Legal Solutions

Jeffrey Sharer
Attorney; cochair of Akerman
LLP's Data Law Practice

Transforming how companies
manage data-law risk and compliance

A childhood affinity for computers that began with coding a rudimentary database to organize his junior-high baseball card collection, combined with a passion for research and writing, led attorney Jeffrey Sharer to build a national practice in today's business-critical area of information law. The co-chair of Akerman's Data Law Practice describes how he found a creative way to join traditional legal services with nontraditional providers and leading-edge technology to help his firm's clients keep pace effectively and affordably with a rapidly evolving legal landscape. Here's Jeff's story about driving innovation with the fearless confidence that only comes from trusted answers.


Multijurisdictional legal inventories – such as the classic 50-state survey – are a bane for many corporate legal departments. To maintain effective compliance programs, clients need to know the rules of the road. The challenge lies in compiling and maintaining those rules in a form that is complete, current, actionable, and affordable. In this instance, the goal was to build and maintain a 50-state survey in a way that's both comprehensive and cost-effective; deliver that survey in a form that's immediately useful in clients' hands; and, as a result, strengthen our relationships with clients.

Seeing an opportunity

I started my career at a large law firm doing primarily accountants' liability litigation. In the early 2000s – as the digital deluge increasingly impacted the practice of law – I started building a technology-focused practice that grew to encompass e-discovery, information governance, data privacy and security, and legal innovation.

In March 2015, I joined Akerman LLP. Akerman had recently launched an R&D Council focused on client service innovation. Later that year, a client asked if we could build a "living database" of all U.S. data breach notification statutes. The client wanted a comprehensive 50-state survey that would be monitored and updated in real time as laws evolved. Any time it had a security incident, the research required to determine whether any notifications were required would be complete and current, saving valuable time.

We knew it would be expensive to build and maintain the necessary research under a traditional law firm structure, relying mostly on associates for research and billing based on hours spent. But we also knew that the traditional law firm structure wasn't the only option available to us. The result was a new kind of partnership – one between a law firm, an alternative legal service provider, and a technology solution – through which we've been able to automate legal advice for a broad range of scenarios based on an always-complete, always-current inventory of relevant laws and regulations.


We teamed with Thomson Reuters and Neota Logic, a software platform for building AI-enabled applications, to develop the Akerman Data Law Center. I knew that Thomson Reuters Legal Managed Services, formerly Pangea3 Legal Outsourcing, had for many years done large regulatory research projects for corporate clients. It just hadn't been given that opportunity proactively by a law firm, most of whom still regard legal research as quintessential "law firm work." But we had exactly what we needed to break that mold: A client need that couldn't be met effectively under the traditional model.

What we envisioned – and built – was an entirely new service model: A regularly curated legal inventory with a user interface through which clients could "self-serve" for legal advice on straightforward issues and be guided to counsel for more complex matters, all within a predictable, flat-fee subscription framework.

Better, faster, and more cost-effective service

The Akerman Data Law Center does with the rules for data breach notification essentially what TurboTax does with the Internal Revenue Code. In the U.S., each of 48 states has adopted its own statute outlining when notice is due to affected individuals, regulators, law enforcement, and credit reporting bureaus. Thomson Reuters researches and continually updates those statutes and related legal and regulatory requirements. Akerman supervises and curates that research and, using Neota Logic's technology, provides to clients a subscription-based web application – available 24/7/365 – that automates the interview, analysis, legal advice, and documentation for millions of potential data-breach fact patterns.

Partnering with Thomson Reuters made it possible to reduce research costs significantly without sacrificing quality. Coding that research into software makes it possible to deliver automated analysis and legal advice simultaneously to any number of clients, or for one client to run through any number of scenarios at no incremental cost. For clients, the benefits are tremendous. Still, most law firms have approached alternative legal service providers and automation as competitive threats to be fended off. At Akerman, we would rather embrace disruption, partner with leaders and innovators, and deliver better, faster, and more cost-effective results for our clients.

With the Akerman Data Law Center, our clients can directly and quickly determine whether they have notification obligations in the event of a data-security incident. In minutes, they can obtain fact-specific legal advice for any or all affected jurisdictions, with detailed reporting.

Of course, no software today can anticipate every possible set of facts that might arise, and some cases will require human judgment simply to determine what the facts are. For cases where complexity or nuance requires discussion, or the client simply has questions related to the application, the Akerman Data Law Center provides unlimited access to our data-law attorneys as part of the client's subscription.

Big potential for diverse areas

We've received great feedback on the applications we've built around data breach notification. But we're also seeing a lot of light bulbs turn on when our clients and prospective clients think about their own needs in other areas of legal and compliance. Could we take the same approach to compiling and maintaining a complex legal inventory, and build a similar set of automated advisors, for use cases in other practice areas? We're seeing that just about every company has some number of 50-state or global compliance challenges – in areas as diverse as banking and financial services, franchising, healthcare, and many more – and that many of those challenges would fit comfortably within the collaborative framework that's worked so well for the Akerman Data Law Center.

The right answer for our client

We've also received plenty of questions from other lawyers, including, "What about the billable hours you give up when Thomson Reuters performs research previously handled by associates, and when you automate legal advice that previously required case-by-case consultation and analysis from your attorneys?" In our experience, enabling clients to self-serve on routine, straightforward issues allows them to address a broader range of incidents, including some that wouldn't warrant the time and cost of bespoke analysis and advice, all in the same reliable, consistent manner. This leads to engagement with our lawyers in more meaningful ways.

The way we see it, if there's a solution that reduces cost without compromising quality, by definition, that makes it the right answer for our client.

The Akerman Data Law Center has received tremendous support from our firm. For me, the most exciting part of building new mousetraps such as the Data Law Center is showing our work to existing and prospective clients, because it's so completely different from what they're used to seeing from law firms. I'm like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Ultimately, we're delivering the same legal services and advice to solve our clients' problems, but we're doing it in ways that law firms never have done before. I love that.

Trusted answer

The Akerman Data Law Center combines what law firms do best – provide high-value analysis and legal advice – with what Thomson Reuters Legal Managed Services does best – execute a methodical, well-documented approach to research and regulatory change management with the right mix of professionals and business processes. By providing trusted answers around an ever-changing landscape of data law statutes, rules, and regulations, Thomson Reuters powers Akerman's solution and helps Akerman deliver the complete, current, actionable, and affordable legal advice that its clients need.

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