The Law Firm Technology Landscape Post-lockdown: Part One

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By Chris Bull | Jul 15, 2020

Take a step back and assess the transforming role of technology in your firm with Edge International and our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting.

IT has borne a substantial part of the burden of getting law firms through the constant and rapid sequence of challenges faced since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Along the way, impressive feats of reinvention have taken place in how (and where, and when) law firms work. Most participants in and observers of these changes, and certainly the team at Edge International, believe much of this reinvention is here to stay. The legal industry has had a catalytic shock to its system which has generated the amount of change we might normally expect to take years.

Because that explosion of activity, with technology at its core, has been so rapid, responsive and – at least initially – short-term focused, there has been little time to step back and examine where we now are, or to map out what should happen next. Such a fast-track sequence of big decisions and actions inevitably leave gaps, unresolved issues, training and communication shortfalls, and risks.

Now is the time, we believe, when all firms must begin to review where they have landed on the technology roadmap and what to do next to secure and the positive outcomes and deal with those open risks and issues.

Edge International Principal Chris Bull consults with legal businesses in the space between strategy, transformational change, and operational efficiency. Deploying and leveraging technology is at the heart of this practice, leading to Chris co-founding The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice on legal industry IT, innovation, and LegalTech. Fellow founder Peter Owen leads Lights-On Consulting, one of the most experienced legal IT advisory firms in the market. Lights-On has just released an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and Chris have worked together to produce this condensed summary of some of the major points in their articles exclusively for our Edge audience. Links to the full Lights-On articles are provided at the end of this piece for readers who want to take a ‘deeper dive’ into this business-critical subject.

In this first of two parts, we look at the technology issues for management teams as they integrate the emerging new ways of working into their firms, at the same time as reopening offices and bringing all areas of the business back on stream. At the heart of those changes is a shift towards a hybrid, agile office and home worker model; whether as a medium-term measure or, for an increasing number of practices, a permanent one.  The underlying theme for all law firm leaders is the need to balance fast-tracked, short-term decisions and actions with an emphasis on medium-term recovery and resilience.

Technology and your people post-lockdown

The Covid-19 crisis and the disruption to lives and livelihoods that have followed have had a spectrum of affects upon individuals, including the people who make up every law firm. It will take a long time for employers to understand and then respond to all of those affects. Technology has had a crucial role to play in enabling people to keep working – and earning – through the crisis and will take a similarly heavy load in facilitating a return to the workplace, supporting a continuation of remote working or blend of remote and office locations (“bi-modal” operations). But intense use of technology has also created new issues and well-being concerns and addressing these will also need to be front-of-mind over the coming months and years.

A new operating model

To comply with social distancing, offices need to be sparsely populated initially and many firms throughout the world are planning for a sustained period where teams will be operating with a blend of office and home workers.  Many firms are planning for only 25% to 30% occupancy initially due to desk layout, circulation corridor and communal area issues. Alongside that, business continuity planning must contemplate a non-linear progression to the recovery and be prepared for further waves of lockdowns which may force a return to mandated home working.

Positive productivity benefits, potential real estate savings and the rapidly growing popularity of an agile working model are now beginning to feature prominently in firm’s medium to long term planning too. Even before lockdown has ended, we have already seen some firms of all sizes announce a permanent shift away from the office as a default location.

The hybrid agile, bi-modal model, enabling working across multiple locations and at any time, seems likely to emerge as the new standard for a majority of law firms. But making that highly unpredictable and constantly flexing approach to work successful in the long term is a different order of problem to the temporary burst of ‘best endeavours’ effort required to get the firm working from home at the start of lockdown. Even if that were the only priority your IT team had to support over the next year or so – which we will see it definitely is not – it would already represent a massive workload and change challenge.

Adapting your firm to the hybrid agile world

Ironically, health & safety compliance may have gone backwards in the short-term as firms dashed to ensure people could work from home, with very few home workstation assessments due to lockdown and an overwhelming volume of home workers to support. More prolonged home working in a more settled post-lockdown world will impose greater obligation to carry out regular audits and self-assessments that assure employee’s wellbeing. Check your capacity to handle this and tighten up your policies on equipment provision, as well as on compliant home working environments. Don’t forget that a bi-modal world will have impacts across a range of areas from insurance policies and electrical testing to expense policies (for items such as home utilities and telephony charges).

Consider home worker kits to prevent the need for transporting equipment to and from the office. This may only be affordable if firms turn to stocks of ‘second life’, pre-used equipment; which brings its own support issues. Consider a policy of retaining older equipment as spares or for home use.

It is critical to understand that working from home does not mean ‘resting’ and we can already see that home workers easily get burned out, “Teamed out” and “Zoomed out”! Many have gone the extra mile to deliver either internal or external service during a pressured time. You may have already recognised that, but it may be worth re-iterating your appreciation, as the return to office effort will also take its toll in terms of adapting to another set of physical and psychological changes. The main burden of communicating and managing this adaptation process falls on leadership, line managers and HR, but IT have a big role to play too and will often be on the ‘front line’ when it comes to dealing with the challenges people across the firm encounter.

IT support in the new world

Firm and IT leadership both now need to plan for extended hours of service and further waves of heightened IT demand. IT may be the first function needing to reverse furloughs and even considering additional staff in response to the new pressures they will face.

From an IT support perspective, lockdown has meant supporting multiple home working locations with different set-up, connectivity and risk factors. Homeworkers may be sharing parental and home-schooling care or responding to a range of other factors which have created very varied working patterns, including more evening and weekend working. As a result, firms are now also facing extended hours of demand on IT teams.  For IT support teams, it can feel like the job has changed from supporting one office 8am-6pm Monday-Friday to supporting 80 separate home offices 24×7.

IT teams have worked hard and fast to deliver home working but what will the next stage demands on the team be and how should leaders prepare? With a return to some form of office-based working your IT team will also be under pressure to resume some form of physical 2nd-line support; including physical visits required to re-install equipment that people have brought back into the office. We believe other issues, bringing both opportunity and risk to the firm, include:

  • Training – Can we use what has happened to transform how we train people? What doors to new digital training methods have been opened-up and what new approaches and technology will work? Certainly, with new applications and ways of working having been adopted very rapidly and at a distance, really embedding skills and consistency is now a priority. Many larger firms with centralised support models already utilise online conferencing tools to deliver training to their offices, but this approach is now ripe for adoption by smaller firms too.
  • Printing – It is sad to say that all wars advance technology and this war against a virus is doing the same. Widescale adoption of a range of digital tools and a more genuinely paperless way of working has been forced upon lawyers in 2020, including reviewing contracts on screen, e-signing and electronic workflows. If printer-less and paper-free working is possible, now does feel like the moment the legal world has to finally bite the bullet and severely restrict (or consider removing altogether – as we have heard of some firms doing whilst people are out of the office) local printing facilities in the office. Bold firms can benefit from such a change and not simply accept a return to the pre-crisis reflex tendency to print unnecessarily.
  • Conferencing Apps – whilst we might expect ‘peak Zoom’ to be behind us now (they have seen a 30-fold increase in users), the relative importance of virtual meeting and conferencing software in the legal IT mix has shifted forever. These tools are now set to be a critical component of client service, collaboration and the day-to-day reality of how teams work together. Internal IT knowledge and skills in this area, from 1st line service desk right up to strategic application management, needs to be ramped up, especially as the range of options extends and new functionality – such as automated translation and subtitling – promises to make a virtual meeting a more effective and sophisticated option to meeting face-to-face. The immediate post-lockdown period will put your IT services under an extended period of pressure yet again, with an even more complex range of demands than they faced during lockdown itself. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that law firm IT will never return to its pre-crisis shape, with a number of factors driving that permanent change:
  • High Tempo Expectation Management – your IT team has pulled out the stops under difficult circumstances and delivered in days or weeks all kinds of solutions that would normally take months. Has this now re-set expectations of IT going forward? That could be dangerous; IT may have been forced to cut corners to meet deadlines and now have to contend with delivering on the expectation of a high tempo forged during a crisis, whilst bringing back the governance standards partly foregone.
  • Super-user support – the normal support regime where the 1st port of call for basic IT advice is the “secretary next door” has been disrupted by social distancing and remote working. Consider granting those super-users the same sort of screen takeover tools that the service desk has (with appropriate security rights and training). In-team lawyer support can continue while stretched-IT resources can be reserved for the most technically difficult tasks.
  • Hot Desking – for now, flexible sharing of desks is against most governments’ recommendations and so the vanguard of firms which had implemented hot desking to maximise floor plate flexibility are having to reconfigure layouts, processes and technology to ensure that desks are only used by one individual. For those many firms looking to reduce their real estate footprint over the next year or so, this will restrict that opportunity for a period until government advice and individual confidence consider hot desking safe again.
  • Safe ‘at-desk’ support – difficulties are likely to result from hands-on IT work, where it is tough for IT support and the user to stay the 1 to 2 metres distance apart. Remote access and support will need to take more of the strain. All-in-all, it is probably unrealistic to expect physical 2nd line support to return to its pre-crisis format or extent, maybe ever. In a hybrid agile model, IT support is going to be principally remote and digital, providing a consistent offer to workers wherever they are sat on the day.
  • Incidents versus Service Requests – the service team may have spent the last 3 months focussed solely on fixing incidents. As the firm adjusts to post-lockdown working, it is important to use the data from the firm’s Service Desk to ensure IT resources are delivering the biggest bang for their buck – get IT back on the front-foot tackling the most important service requests and improvement projects, not continuing to just react to issues.  

Easy to overlook essentials

As offices are, even if only partially, reopened, IT teams and management have a host of tasks, large and small, to schedule and complete. Some might be easy to overlook but are, in fact, critical to get right. Here is our ‘don’t say we didn’t tell you’ list for firms to be certain they don’t overlook:

  • Re-start testing – during lockdown, with so many people working at home, there will be office equipment that has not been utilised in some time. A physical audit and test is recommended before the doors to offices are flung open again.
  • Check your supplier agreements – do your service level agreements cover support to your business if your people are working remotely or in a bi-modal set-up rather than all office-based? With remote support likely to be required for an extended period now, re-examination of commercial terms may be required. Conversely, if you are now expecting suppliers to come back and work on-site, what provisions do you and they have to put in place to ensure safety and mutual compliance with respective Covid-19 related policies?
  • Internet – examine your internet service contracts and bills and assess whether your set-up is optimal for supporting the volume of people now coming in and going out via the internet line.
  • Hack Amnesty – tech savvy lawyers will have found very innovative ways of collaborating, sharing and working remotely offline in recent months. They may have even tried the odd YouTube hack here and there to work around governance that makes remote life difficult. Face up to these grey areas head-on; you should survey your end users (and your IT staff) confidentially to find out what was good, what got in the way of working and whether they found work arounds or “hacks” to the system that you might want to adopt and share more widely.
  • The Environmental opportunity – a comment made many times in mainstream press coverage of the crisis is that some of the most important priorities which were dominating thinking and gaining momentum pre-Covid have been side-lined and are at risk of stalling. Within your own sphere of influence don’t let that be the case in terms of reducing your firm’s own carbon footprint; there are multiple ways in which technology (albeit also a primary driver of energy consumption) can help push your environmental performance to the next level, including reducing paper and energy consumption.

Thinking one step ahead: what comes after ‘what’s next’?

Over the time span of the Covid-19 crisis so far, IT capabilities have been fundamental in achieving a swift transition to remote working and maintaining client service and team working in uniquely difficult circumstances. That task, though undoubtably challenging, was unambiguous. The next phase is much less clear-cut, as lockdowns around the world ease at different paces and myriad variations on a hybrid model take hold. This feels a bit like the family vacation; the return journey may feel longer and less rewarding than the sudden adrenalin rush of the start of lockdown and those making the journey back are now tired, bored and no longer in the best of spirits.

We have tried here to provide some practical insight into how to handle the technology component of this tricky period. But we have also drawn attention to how the crisis has seeded what we believe will be permanent and significant changes to the way law firms operate.

Firstly, the emergence of a hybrid/agile operating model, with previous resistance increasingly replaced by strong support from clients and employees alike.

Secondly, the acceleration of digitisation across the firm. Your lawyers and support staff will have got used – to varying degrees of success – to getting work done both remotely and digitally. Allowing a reflex return to more conventional ways of working in your firm, even for just a few more months, risks undermining your ability to compete over the next few years. Firms reluctant to fully embrace digital working and who ramp back up their use of paper and retreat from the intensely agile model of the last few months might quickly find themselves literally years behind direct competitors in terms of efficiency, agility, client service excellence, appeal to new talent, value-for-money and, ultimately, profitability.

Those emerging trends are not without serious risks and challenges, but they also offer law firms enormous opportunity to reinvent the way they work and present themselves in a new light to existing and prospective clients and professionals. Coming soon, in the 2nd and final part of this short series, we will turn our attention to the specific digital innovations and trends we think will dominate the legal landscape over the next few years, as the implications of the crisis for the sector play out.

 

Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:

https://www.lights-on.com/news/return-to-the-office-law-firm-people-and-workplaces

https://www.lights-on.com/news/return-to-the-office-law-firm-it-service

 

This article was written by:

Chris Bull is an Edge International Principal and strategy, operations and change consultant who has established himself as one of the leading advisors to legal businesses in the dynamic and innovative UK market, as well as working in the US and internationally. He has built a reputation as a legal market pioneer and innovator, having worked for all four of the Big Four accounting/consulting firms, been one of the first partner-level chief operating officers at a law firm and overseen some of the largest global legal process outsourcing deals at ALSP Integreon. Chris is one of the three founding Directors of The Intuity Alliance. Europe: chris@edge-international.com

Peter Owen, our guest author, is the Founding Director of Lights-On Consulting with over 30 years’ experience in IT. In addition to leading the Lights-On team, Peter provides high-level consultancy around future technology aspirations to many legal and professional services firms. As part of this, he regularly mentors legal IT Directors and CIOs. Peter is a founding Director of LITIG, a non-profit organisation designed to support senior professionals involved in all aspects of the implementation, use and support of Legal IT, a long-standing member of judging panels for Legal Tech awards and one of three founding members of The Intuity Alliance. Before setting up Lights-On in 2005, Peter was the Global IT Director for Eversheds for 10 years and held management and operational positions in DuPont in the energy and pharmaceuticals sectors. peter.owen@lights-on.com

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Stephen Brown for his great contributions to this piece.