Like most other markets, the legal sector is undergoing painful change. Accepted traditions are being challenged head on, teams must now do more to demonstrate their value, and new operating models and working practices are placing additional demands on project management and reporting.
Those law firms and in-house legal teams that fail to adapt the way they work risk losing credibility with clients. They risk being less able to justify their time and charges, and they risk being inefficient - undermining profitability. They also stand to be seen as a less attractive place to work, affecting their ability to secure and hold on to talent – especially if they cannot support diverse remote teams, out-of-hours matter access and home working. If they remain out of sync, modern legal service providers will be only too happy to quickly bridge the gap.
In-house legal teams left in the dark
The call to modernise has not fallen on deaf ears, however. Legal teams that have invested in new digital capabilities report a significant positive impact on access to information, mobility, connectivity and staff work-life balance, according to new independent research conducted by winmark (Raising the bar: Digital technology and the enhancement of legal services – The Looking Glass Report 2016).
But there are very clear barriers preventing such progress. In the same survey more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of in-house legal respondents cited increasing team efficiency as a strategic priority - especially as uncertain market condition mean organisations are unlikely to increase internal teams any time soon. Yet many of these respondents, especially those in small in-house legal teams, feel that the available technology doe not meet their needs – i.e. investing in a full-on document management system that has been designed for an external law firm is overkill. Budget issues (cited by 64 per cent), difficulties integrating new capabilities with existing systems (59 per cent), and a lack of time to manage the transition (56 per cent), were seen significant barriers to making the digital leap.
But these teams need to do something now. In-house legal departments make-up the faster growing sub-sector of the legal market, one that is evolving quickly as these teams are called upon to demonstrate value and play more of a trusted advisor role to businesses. As things stand however, 40 per cent of these teams lack ready access to matter status, 37 per cent have no access to document templates, and 21 per cent are unable to easily generate tailored reports or look up interactions via the kind of dashboard now taken for granted in other business functions.
Then there is the growing need to support remote working. This is cited as a priority for three-quarters of legal practices. In-house legal work has become an appealing alternative for lawyers seeking more flexible working conditions – those with young families or the semi-retired, for example.
In private law firms too, remote working is important for maximising the use of fee-earners’ time and for being able to engage subject experts without concerns about location.
Rip & replace not necessary
We’ve experienced this ourselves, prompting us to invest in digital matter management – not necessarily by making radical changes, but by honing what we already do. For example we have introduced a more systematic way of managing and tracking matter-specific documents (those sent back and forth via email), and of monitoring service levels (SLAs).
Rather than buying a whole new system, we have enhanced our office and email system, adding additional facilities that allow teams to automatically store attached documents in the right place without having to take special, separate action. We have also added intuitive reporting tools, to capture the time recording and case management detail required by senior counsel and by clients.
It was not seen as a big jump and people have not had to change the way they work - but it has made a significant difference. We have moved to cloud as our main means of improving agility – remote matter access means we quickly assemble and coordinate teams, fielding the right experts without team members having to be in the same place. As a firm that goes back a long way, we have all the same legacy infrastructure and archive issues that other legal practices will be familiar with – which we can’t afford to jeopardise. But managing documents securely via the cloud untethers us, and gives us the speed, flexibility and agility we need. It is allowing us to modernise, affordably and efficiently without putting the status quo at risk.
The future for lawyers promises to be more interesting and varied as automation takes care of a lot of the drudgery. It will not be long before artificial intelligence (tools like Legal Robot or Beagle) are taking care of standard negotiations – for example as the basis for non-disclosure agreements and other simple contracts - using rules on what is and isn’t acceptable, and alerting lawyers only to any exceptions needing special attention.
This kind of development will free up professionals’ time for more valuable and satisfying work: to be that ‘trusted business advisor’ that companies want increasingly. In the survey, 56 per cent of in-house legal leaders cited increasing the team’s commerciality and business skills as a strategic priority (winmark also found that external service providers were failing in this role, the average performance scores for these firms ‘understanding the business’ dropped markedly between 2015 and 2016).
If the legal sector is going to innovate and embrace a different future, it first needs to be able to clear some space to enable it to do this – starting by making some small but crucial changes for the better, by digitising matter management using the cloud and familiar everyday office tools.
Not everything needs to be disruptive.
Graham Richardson, head of Eversheds Sutherland Consulting
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