It is imperative now for law firms to confront and engage with the permanently changed technology environment we will operate within in the post-COVID world. Planning and action need to start today, with opportunities to be seized and risks to be mitigated. Part two of our three-part technology-focused series, co-authored with our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting, focuses on this critical business agenda and asks all law firm leaders to make it a priority for their firm.
Edge International author and 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 and Chris is one of the three co-founders of The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice 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 have produced an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and our friends at Lights-On have worked with Chris to summarise in these EIC articles the biggest changes firms will face in the post-COVID world and recommend how firm leadership should be planning and acting to address the opportunities and challenges.
The post-COVID law firm technology universe is emerging more clearly: now is the time to plan and act
As restrictions are lifted and economies reopen, many factors come into play and affect firms that are emerging from a ‘state of emergency’ remote working model. There is a lot of talk about lessons learned – but have you actually identified and documented them? And plenty of new opportunities for better working practices and technological improvements mentioned – but have you worked out how to capitalise and embed them for the longer term? Meantime, alongside this big picture stuff sits a long list of IT “tidy up” tasks that have built up over the months blindsided by the need to support remote operations.
The big opportunity is digital transformation
Just as any business continuity event presents an opportunity to identify and then address areas previously overlooked or under-resourced, so will the pandemic. In the previous first part of this short series we focused some attention on acceleration of the move towards truly digital, ‘paperlite’ law firms. That opportunity is, if anything, coming into sharper relief as the COVID-impacted period extends and as organisations initiate some partial return to offices. Challenges are emerging and those practice areas which have only just managed in the remote working lockdown are becoming more visible. That final push towards true digital transformation may begin, once again, to seem tantalisingly just out of reach for even tech-smart firms. Our view is that would be a mis-reading of the position and the opportunity; if ever there was a time to seize the day and switch to an emphatically digital road map, this is it.
There remains some residual reluctance around the legal world to accept the necessity to drive out paper and embrace digital working, although that has become less common and more muted since COVID struck. We don’t have the space to embark upon a full dissection of the pros and cons in this short piece but at the big picture level, firm leaders need to ask themselves why they would not prioritise a change that will make their operations:
- More compliant
- More responsive to changing client expectations
- More agile & flexible
- Less demanding of real estate and administrative support.
Some key components need to come together to move your firm up through the gears to speed up and secure your migration to a digital model. Progressing each of these in tandem is not an easy job; shifting to a digital model is not just ‘going to happen’, even with the big nudge we have just had. This is not the remit of IT alone either; it will take backing from the Board, Senior Management Team and owners of the business to achieve, together with a whole package of technology to match the ease, flexibility and portability of paper.
This isn’t an exhaustive list but those key components that need to be aligned to realise your digital transformation opportunity will include:
- Digital signatures – deployed internally and externally with clients wherever they can be
- Collaborative, accessible document management application
- Document and Task automation, and data integration between applications
- Electronic client communications and interface as the default, with clients incentivised to use digital channels to communicate with you
- Scanning and digital distribution of the residual inbound post that is still received (possibly centralised or outsourced)
- Digital Matter File as the default store of record for compliance and finance purposes
- Seamless internal communications and collaboration tools connecting offices, homes, mobile workers
- Entirely digital internal finance and administrative processes
- Personal IT equipment that maximises effectiveness of digital working – including laptops, mobile devices, dual / larger screens, mobile device(s), headsets, cameras
- Digital working and personal effectiveness skills and support
You need a post-lockdown tech clear-up: it’s not sexy but it is clever
Amnesty – many firms may find that tech-savvy lawyers have found their own innovative ways of collaborating and sharing with other parties and working remotely offline. They may have even tried out the odd hack here and there, courtesy of the internet, to work around some of the governance that makes life difficult when remote. How do you discover and assess these changes or new systems and applications hiding in the shadows? What do you do about them once you have found them? What compromises have been legitimately made to get people working and what needs to be done to close the gaps? We have seen law firms giving temporary local administrator rights on laptops under the pressure of having to deliver and these loopholes will have to be closed. One option is an amnesty to IT as well as to end users to uncover what needs fixing, securing or adopting.
Security compliance – we are aware that some security questionnaires issued by law firm clients since lockdown now include questions specifically relating to the relaxation of access controls, policies and data management during the crisis. Are you confident that your current data security posture and threat landscape are appropriate for your business and existing customer contractual commitments?
Those ‘business as usual’ issues from March haven’t gone away – software company declarations made well in advance of COVID-19 still stand and some software, including a number of legal PMS applications, remains end of life or is heading there quickly. Microsoft has not extended all of its end of support dates either. Amongst the exciting new tech enablement projects and post-COVID enhancements, there is the reality that end of life practice management systems and other backlogged maintenance activity still need attending to. All of this awaits the CIO and their team as the firm returns to some semblance of normality and leadership needs to genuinely understand the expanded workload and revisit prioritization and resourcing.
Data sprawl – key records of decisions, advice and matter related information may now reside in a variety of sources – WhatsApp, Zoom, LinkedIn messenger, SMS, Dropbox, Box etc. It is expected that policies and procedures will have been put in place by your firm to manage this but, if not, then your firm should consider how to reconstruct the single electronic file in a clean-up that is as much a Risk & Compliance as an IT essential.
The equipment dilemma – now you are supporting two (or more) high-performance working environments
We realise that not every firm is expecting to emerge from this period with a permanent hybrid / agile working model. But most mid and large firms we work with certainly are, as we explored in part one of this series. That will mean a workforce operating flexibly – and often unpredictably – between office, home and mobile locations. The comment du jour we hear right now, especially from senior lawyers, is “I think 2, maybe 3, days a week working at home would be perfect for me”. Well, that means that a lot of your busiest people are looking to split their time pretty much equally between office and home. That demands that they can work really well, and connect seamlessly with colleagues and clients, from both locations.
Equipment – If your staff took equipment home at the start of lockdown, procedures for either replacement (to have home and office working possible without further equipment moves) or recovery of the equipment back to the office will be required. Some firms that have deep enough pockets are taking the decision to duplicate equipment and maintain a full home working set-up in addition to standard office set-up to accommodate home workers and further waves of lockdown or future pandemics. Each firm will need to gauge their attitude and financial capacity to take this route.
Many firms will manage the shift in part by allowing some more extensive use of personal devices in the home and mobile settings. Is your patching and mobile device management system capable of supporting this potential surge in ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD)’ and mobile device deployment? Firms need to check now. For firms that have not already invested, there may be a business case now for mobile device management (‘MDM’) systems and tools to monitor performance, security and patching for mobiles (and all devices).
Desktop or Laptop? ‘Thin’ or ‘fat’ client? – when returning to work at least part of the time back in the office, your people need a user experience that is as consistent as possible, without difficult and confusing differences in how to operate their tech equipment and use applications when they change location. There can be some big gaps between the in-office, desktop experience and laptop, which can generate inefficiencies and errors (and sometimes requiring the firm to supply and maintain two different devices). It may be time to evaluate the business case for laptops firmwide for all staff rather than just fee-earners (which is often the default approach) and this may call a halt to any still planned desktop roll-out strategy.
Conclusion: The Agile Law Firm
We have taken technology as our start-point for these articles co-authored with Lights-On Consulting on the post-COVID law firm but as we followed the implications of this most unusual of years, we have presented an inventory of changes to the elemental law firm business model.
We now expect to see permanent and lasting change in how and where (and, almost certainly, when) lawyers work as a result of the events of 2020. An unexpected shock to the system has, finally, triggered the era of the Agile Law Firm. Many in the legal world will have ambivalent feelings about these changes, which tend towards the much-faster evolution of a digital, remote, fast-moving and constantly changing environment. Some will feel more unambiguously negative; there are, indeed, many difficult and probably painful consequences of this acceleration and we will take a closer look at these serious challenges and downsides as they come into focus over coming months.
For now, we are now focusing a lot of our time, research and insight on how to plan and implement this emerging Agile Law Firm model and we welcome contributions, ideas and the opportunity to engage on agile strategies right across the legal marketplace. In our third and final part of the series we will look in more detail at how technology can help to transform many other aspects of law firm operations, starting with collaboration and communication.
Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:
Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Christiaan Frickel for his great contributions to this piece.