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62% of general counsels use Excel and email to manage contract data: survey (artificiallawyer.com)
42 points by CallMeAL23 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

It seems to me that SQL, C++, and Excel VBA (in that order) are probably the 3 top evergreen skills that folks in the 80s or 90s are still able to utilize in a career spanning 20+ years! JavaScript is probably the equivalent for this generation.

Out of all major programming languages, JavaScript is the language that changed the most in recent years.

I tried to teach someone new to programming javascript... I was quite astonished at how hard it is to learn. Nearly anything you'd want to do, there are 5 different ways to achieve it, together with 5 more libraries/abstractions that help solve the issue, and they're all a bit incompatible.

Have fun trying to integrate the "document.write('hello world')" example you found from stackoverflow into a react app while being a beginner and not really knowing why exactly they aren't compatible.

The inappropriately-leaked abstraction of the event loop is another big hurdle for newbies in JS-land. Yes we have async/await so it's somewhat less gross now but then that's another of those "5 ways to achieve it" things.

Javascript + BigQuery (SQL) is great for working with Google spreadsheets.

And x86 asm.

Excel, SharePoint and Email all have one thing in common. They are almost universally used and have a low barrier to entry.

Exactly, no IT department to navigate, no Target operating models, no deployment processes.

Creating better tools is not the answer, reducing the operation burden of deploying said tools is.

Excel alone is probably responsible for the largest productivity gains of the entire information age. It is the most used programming environment on the planet.

Ok, but why not use Google Sheets or Airtable instead of Excel?

Office Online has all the same features and is far less likely to disappear one day. Personally, I don't use MS Office, but for business, or any other morphing collection of people, MS Office feels like the safe choice.

Privacy concerns. Why would you upload private information to a third party for no advantage?

There are some advantages like version control or everyone working in the same document with the latest data.

I've seen it dozens of times. Someone shares the wrong excel file then others keep working with outdated data. Or maybe they all share a file in Dropbox but someone didn't sync for some reason and kept working and generating changes over an old file.

Because excel is much better once you need advanced features.

You think the majority of Excel users use advanced features?

Yes, at least indirectly.

The majority of people using Excel in a business environment at least sometimes use those functions, even if most don't actually understand them.

There is just about always someone in the office/department who "knows excel" well enough to use the Macro Recorder and occasionally tweak something in the code, and that's enough. So they get the task of automating the thing in the spreadsheet and then everyone else uses it.

Yes they do. Maybe not the majority of users but enough to be important. There are a lot of very smart and math savvy people who don’t know how to program but do very complex stuff in excel.

I have never met an application that's as easy to maintain as a spreadsheet is. It's the only thing that feels like you're actually editing what you want and not being hand cuffed by some constraint. It's the very definition of WYSIWYG. There's a reason that the shared calendar of choice for my wife and I is a Google Sheet and not Google Calendar.

Sheets are great for single-user systems.

As soon as multiple people try to use/modify the sheet, you end up with "Bob added a handy equation to track X, but Fred just wants to change Y but that breaks Bobs equation".

Sheets are infinitely versatile, but because they don't enforce any kind of abstraction, you can quickly make yourself a spaghetti of equations/macros.

This happens in business analytics too. Exactly the same story, except the data changes and no one tells downstream consumers.

Easy to the uninitiated sure - and that's not a bad thing - but anything that needs maintaining (in a professional sense) shouldn't be in a spreadsheet.

I realize this is an unrealistic proposition, but think of all the principles we've developed (as an industry) that spreadsheets violate - no separation of code and data, prone to repetition etc.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZi9CSB9_kk There was a talk at DConf about this with a bit more depth than what I've written here, and potential replacements

Why do you feel a spreadsheet is unmaintainable? Especially with how many office workers who are already well versed in it? Some newer solution might require retraining all those people and migrating and will probablybe still much inferior than excel functionally given how many over the ages have failed to compete against it.

It's not that it's unmaintainable it's that it's a lot more difficult to maintain.

You can get around this be having someone engineer a spreadsheet using all of the advanced functionality and VBA that Excel offers, but by that point it becomes a lot easier to just use an application that's built for whatever purpose you're trying to achieve.

Spreadsheets are accessible for a lot of people, but that doesn't mean they're easy to use and maintain. "ease of use" implies "use" for some purpose.

A lot of time ease of accessibility (anyone can click an icon and start entering numbers and doing calcs) conflicts with actually achieving whatever your purpose is. And if often conflicts with maintainability.

Spreadsheets ease of accessibility is both their biggest benefit and their biggest drawback.

I don't know about that,ease of access means more people know how to maintain it. Specialized software means you need more hard to replace people making it have a higher cost of ownership. You're talking about maintainance from a developer perspective not a managerial perspective. Being cumbersome to maintain is not the same has requiring specialized knowledge ,specialized interoperability,licensing issues,training costs,etc...

If there was only decent version control so you could go back quickly if something goes wrong.

Excel's version control is decent if you use it properly. It's easy to track changes over time, view check in notes that describe what was updated (as long as the user enters them...), and reverting to prior versions is really easy.

I'm in eDiscovery, we host trial databases in a really stout and intuitive review platform. My clients can, after they've done their searching and culled for relevance and privilege, browse through the document viewer and look at either the text with highlighted search hits or the native rendering of all their documents. All of their coding and tagging of documents is right there in the side panel of the doc viewer. There's hardly a week that goes by that an attorney or paralegal DOESN'T call and ask us for PDFs of their documents. Until a few years ago it wasn't unusual for someone to call and ask paper copies of hundreds of pages at a time to review.

The legal world is outstandingly slow to embrace better solutions in technology.

Paper copies don't require an online connection or a charged device. They're easy to mark up. They're easier on the eyes. They're easier to share in a trial war room environment.

The technology world can be outstandingly bad at understanding its target markets.

Can I access your platform / document viewer offline?

No, and of course, that's the rub.

Seems like a gap in the market if someone steps in with offline sync (even just one-way) and the ability to securely access files from a next-day delivered USB stick.

We've done that for special case scenarios. The last review tool we used was in a mixed Linux/Windows environment and we had a client in jail awaiting trial so we built a laptop to run everything and our PM visited him weekly to update his copy of the DB locally (no internet access in the pen). The biggest sticking point is that it's not uncommon to get to 4-6 TB on one of our databases and it takes a bunch of processors and memory to run the software, but I smell a development opportunity now that you mention it.

One, you can get an external 6 TB hard drive for like $100. At attorney levels of money, that's entirely reasonable.

Two, clearly in the pre-computer world, attorneys were not reviewing 6 terabytes of actual data for discovery. What makes it so big? Is it that you have scanned PDFs in image format (such that it's a reasonable number of pages printed out), or is it that you have new types of data like electronic records that simply wouldn't have been picked up in the old days?

As per geofft’s question, I’m also curious: what type of files are in a 6TB case DB?

BTW, I love your About[0] line.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=anodyne33

My takeaway is that MS should double down on their office applications and make them absolutely spectacular.

I think that Excel is already spectacular. That being said, if a C# or similar lived inside excel as a first class language (instead of VBA), that would make Excel unbelievable.

Microsoft is doing basically this, except with Typescript instead of C#: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/office/dev/scripts/overview...

Integrated LINQpad

Excel is probably as good as a spreadsheet gets (or can be i.e. a local maximum for a spreadsheet but still way worse than properly written custom software) - my mum works with spreadsheets a lot and watching her I can see that's she's basically programming the spreadsheets when I watch what she's doing

MS has absolutely been using their stranglehold on the Office suite from preventing meaningful competition from emerging. This has an effect on the desktop as well as it's a huge barrier to deploying alternative desktops.

Multiple vendors in this space competing on software quality rather than on compatibility with an entrenched monopoly would benefit consumers to the detriment of Microsoft's shareholders. So yes, MS should and are doing this. The last thing they want is a free market in office applications.

Keep in mind that their email probably doesn't look like your email. There are literally thousands of tools that plug into email and/or build on top of it in some way. Everything they're sending and receiving is going to be searchable and auditable by multiple entities, both within and outside of the company, and will stand up in court if challenged.

Just because they're "using email" doesn't mean they aren't also already using specific tools for this purpose.

This way is pretty sane. With O365,they can have azure information protection and MFA for security and easily share with onedrive(blocking all other filesharing and USB helps a lot with this) Outlook hosted on O365 also has AIP to prevent confidential data leakage. As others have noted,excel is great with managing this kind of data and if you dislike VB macros: embedded python support will be there this year!

I have spent a lot of time on contract negotiation and management for engineering and EPC contracts. I can confirm that more or less, excel, SharePoint, and email fits with my experience of how things are done in the wild. (I do have some home-grown specialized tools I use for things like claims tracking.) Every big contract is different, and tools with lots of requirements are often not as adaptable to those nuances as a trusty excel sheet that you've honed through the years.

However, my experience in utility EPC space is that contracts are negotiated primarily by sales & supply chain people and reviewed by lawyers, and then turned over to contract managers, who only get their legal departments involved for advice or when there is an escalating problem that looks like it might head for arbitration or court. So asking general counsels about this seems like the wrong audience--at least out in my little segment of the real world, it's contract managers who mange contracts, not lawyers.

Those tools are all excellent at getting work done.

What's the alternative?

Have an IT department take over. Have things that took five minutes to change previously now take weeks of writing requirements plus waiting for implementation only to be told after a year that your request has been descoped. Now you have a “professional” Solution but also some spreadsheets because you actually have a job to do and need these changes and Excel is the only way to do it quickly.

I once had a temp job where I would take data printed out from a mainframe, and type it into a PC. I asked "Why not download it?" It turned out it was easier to hire someone to type than to get any useful cooperation out of IT.

Obviously a JSON/XML blockchain written in Go and optimized for Android 10.0.

( /s )

Not enough Microservices, Big Data, AR, and Machine Learning

(I am worried we just described 3 half billion dollar startups)

Nah, it needs to be in Kotlin, remember Android is #KotlinFirst, #KotlinEverywhere now.

It also needs to be rewritten with Flutter after a while.

Nah do it in Rust.

Exactly. Why break something that works? Because it's not "new?" Because it wasn't sold to you by a consulting company? Because it wasn't advertised in a jetway at the airport?

Because these systems often end up as a single point of failure -- whoever is the custodian of them is the gatekeeper to the information, and when they leave, you can be boned.

That's not a technology problem, that's an organizational problem.

Pay €500 million and wait 7 years for SAP?

This reminds me of a nice side note from one of the thinnest, yet more expensive books I had to buy in uni. It was a book on ERP or something obviously & in one of the side note they mentioned that most ERP implementations cost between 50 and 500 million and were mostly obsolete by the time the implementation was complete...

machine learning, AI, blockchain, server less and web assembly

Maybe it's a good thing that "AI" is used so much so that the hype will die down.

A weird consequence of "AI" is that it causes companies to look at their data at all. 80% of the time they could answer the question by doing a regression, and they hadn't even done that. You can even do a regression in Excel...

A google docs spreadsheet, duh

Putting aside whether or not this is actually a problem: The survey is only N=50, not N=10000, in spite of the article's emphasis on the second number. Large firms are unlikely to use different techniques for managing different contracts.

This is a white paper report from a legal AI company, not an academic study, so some selection bias is to be expected.

What's wrong with using these products? This "study" doesn't appear to make a distinction between using the products exclusively and using them in conjunction with other products.

I'm betting every one of these large companies ALSO use specific contract management software tools in addition to Excel Sharepoint and email.

I'm actually surprise MORE companies don't use this combination since almost every large company makes use of MSFT office suite products.

I'm skeptical of any company trying to position itself as some sort of replacement for products that have been used for decades.

I've drunk that Kool-Aid before and it never works out the way it's intended, companies always fall back on some class Office suite products.

The sad truth is that you'll probably end up using Excel, Sharepoint, and email in addition to whatever contract management solution you go with.

You can see the perspective of the authors of this article by the "Leaders" and "Laggards" lists at the bottom.

E.g., the top "Leader" point is: "Will adopt AI-based contract risk mitigation technology in the next 12 months."

I mean, who am I to tell "GC"s not to have some fun and fluff up their resumes at the same time? But if you want to improve your capabilities to manage contracts, buying AI solutions is not exactly a straight line to success.

My instinct says that their data structure is also a nightmare.


Only 62%?

Only 62% admitted to use Excel in a survey.

GC = General Council, surveyed across 50 large corporate legal departments

> GC = General Council

No, General Counsel (Council is a group of people who make decisions, Counsel is an advisor, especially, as in this context, a lawyer/legal advisor, or their advice; “counsellor” is also used for a lawyer or advisor.)

Thanks for that. Law firms have a document management system. You will no longer work there if you don’t use it. Companies use email and SharePoint primarily, maybe OpenText. There are specialized contract management system available but not everyone in the company will use or have access to them. Hence SharePoint is a good default.

General Counsel

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