The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating effect on businesses across the planet.
The much-vaunted ‘new normal’ has seen workplaces react, adapt and adopt new ways of conducting their business, be that via home working, cloud storage or utilising the many bespoke software systems on the market.
And a perception still exists that the legal industry is way behind in its digitisation.
It’s easy to see why. In its guide to the merits of technological advances, ‘Introduction to LawTech’, the UK Law Society noted as recently as 2019 just how slowly the sector has been in adopting new technology, despite the significant rise in the number of LawTech providers over the last five years.
Legal sector benefits
It’s clear that the legal industry is one that will benefit greatly from the digitisation of workplaces. Digitisation has created new opportunities and practice areas for law firms to tackle.
But, in addition to a new need for regulation and legal advice in cases of data protection, privacy, digital ethics and cybersecurity breaches, there is an improved ability for lawyers to service their clients on a more agile basis, free from the need for long, drawn-out administrative processes.
The legal landscape is changing forever.
And legal professionals concerned that their jobs will be taken by artificial intelligence (AI) bots need not lose any sleep. The role of a lawyer requires so much human judgement that it’s nigh-on impossible to see that happening with AI any time soon. The necessary senses of intuition and empathy are purely embedded in those of us with blood and organs, so there’s no need to panic on that front.
With fears eased, our path to ending the pandemic restrictions may have been delayed but perhaps it’s an appropriate time to examine what effect COVID-19 has had on our way of working.
It’s an opportunity for law firms to re-evaluate their operations.
Let’s be frank about this – there was always a need to advance from the methods that were tried-and-tested but are now demonstrably outdated. Those labour-intensive, manual paper-based workflows were bound to be consigned to the past at some stage. The disruption caused by COVID has simply accelerated that.
It may be viewed with suspicion by some senior members of the sector but, without radical automation, integration and digitisation, law firms will be at a serious disadvantage in today’s digital world.
Workers at numerous firms are thought to have returned to the office during the lockdown because, without the cloud-based tech widely used by other professions, that was the only way they could function.
But business models have been transformed. So have the expectations of customers and clients.
The pandemic has seen businesses of all sizes find novel and innovative ways to work efficiently and it’s only reasonable that they would expect their lawyers to do the same.
Digital working has never been as vital as it is today, and inevitably that requires acceptance from the legal sector as a whole that, at the very least, client details are predominantly electronic.
The confidential data used by law firms must therefore be stored safely and securely while remaining readily accessible. Electronic storage is the only way to do that and eliminate the high risk associated with legal workers’ age-old medium – paper. The normal for data now is that it is born digitally and continues to exist solely in digital form, with little need to print hard copies any more.
A study commissioned by a leading print management software provider showed that law firms printed significantly more paper pages per user per day than any other industry – including healthcare, finance and government.
The sector is – inevitably, and not before time – moving away from the stereotypical law office, though not as swiftly as many would have liked. The bulky, ribbon-bound paper bundles are old-fashioned, and they are giving way to digital documents, correspondence and storage.
Senior partners are now expected to set aside their familiar old methods in favour of document management systems for contracts, deeds and countless other legal forms.
They can now be issued, negotiated, edited, finalised and signed digitally, with all amendments trackable and easy to identify at the click of a button.
There really is no excuse not to embrace the technology available. Fail to do so and you risk being left behind.
How do we modernise?
So, the path to digitising your law firm focuses on three aspects.
Firstly, automation is no longer the domain of the most mundane, routine tasks. The advancements mean more complex processes such as client onboarding can be tackled by AI and that a process’s many manual steps can be taken out of the game.
Due diligence, money-laundering and conflict-of-interest checks can all be tackled by the technology available here and now.
Secondly, integration of systems is also key. While law firms do have a degree of LawTech, precious few will have fully-integrated systems that tackle each of their disciplines.
The Law Society’s guide notes that: “Larger firms in particular rely on a range of disparate software from different vendors for specific tasks, such as practice and case management, research, business development, CRM, billing, and many others.”
Having systems that co-exist and complement each other is fine; having them work in conjunction is key to having a law firm for the future.
Finally, digitisation means companies can introduce straight-through processing, something all firms, regardless of their sector, should aspire to.
Highly-regulated industries such as law have not quite reached the stage at which end-to-end processing can be done digitally. Our old friend paper is clinging on for dear life but the death knell is approaching.
So, it’s clear that integrated, automated digital systems can improve operations and allow firms to adapt to changing markets and manage the caseloads expected to arise from the COVID pandemic.
Other sectors have seen businesses adopt digital solutions out of necessity, but their benefits mean they are almost certain to become permanent fixtures.
Businesses have adapted and adopted the latest technology. Now is the time for law firms to do the same.