In this article Andrew Simmans, IT and Project Management Consultant, draws on his 17 years’ experience working on legal technology projects to share how law firms can achieve the best return on their IT investments. In the last few years Andrew has worked on several projects with Peppermint users, including asb law who’s successful implementation made recent news.
What returns/benefits should a law firm expect from employing modern technology?
In the short term, firms should be seeing reduced operational costs as they require less administrative staff and Fee Earners and Partners are able to quickly and effectively “self-serve”. However, I have seen some resistance to this and it is often the younger or more computer savvy Fee Earners and Partners that lead the way. It is therefore important to design solutions to look to how people will work in the future, not how they have worked in the past.
In the longer term, we are looking at survival - it will only be those firms that adapt to the use of modern technology that will endure. Taking an outward looking perspective and providing new collaborative technology with greater visibility and more self-service facilities to clients, will differentiate your law firm from others who are not doing this. However, firms must understand their client base and test and then deliver what those clients require – there is no “magic wand”.
It is worth saying that for firms to achieve these returns and benefits, they need to make an on-going investment into these areas. As in other industries, there is a need to innovate and test ideas both internally and externally and having Senior Management set a clear direction and then control how much resource is invested, ensures the effort is correctly targeted.
In what ways should law firms be looking to leverage technology to meet the challenges of today’s market?
There are a number of areas where the effective use of technology can deliver tangible results in law firms, such as:
- Improving internal processes to reduce administrative effort whilst improving control of areas like risk management where technology can help manage and flag up exceptions.
- Providing Fee Earners and Department Heads with visibility of how they are performing against targets. This is an area that I think many law firms fail to capitalise on – the performance of Fee Earners can be significantly improved if they are given clear targets and straightforward ways of seeing on a daily or weekly basis how they are performing against those targets.
- Improve collaboration through the use of secure extranets and client specific reports to provide visibility to clients. This has several benefits – as well as helping to retain the client who perceive a better service, it also reduces “written off” time as the client has better visibility of what is going on.
- Better Marketing, with greater focus on clients’ interests and requirements. Also providing self-service facilities to control their own marketing preferences (increasingly important due to the forthcoming GDPR regulations).
- Integration with the law firm’s main web site to handle enquiries and quotes and enable self-service.
- Improve the processes around Client Relationship Management. E.g. Fully automated Client Satisfaction Surveys for lower value matters and, for high value clients, using the technology to schedule, remind and track Client Relationship / Business Development tasks and record and track actions arising.
- 7. The “paperless” office (groan – yes, I know it’s been around for years). Today many people need things printed on paper to effectively review and comment – however as we see a generation coming through that are used to working on electronic devices this will become less of an issue. I am now seeing firms successfully move away from paper files – removing the cost and administrative hassle of keeping paper files when the matter is closed.
How can law firms minimise the risk of change projects failing?
Projects of any size are inherently risky: people miscommunicate, they do not understand how the new system works, even if they do understand they do not know how to best use it until they start actually using it! Management also need to understand what this all means and thus it is difficult to know what is the right decision.
To minimise these risks, projects need to be well organised and staff need to be given the time and space to understand the new system. This may need to involve prototyping of ideas, it definitely needs to involve testing and, if possible, piloting before being deployed to the whole firm.
The area of staff communication and support needs to be addressed. Simply sending everyone on a training course is normally NOT sufficient, they need an element of on-going support back at their desk and people to ask questions of, if they are unsure.
These things do not need to involve expensive external resource. By having a properly structured project where ‘super users’ get involved at the early stage and thus are fully expert before the system goes live is one way to make sure the system goes live with minimum disruption.
Even then this is not the end of the job, once the system has been live there is a need to go back, check if people are doing what they should, pick up issues arising and address them either through additional support / training or by adjusting the system.
The one thing I can guarantee on a project is that everything will not be perfect, so do not plan for perfection, instead have a plan which allows for and traps mistakes, makes corrections and generally handles (as best we can) things that go wrong.
What have you found are the most common reasons that law firms do not realise the full potential of their technology solutions?
I often find firms think “Phew! I have implemented the new system so that is the end of the job!”. However, normally whilst the system as implemented may be ‘fit for purpose’, it is far from being the best that it can be – this is because it is only as people use it that they truly understand its potential.
In my experience, it takes around 6 months before everyone really understands how the new technology works. And only then (if encouraged) can they come up with ideas as to how things can be done better. In my experience, the law firms that are getting the real value out of technology are those that put in place a process to capture these new ideas – from small details at the ‘coal face’, through to bigger more strategic ideas. These contributions then need to be ‘packaged up’ up as a series of mini projects to develop and move the system forward.
Particularly with systems like Peppermint, that are easily customised and extended, it never ceases to amaze me how often users are struggling with something when a few hours work delivers a quick and simple solution which benefits lots of people.
What do you envisage will be the next game changing technology to impact law firms?
Two areas I would highlight:
- Artificial Intelligence together with the more sophisticated search algorithms is going to change things. We are already seeing some ‘automated’ legal assistants that can spot anomalies in contracts, etc. I this will grow further – perhaps automated legal advice as we see with some Will writing services these days, that only bring in a ‘real lawyer’ if there is something complicated. How soon will it be before we see something like this for residential conveyancing or other volume areas?
- Cloud and collaboration – with Office 365 and similar services, it is now becoming easy for even very small organisations to share and collaborate with suppliers and clients. I think this is going to impact law firms as clients demand ways of collaborating together and sharing information. One interesting example is that Microsoft now allows multiple people to simultaneously edit a word document (and see what someone else has just typed) – what could something like that mean? The use of screen sharing is already widely used and this will increase to deliver effective remote meetings that reduce the need to travel.
That said, no-one really knows what will be the next game changing technology to hit the legal market – what I do know though, is that the pace of change is getting faster all the time and it is those firms that can handle and respond to that change that will be the winners.