Beyond the silo: Where next for the legal sector?

With law firms seeking to boost profits and meet ever increasing client demands, there is a growing trend for legal IT departments to develop and implement greater efficiency gains.

From speaking with our clients and prospects the message is clear: Evolve now or become irrelevant.

But what are the potential solutions that law firms (and local authority legal teams) have started to consider in 2016?

Innovation is not the answer if it’s kept in a silo.

Before we begin, let’s take a minute to remember that the primary focus of innovation should be on the client. Practices are in the people business as it is the clients that pay the bills. Yet, in reality, too much is made of those technology solutions that do not improve a practice’s relationship with its clients. In their quest to differentiate themselves from their competitors, some practices have started to use any recently made innovation they can point a finger at as a useful enticement for customers to buy their services.

Our biggest problem with this kind of innovation is that we are constantly and inexorably searching for more technology advancement irrespective of its impact on client service. All this leaves us with is a series of expensive solutions that, all too often, have not been utilised across the entire organization. Rather, they are often only really used within specific silos or territories within the practice. This isn’t really a criticism of law firms though, as by the very nature of our hierarchical structure, it is easy to see why something, which is used well in Mergers &Acquisitions, never makes its way to the Clinical Negligence team on a different floor, in a different office, or even in a different country.

This is primarily because innovation is perceived as expensive, and for this reason there is often a reluctance to roll it out across the entire organization (or at least as many departments as one can). However, the real benefits of many technology solutions are attained where they are used as an ‘enterprise wide’ solution. However, this rollout approach is just not happening nearly fast enough in the practice sector. To ensure technology is used effectively across the enterprise, practices need to invoke more effective collaboration between their teams and offices. The problem is that if collaboration hasn’t already happened in other areas of practice management, you can see the difficulties of expecting it to happen at all with some innovative piece of technology.

It’s not as if innovation needs to be high tech or ground breaking. Often, too much practice time is spent searching for and assessing the latest technological breakthroughs. I don’t deny that if we suddenly find a way to utilize Oculus Rift to enhance electronic document bundling, then we are going to do it. However, the reality is that using newer technology in an innovative enterprise wide way and spreading the benefits broader and deeper, is a far more effective way of being truly innovative.

Put simply innovation doesn’t have to be a trailblazing high tech monster. It can be a delicate and simple process that benefits everyone in the practice and indeed beyond this, with the benefits extending to the clients themselves. It is no surprise that many of our clients are utilising existing products with enhanced functionality to deliver greater innovation.

The office is no longer important

From our report The Legal Landscape 2016, there is a growing trend to move to agile ways of working to enable them to work at client sites, work from remote locations at times to suit clients and also to optimise fee-earners’ downtime when travelling or out of the office.

From our research, many clients are not inclined to see their lawyer that often and remote accessibility is becoming far more important than a physical presence. This does bring its own questions, such as how can IT support the firm’s move to flexible working and how to minimise the risks associated with having employees in multiple locations.

In the last five years, having access to your emails has become the de facto standard rather than the exception. However, this is not enough anymore and we have noticed a trend in firms beginning to choose IT solutions which enable legal professionals to have access to both their case management system and also to other key applications whilst out of the office.

Clients are already receptive to new ideas providing that it benefits them and working remotely is just one way of delivering the service clients are looking for.

Increased digitisation and the growth of online services.

Firms will expect to see further improvements in processes and accessibility to case management files with more systems becoming electronic and digital in 2016. Once again client expectations will drive this efficiency as they demand access to services outside of regular working hours, be this for a case update, document review, or being able to work remotely themselves. This is the norm outside of the legal sector (even banks now have weekend opening times, online banking and mobile apps).

This is not just a solution for private practice, but local government legal teams too as the government’s £700m investment in the Autumn Statement in November will modernise the courts and justice system.

One example of this digitisation is the launch of Digital Courtrooms in the West London Family Court. Over 100 cases have now been heard, removing the need for paper based court bundles and saving significant amounts of money. The initiative has been very successful and further courts are now close to signing up to the scheme.

In private practice we have a marked rise in legal practices adopting solutions which enable them to interact with their clients online. For example being able to complete client instruction forms (or conveyancing property forms) digitally with the use of Adobe eSign services. Whilst there are financial savings to be had, utilising this approach makes it easier to compress the length of a matter, and ultimately reduce WIP.

Overall, the clients of law firms too are now using the internet and digital services more fully and on a daily basis, so many now expect the same level of interactivity form their legal advisors.

Legal IT delivers ROI

In the past, the IT department has been seen as the purchaser of services to help fix a problem. The purchase of a case management system was seen as a way to reduce the amount of manual typing being carried out, and to provide an easier way to time record and so on.

However, we have seen a trend that new ICT solutions must now bring benefits to the business as a whole which delivers a more streamlined and speedier process; but without reducing the quality of the service delivered. Put simply, the technology has to evolve with the demands of the client. Our report also highlights that IT Legal Teams are looking to drive ROI through leveraging integrations between both existing systems and new.

In short, the IT dept. is no longer just a purchasing department. Rather it is also now a key driver of change and innovation.

2016 could herald a marked departure in the status quo of IT. As firms begin to grasp the opportunities afforded to them by getting IT right and digitising processes, a new window may be opening to deliver greater efficiency, opportunity and profitability. This will push firms down the path of commoditised legal services, and closer to what clients are looking for.

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