, but I think that economic incentive is pretty powerful.
The missed opportunity comes when the in-house and legal department, corporate legal department community views it differently. They don’t make money by selling hours. They just have too much work to do. For them, they would love to outsource some of this stuff to technology and they have. You’ve seen the growth of a function called legal operations that focuses on how do you do more with less, whether it’s by improving process or adopting technology, and legal departments are also feeling pressure from their business counterparts, their internal clients that they serve.
If the business wants legal to move faster and there’s more work to do, legal will slow down, business will give them pressure to say, “Hey, why don’t you adopt more technology because that’s what we do?” So I think the missed opportunity here is that law firms need to move just as quickly on technology as their clients to show them that they’re looking out for them too. Whether that comes in the form of lower fees, more responsiveness, I do think that firms are missing the boat if they don’t adopt these technologies to deliver better value at better prices to their clients.
Candice Reed (00:35:30):
We’ve talked to a number of people on this podcast who are in the legal operations space and on the corporate side or within either the in-house legal department team or supporting the legal operations for a company. I’ve been impressed with how they are making the business of law more efficient, more practical or pragmatic, helping move us along to where we need to be as attorneys in terms of, at least on the corporate side, better servicing our client. What are some of the trends that you are seeing in that legal operations space or what are they paying attention to that lawyers need to be paying attention to right now to better serve their clients?
Alex Su (00:36:30):
I think part of it is obviously processes. So they’re paying attention to everything that can be automated by technology. Lawyers are not always going to be aware of every piece of technology available. Legal ops is going to be far more attuned to that, and we’re seeing also growth in the legal ops field like there’s more people moving into legal ops roles. So I think that means more corporate legal departments are gaining that confidence, that ability to vet out the technology.
Up until now, I think we’ve talked a lot about improving process and making efficiencies. I do think that in this next, we’ll call it year or so, the attention will also shift to how do we make the lawyers we support, for legal ops, how do we make the lawyers we support, how do we equip them to be more effective? So it’s not just about efficiency, it’s also about effectiveness because if you think about it, if you can imagine a corporate legal department, a commercial counsel negotiating a contract with a counterparty, if that counterparty is using AI and the lawyer you’re supporting isn’t using AI, you’re going to see a disparity in the ability of how well they can negotiate.
So legal ops needs to be attuned to what technologies are available and making sure that their attorneys are equipped to be just as effective as their counterparties. I think that’s something that’s not really talked about, and that’s where I see the puck headed. Generally speaking, legal ops is growing and growing in influence, but I think this next iteration, they’re really going to empower the attorneys to be more effective.
Candice Reed (00:38:08):
Do you think we’ll see the demise of the billable hour anytime in the next, I don’t know, 10 years?
Alex Su (00:38:18):
No. I used to think so, but it’s persisted, and I think that when it persists, it means that it’s not just the firms that want to do it. Some clients probably like it, and I’ve heard some really good reasoning behind why clients have stuck with it. It works, and so I think it’ll be a long time before it goes away, but having said that, I do think that it’s going to get chipped away at. I do think some firms are thinking about things differently. So to be continued, but I do think that it’s going to have some staying power.
Candice Reed (00:38:57):
Yeah, that’s my assumption too, but just thought I’d ask and see if we-
Alex Su (00:39:04):
It’s a popular question. I mean, people are always wondering about it, and everyone seems to think, “Hey, it should go away. There’s no reason for it to be around anymore,” but it’s still around, so it’s like maybe-
Candice Reed (00:39:14):
Yeah, there’s a love-hate relationship with the billable hour that is hard to explain, but I definitely can see the pros and the cons for it. Where or what are some innovative ideas that you’re mulling around in your own head right now? You’re an influencer. We look to you to lead the way. I will put all that pressure on you and others. So doesn’t necessarily have to be an idea that you first thought of, but I’m just curious, where do we go next? What is something that’s going to be part of the conversation that maybe some of us who have been diligently working at our offices over the last weeks and months may not even know about yet?
Alex Su (00:40:08):
Well, I’ve touched upon what I think is the biggest one, which is the impact of technology and AI. So that’s one. Other ones I think include … I think practice will look very different. Practicing law will look very different in the future than it does now. With the growth of alternative legal services providers, contract attorneys, I think that there’s a lot of different ways to practice that’s not just me and associates sitting in my chair for 10 years and then making me partner.
Latitude, certainly, is on the forefront of that, but there’s a lot of movement because when you zoom back, I think a lot of the large firms, as they continue to raise rates, they’re going to only be able to take on a certain type of high-end matter. It’ll be increasingly expensive for all the other work that they do, and what happens is the clients will start thinking, “We need to get this amount of work done. We should parse out this for the big firms, but maybe this other part of it can be done by alternative legal service providers, by technology, by smaller firms.”
So I think there’s a lot of change happening there. I think the big firms will still be around, they will still do the high end work, but the mix of who else is helping corporate legal departments is going to change, and it’ll be interesting to see how it changes. I do think that the value of social media, and in particular LinkedIn, is that people are sharing ideas. So different corporate legal departments are going to talk to each other about what to do. You’re going to see lots of associates also share their views of the profession. I think you’re going to see a change in the way younger lawyers work and want to work.
Candice Reed (00:41:58):
Alex Su (00:41:59):
It’s my long-winded way of saying I think that there is this big segment of work that will be done differently in the future partly because of cost reasons, and partly because of what work-life balance or lifestyle younger lawyers want.
Candice Reed (00:42:12):
Yeah, there’s certainly a demand or we are seeing a demand on both ends. So it’s not just the clients wanting to supplement their team, if you will, either their in-house team or their outside council team or law firms looking to supplement their bench strength, their team as well, but it is that demand from mostly the younger attorneys who are coming in and saying, “I don’t want to do it the way you did it. I want to do it a different way.” I think the pandemic had some impact on a number of us in terms of how we saw how we could work remotely and still provide value and benefit. Our priorities shifted or at least our preferences shifted to a great extent like going into the office is so 2019, right?
Alex Su (00:43:16):
I know, it is.
Candice Reed (00:43:19):
I mean, or at least every day, going into the office every day is so 2019. I have to say as someone who works quite a bit at home with others in my family who also work from home, there are times where I’m like, “Yes, one of us needs to go into the office,” but there’s a lot more flexibility that’s both available and being demanded now than I think just a few years ago. Are there particular people or whether it’s podcasts or books that you follow, that you’re paying attention to either influence your own work or just to stay abreast of important issues in the legal field?
Alex Su (00:44:12):
I think I’ve been a big fan of Bob Ambrogi’s podcast where he talks about legal technology. It’s called LawNext. He’s been covering legal technology for, gosh, I don’t know, 20 years. So he has a blog, and so I’m a big fan of that. I obviously engage on social media and in particular Twitter and LinkedIn. I think that’s where all the breaking conversations are happening.
Then what I like to read … I do like to read on a wide range of topics. I am less interested in reading books about the future of law just because I think you get a lot more out of talking to people on the front lines doing the work versus reading about it in a book that was published maybe five years ago, maybe 10 years ago, but I do like to read about storytelling and concepts.
So the one book that I’m reading recently, it’s called Contagious, about why things catch on, why ideas spread. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s from Jonah Berger, and it’s really good for someone like me who spends a lot of time thinking about why ideas do catch on. There are common themes I like to talk about like law and technology, but you always want to hook on to something that’s moving in the national dialogue, so to speak. So the book provides a lot of good insights on that. So I’m always trying to understand how to be more effective because I think talking to lawyers about technology is not the easiest thing in the world. So that’s something I really am passionate about.
Candice Reed (00:45:44):
There are two things that stand out to me on what you just said. One is that we can often learn a lot outside of our field, right? I mean, there are a lot of really innovative, important ideas and work that’s being shared outside of the legal profession that the legal profession could learn from. So in order to be an influencer, you have to be able to identify great ideas and implement them into your setting or your field. So I think it’s a good point to not just get stuck in the legal space, but to look outside the legal space and see where that’s coming.
The second thing that you said that caught my attention, and you’ve done this a couple of times throughout our conversation today, is that you’re not just talking about becoming more efficient, you’re talking about becoming more effective. I think that oftentimes we confuse the two or we meld them into the same thing where we assume that being efficient also means being effective. I agree that they are two different things, and that if we’re not being effective, then how quickly we’re doing it or how efficiently we’re doing it doesn’t matter, right? So I appreciate that distinction that you’re making.
Alex Su (00:47:07):
Exactly. Well said.
Candice Reed (00:47:09):
What’s next for you? Not that there has to be anything that’s next. I’m just curious either your next idea for a funny skit or what you’re writing about. What can we expect on the horizon from you?
Alex Su (00:47:25):
Well, I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I feel like in the beginning it was about fun and jokes, but I’ve been really focused on writing my newsletter this year because things are changing so quickly and I’m trying to document them. For example, you’re seeing lots of changes in technology and in the law firm world where you’re seeing a lot of layoffs and economic uncertainty. So for me, it’s about documenting what I see and sharing those insights and providing a few guesses about where the puck is headed, where things are going to happen in the future. I do think that that is … It’s hard to predict a lot of these things, but you can see trends developing, and so I want to write about them. It’s somthing I really enjoy.
Candice Reed (00:48:07):
I’m sorry. Where can people find your newsletter or access it?
Alex Su (00:48:12):
It’s alexofftherecord.com. You just sign up. Every week, I share an update on some news items and commentary, but yeah, it’s been … I’ve been working on the newsletter for about a year and a half now, and it’s been very different. It’s working in a different muscle than making TikToks. I’ve been writing on social media and I feel like I’ve now graduated in the long form writing.
Candice Reed (00:48:35):
I was thinking that it was funny that when you were a young associate, you felt very serious and you had to tap into your funny, and now it’s like we all know you as this really funny guy, and you’re tapping into your more serious reflective self with the writing that you’re doing. So in some ways, it seems like it’s come full circle or really just showing two sides of you and-
Alex Su (00:48:56):
That’s right. That’s right.
Candice Reed (00:48:57):
… all that you’re bringing to the table for the benefit of the rest of us. So thank you for that. Do you have a favorite skit that you have done? Here, I keep pulling you back into the funny stuff. I’m sorry.
Alex Su (00:49:10):
Candice Reed (00:49:11):
I really think that your other writing is so important too, but we’ve covered a lot of that. So I’m just curious whether you have one that resonated with you or with your audience more so than others.
Alex Su (00:49:23):
I would say the first video that put me on the map. There’s a skit about a first year associate not respecting a paralegal. It was the fourth TikTok I’d ever made. I had no followers on TikTok, and it went so viral that I picked up thousands of followers immediately.
Candice Reed (00:49:38):
Alex Su (00:49:38):
It’s a skit that goes to the tune of Blinding Lights by The Weekend, and it was-
Candice Reed (00:49:46):
I’ll refrain from singing, even though I’m really tempted right now, I got to say. Whenever someone … It’s like a challenge. When someone mentions the song and there’s a microphone in front of me, I feel like it’s almost a dare, but I’m going to hold that.
Alex Su (00:50:01):
Well, it’s the reason why I think it’s popular. Most people when they see it, they’re like, “Oh, I remember this video. It was the first time I ever saw your account.” I think it was memorable because I think it points out something that everyone knows that the paralegals are the lifeblood at a law firm but don’t always get the respect that they deserve.
Candice Reed (00:50:15):
Alex Su (00:50:17):
So that video was what set me up for making more videos on TikTok.
Candice Reed (00:50:21):
As a final question, how do you get past the shoulds that we are bombarded with? So even the videos that you’re mentioning, I feel like in some ways, lawyers or people in the legal profession are so focused on the shoulds, “This is what I should do,” or, “This is what I should say. This is what my career should look like. This is how I should address this topic in social media,” that in some ways it becomes paralyzing and we don’t have a lot of the important conversations that we should have because we’re so worried about the unintended consequences of us saying something in the wrong way or doing something in the wrong way. So how do you break past those pressures of the shoulds?
Alex Su (00:51:17):
Well, I think when I was younger, I thought it was important to be right about everything, and it made me really fragile. I think when I went through some failures and setbacks, it made me realize that when I lost that burden of what needing to appear right or successful or smart, it just became a whole different ballgame. So what I’ve learned since then is that it’s more important to understand, number one, how to bounce back from failure, and number two, to apologize when you do something wrong.
The answer is not to never say anything wrong or never make any mistakes. It’s that to be more flexible, to apologize and move on or to overcome your setbacks and move on because I think moving on, people don’t realize there are upsides. I had a feeling that when I left the practice of law, I was like, “I might just have a regular job and maybe I won’t be successful in the future, but that’s okay.” So that let me pursue my own interests to see where trends were developing, and I rode that trend. When the pandemic hit, it was a terrible thing that happened to the world, but I benefited from it.
So I think those are things you can never predict. So I hope that people go through setbacks. I hope that you make mistakes. I hope that you figure out how to bounce back from them because amazing things will happen afterwards, and it’s hard to articulate how or why, but I really do believe it.
Candice Reed (00:52:34):
Oh, that’s such great advice. I promise to you, Alex, that I personally will continue to make mistakes and there will be failures just so we’re clear, but I’d love the freedom that you, or the permission that you give everyone else to not be so hard on themselves and not hold themselves to such a standard to where they’re not making mistakes because as you’ve mentioned throughout our conversation, that is often where the good stuff lies or just beyond the mistake or just beyond the failure is where the good stuff lies. And I feel like many of my past mistakes have made me bolder or more receptive to opportunities that I might have otherwise passed on.
Alex Su (00:53:21):
Oh, I believe it. Yeah.
Candice Reed (00:53:22):
Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your insight, both personally and about the legal profession. It is always a pleasure to talk to you and to hear where you think we’re headed. I’ll be anxious to have another conversation with you in the near future to see where we’re at then and what exciting things, exciting changes are happening in the legal profession and with you personally at that time. So thank you.
Alex Su (00:53:53):
Well, this is a lot of fun, Candice. Thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan of you and Latitude, and everything you do.
Candice Reed (00:53:58):
Alex Su (00:53:59):
So yeah, look forward to continuing the conversation.
Candice Reed (00:54:02):
Tim Haley (00:54:12):
Candice, that was a fantastic interview. Great job.
Candice Reed (00:54:15):
Thank you. Isn’t he such an interesting person? I’m so glad we had the chance to talk to him.
Tim Haley (00:54:20):
It is really interesting. I mean, the parts that I’m interested in your take on are the discussion on AI. What’d you think about that?
Candice Reed (00:54:28):
Well, it’s definitely something that a lot of us have been talking about. Alex brings the unique perspective of actually knowing what he’s talking about in this space. I think the rest of us are just scared or blown away by what we have seen AI like ChatGPT do in terms of passing a law school bar exam or just coming up with the perfect pithy social media post for a shortcut. So I really appreciated what he had to say about how he anticipates AI impacting the legal profession should we choose to be an early-
Tim Haley (00:55:08):
Candice Reed (00:55:10):
Adopter. Thank you. I lost that word for a minute. I think he’s right. I think that our corporate legal departments and companies are probably going to lead in this area where law firms may be following, but I think, as he said, it absolutely will impact the legal industry and it will be a part of how we practice going forward. Now, how exactly that plays out or what impact it has on our current system or paradigm, I think that remains to be seen, but certainly, I think that we are going to see some impact on the billable hour, on the tasks that particularly young lawyers are asked to do. So we’ll see, but it’s coming.
Tim Haley (00:56:01):
It’s interesting. So I’ve played around with the ChatGPT. My favorite thing to do is to ask it to summarize a Taylor Swift song in Shakespearean sonnet form, in iambic pentameter, and it’s, for the most part, pretty good. It’s scary how good it is, and it’s instant, which is amazing. So yeah, obviously, it’s going to change-
Candice Reed (00:56:21):
I haven’t tried that, but now-
Tim Haley (00:56:22):
You should do it. It’s so much fun.
Candice Reed (00:56:27):
… I want to and I feel pretty certain that my daughter, if she were ever to get on ChatGPT, that she’d have a lot of fun with it. There’s no telling what all she could come up with.
Tim Haley (00:56:37):
Yeah, of course, it’s going to change how people do things and it’s going to impact the legal profession. I think that’s maybe a topic we can explore with some other influencers as we go to see … I mean, there’s going to be positives, obviously. There’s going to be negatives. I mean, there’s net zero typically on changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s all positive or all negative in any one area.
Candice Reed (00:56:58):
That’s right. This is definitely the start of a much longer conversation that we will have bringing in other influencers in this space to talk more about it. That sounds like a full topic for a whole another episode-
Tim Haley (00:57:14):
Candice Reed (00:57:14):
… down the road. One thing that Alex mentioned that I hope is a takeaway from this conversation, and to some extent this podcast generally, is the whole idea of knowing yourself and being authentically you both in your personal life and in your professional life, and broadening the idea of what a lawyer looks like, does, and how a lawyer succeeds. I think those are all questions that we need to keep answering for ourselves and for our profession in order to grow as an industry.
Tim Haley (00:57:57):
That was my big takeaway is the focus on authenticity. I think in my own experience, I mean, lawyers fundamentally, we’re all selling our trust. We’re getting clients because they trust us, and we’re developing trust relationships with clients, with judges, with opposing counsel, with whomever. If you’re not yourself, people know and it doesn’t build trust. Then on the flip side, if you are yourself and it doesn’t work, I mean, it doesn’t work. I mean, it wasn’t going to work anyway. So there’s literally no downside to being authentic all the time. Authentic and honesty, I mean, those are the big things. That’s the industry.
Candice Reed (00:58:38):
Again, perhaps a conversation for another day because this is a big topic. I recognize that it is easy for some of us who may fit more squarely in the mold, that traditional lawyer mold to say, “Oh, just be your authentic self. That’s better.” So let’s put a pin in that too and come back to that topic for another day because I do think that that is sometimes challenging. I know it’s exhausting to feel like you’re supposed to be something else or that that is going to be more acceptable to your peers or perhaps your bosses and clients than if you were just truly you.
Tim Haley (00:59:24):
You’re right. I say that and now I’m thinking through generational differences and how-
Candice Reed (00:59:29):
… and cultural differences too.
Tim Haley (00:59:31):
… cultural differences, how everybody’s growing at different rates, and everyone’s starting from a different spot. So it’s been a hard and fast rule for me, but I can see where there’s some exceptions. So yeah, let’s pin on that and come back and talk about it later.
Candice Reed (00:59:44):
We will. We’ve got a lot of robust, hopefully interesting conversations coming up in this influencer series, and I’m looking forward to hearing from other guests on just building a better legal profession.
Tim Haley (01:00:00):
I love it. Candice, great job. We’ll talk again soon.
Candice Reed (01:00:04):
Tim Haley (01:00:10):
Thank you for joining us today. If you found this content valuable, please tell a friend or colleague about us. Also, if you can, please give us a rating and a short review on your podcast listening platform. The more ratings and reviews we have, the more people will find us. If you have a question, reach out to us at latitudelegal.com.
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