Internal legal technology innovation – Part 1: Are you listening to your lawyers?

You don't need to be at the cutting edge to benefit from legal technology. Lawyer bugbears are a dime-a-dozen. Yet why do the simplest solutions to these problems go unimplemented?

Here are complaints I’ve heard before and my ‘innovative’ solutions:

The simplest of solutions

1.      Do your lawyers spend unrecoverable time proofing documents to meet firm style requirements (like finding and inserting a second space after a full stop)?

You could develop custom software for this. But for many internal style rules you won’t need to. Many advanced proofing options exist in Microsoft Word that are turned off by default. Your proofing settings can be changed to check for that second space after a full stop and also for passive language, split infinitives and unclosed quotation marks. To turn this on, in Word 2016, open any document and follow this process:

File (top left corner) > Options (on the blue sidebar on the left) > “Proofing” (on the left sidebar) > Click the “Settings…” box in the row “When correcting spelling and grammar” next to the text “Writing style” and “Grammar”. Scroll down and select whichever settings appeal to you, such as the “Oxford Comma”, “Punctuation Required with Quotes” and “Space Between Sentences” options.

2.      Do your junior lawyers waste time sending capacity emails?

Junior lawyer capacity and utilisation to non-partner lawyers is largely invisible. Hence the need for junior lawyers to email colleagues looking for work. These emails can be automated, likely using the same process your timekeeping software which is already generating automated matter status reports.

3.      Are you manually entering address and contact information for each letter you send?

Client codes and matter numbers already serve to prefill fields in documents at many firms. Yet addressee information usually doesn’t prefill – largely because that information has never been properly collected. It’s never too late to start.

Mundane tasks like these can all be automated with minimal expense. In many firms these issues are all unresolved too – together with hundreds of other similarly mundane problems lawyers put up with on a daily basis.

Getting the right person to listen is key. Lawyers complaining about these issues to other lawyers doesn’t achieve much. However, a word processor, practice manager and solutions architect could give you an instant answer to questions one, two and three respectively. And these are resources large firms will already have on staff.

A stitch in time saves nine

These aren’t big time wasters. Maybe a unit per day. But that adds up over the course of a working year to about 250 units – 25 billable hours – being wasted. And that’s per lawyer per year. However, firms routinely ignore these untapped opportunities to prevent potentially billable time being wasted.

These issues certainly won’t be front of mind for all lawyers. Especially for the technologically challenged ones. But there’s a clear business case for action that any lawyer can get behind. To finish with the idioms, firms should never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Yet these issues persist. Are the right people listening? Are the right questions being asked? Almost certainly not. The siloed nature of some firms can result in these issues being perceived as something trivial. And many can’t see beyond the opportunity cost of fee earner time spent discussing, developing and implementing solutions to fix seemingly trivial issues.

Questions you should be asking

Fortunately, things are beginning to change. That’s why there’s so much fanfare about legal research being automated and fancy document collaboration platforms for lawyers. However, there’s still significant opportunity to resolve even the simplest of issues in the legal sector. Here are our suggestions of questions to ask internally:

1.      What happens when a member of your team suggests how internal processes could be improved?

a.      Is the person with the suggestion able to take ownership of the issue and seek out a solution?

b.      If not:

i.     Is any action taken after its discussed?

ii.     Who has ownership of the issue?

iii.     What follow up actions, if any, are taken to ensure a solution is being worked towards?

2.      Does your firm actively listen and solicit suggestions from all staff? Could a particular person be designated, or process created, to collect and action this feedback?

3.      When was the last time you looked at internal processes?

a.      Are lawyers delegating efficiently to secretarial and support staff?

i.     Do questions about filing, searches, expenses, timesheets and calendar management take longer to resolve than if a fee earner actioned these issues themselves? (After bothering to learn the internal procedures of course).

ii.     Have you considered implementing software solutions to automate some of these processes? (See our article Stop Scheduling Meetings Yourself! for an illustration).

b.      How efficiently can your lawyers access precedents, especially ones based upon historical advices or transaction documents?

c.      Do fee earning staff follow the same time recording conventions (especially when recording the same event) or do differences need to be resolved at billing?

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