Automating Legal Workflow the ‘Right’ Way

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Posted: 24th February 2021 by
Simon Farthing
Last updated 16th July 2024
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Removing the human element of processes is key to strengthening a firm's productivity. Automation, however, is often implemented wrongly.

Simon Farthing, Commercial and Marketing Director at LexisNexis Enterprise Solutions, shows Lawyer Monthly how law firms can properly enhance their business using automation.

A recent survey of C-level executives and Heads of IT and Innovation shows that nearly 80% believe that of all their priorities, automation of business processes and workflows can deliver the greatest benefit to their firms. I wholeheartedly agree.

An opening word of caution: automation and workflow can have varied interpretations. For some they could be a set of simple linear steps for payment approval, for others a complex, multi-threaded legal process flow designed to drive hours out of a matter. So, a good starting point is answering these simple questions:

  1. What efficiency (with metrics) are you trying to gain?
  2. Who is going to define the process?
  3. Who is going to build the solution?
  4. What technology meets my ambitions?

Without such clarity, you may find yourself with the wrong solution, insufficient resource to achieve the ambition and a lack of significant ROI.

Starting your automation journey

Historically, legal process automation has been focused on taking transactional areas of work and using workflow to minimise human touchpoints. This has been as much due to work type specific cost pressures and restrictions as an exclusive technology fit. Now client expectations of greater efficiency, transparency and swifter turnaround have focused the spotlight on workflow even more.

Historically, legal process automation has been focused on taking transactional areas of work and using workflow to minimise human touchpoints.

Many technology providers will suggest you start your automation journey with something simple. A second word of caution: when selecting a target for automation, start with something difficult. Starting with a straightforward workflow in a lower volume department offers no guarantee of business efficiencies in more complex requirements later.

Automation tool that’s the right fit

A mistake when automating processes is to create legal workflows focusing on how the firm typically delivers service – rather than building processes that reflect the way the clients demand that the firm works with them. This is important when selecting the type of workflow tool you need.

Clients are increasingly aware of what they want you from you. There might be common needs across clients such as for management information, targeted SLAs, charging expectations and collaboration objectives – but there will also be unique demands, which may be why they selected your firm in the first place. So, your options for approaching automation are:

  1. Out-of-the-box workflow to get up and running quickly, but you only deliver what everyone else does.
  2. Build the whole toolset from scratch. An attractive way to create the perfect solution, but the big drawback here is time to value – whilst you are building utopia, your clients have settled for the next best thing elsewhere.
  3. The Lego kit method. To illustrate, two individuals can use the same Palace of Versailles Lego kit to build models of the structure. The Lego kit provides all the pieces to do so whilst offering the individuals the flexibility to make their models unique. So, one person includes a coffee shop outside the Palace walls, while the other adds a helicopter pad on the roof. Both models are equally feasible with the identical kits. The same is true of some legal tech solutions.

Clients are increasingly aware of what they want you from you.

Practical approach to process automation

Understand the customer journey – end-to-end – to deliver the best outcomes in the most efficient manner. These outcomes must be more than legal process. For example, if you’re trying to help a client acquire a business, think about the things you need to consider. Say the answer is, “we need instant access to information”. When designing the workflow, you need to determine what’s the information that’s needed, how can it be made available at the point of need in the transaction and so on, right until you’re able to deliver the desired outcome to the client.

Ensure you have the right set of tools at your command so that you can customise those journeys for clients. A law firm wanted to expand its debt management portfolio, but realised that to win the business, they needed to be sharp and tight on costs. In preparation, they categorised the workflows involved in their customer journeys – common processes across all types of clients, and workflows that were unique for specific sub-categories of clients. Thereafter, what other adaptations would be required to win the new debt management portfolio? Within that portfolio, would there be further unique requirements of some of the clients? Finally, how could the current technology enable the firm to establish all these different types of workflows and yet glue the various components together to create a seamless work environment across the business?

In short, look for exceptions at every level and then use technology to build processes and workflows to reflect them. Come up to the highest denominator – i.e., what workflows can you reuse, what workflows do you need to build for a future platform that is suitable for the entire firm and finally, what is that 20% niche requirement that will make a substantial difference for the balance 80%?


The ‘data’ pitfall to avoid

Management information reporting is critical, but a common oversight is not to analyse and determine the data to report on when you’re building the processes. So, when reporting is required, lawyers end up stepping outside of their routine business processes to go to different systems to access the relevant reporting data. If you’re a litigation lawyer, having to record information around ‘reserve value’, key dates and changes in steps, it becomes a nuisance because this data isn’t part of your regular transaction process.

When creating workflows for automation, think about the elements that’ll require reporting on across the transaction journey. By doing so, data will be captured routinely as part of the natural workflow process. This is perhaps why often lawyers become disenfranchised by workflow – firms don’t take a client journey-led end-to-end approach.

What does ‘good’ look like?

Frequently, firms automate what they have already got – leaving them with an old process that has been digitised, not the ideal solution you desire. Remember that you are the master of the technology that your firm deploys – not the other way around. The technology must never take away your control. It must provide a flexible toolset that delivers real ROI on your ambitions.

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