THE LAW FIRM TECHNOLOGY LANDSCAPE POST-COVID: PART THREE

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By Chris Bull | Sep 3, 2020

In the space of just a few months in 2020 law firms, along with many other organisations, have adapted to a very different way of collaborating and communicating.  With their people scattered across a constellation of remote working locations and with a vacuum created by the impossibility of in-person meetings, new ways of engaging have emerged and become commonplace.   Video has emerged from its relatively minor role pre-COVID to become a critical application.  In this third and final part of our technology focused series, co-authored with our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting,  we take this dramatic shift in the way lawyers collaborate and communicate as our start-point for a look at the many areas of law firm operations which could be transformed by the response to COVID.

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.

How law firms work has changed forever in areas well beyond agile and remote working

Our previous article in this series took a closer look at how the COVID crisis has provided the trigger for dramatic and, we believe, permanent changes in the fundamentals of how lawyers work.  In particular, that transformation is characterised by, first, a rebalancing in the location of work, with hybrid home and office working becoming an established part of the standard firm model.  And, secondly, by the need for both internal and client-facing processes that rely on paper and face-to-face interaction to be digitised.

Beyond these core questions of how legal work is done, the use of technology in a whole spectrum of other areas of the firm has been given a jolt by the COVID crisis.  This third part of the series takes a look at some of those other changes and opportunities, beginning with the most high profile and ‘in your face’ (very literally) implication of working through COVID; the emergence of collaboration and video communication platforms as one of our most business-critical tools.

Has video killed the radio (voice) star?

Back in early March 2020, maybe a few of us had used a video collaboration app called Zoom a couple of times and it had a bit of buzz around it; not least because there was a free-to-use restricted time version available.  Others were advocates of similar apps and they were used, from time-to-time, for multi-user calls.  Microsoft Teams was beginning to get rolled out across law firms, though many IT departments were in ‘we have the licences but won’t be ready to roll-out until later….’ mode.  Face-to-face meetings were still standard and the phone, especially mobile, was the most common medium for short 1to1 calls.  Video conferencing was still, in many places, something you only did in a conference room with multiple others.  In thousands of firms around the world each desk had a fixed line phone handset dedicated to the person whose desk that was.

Folks – that was just 6 months ago but it is a world already receding into memory and that you will never see again (warning: if this is, in fact, the world you now find yourself returning to over the coming months get yourself the hell out of there: you are living in some period drama re-enactment of old time lawyering!).

We have just witnessed an unforeseen and sudden hyperdrive leap forward into a very different communications culture where a big premium is put, in the absence of meeting in-person, on seeing the people you’re speaking to and the infrastructure to make that easy and attractive is widely available.  As firms return to some form of office working and settle into a new way of working, this has big implications for tech and operational support.  We’ve broken down some of those implications here:

Room video conferencing (VC) – on return to the office people will naturally expect to use your meeting room-based VC seamlessly combined with single user “Desktop VC”, probably connecting up with many people working at home or clients in their own workplace. Is what you have today compatible and do your user guides include how to do this? You need to test the various combination of set-ups and should produce new guidelines now for in-office and remote users on how to operate and manage hybrid VC set-ups.

Desktop video – with maybe only 25-30% of the workforce in the office, desktop VC is likely to be in permanently high demand for internal and external use. Usage in office can have some big differences compared to home VC.  At home, people may have used the laptop’s own microphones, speakers and built in web cam from a relatively private room, but that may not be appropriate for the office due to nuisance noise or confidentiality issues. Further complications come if the office set-up differs – for example the office-based laptop is docked and the lid closed.  Screen-top webcams and noise cancelling headsets are likely to be required for successful desktop VC in the office and yet may be in short supply globally.

In addition to equipment and set-up, the swapping from one configuration to another, as staff switch from home to work, may be an issue and will have to be tested and training guides produced. If short supply issues mean you are forced into a mixed technology set-up, this could quickly become complicated and hard to support.  It is not easy to get comms working seamlessly in this scenario, so firms should be chasing down equipment availability with suppliers now.

Office internet infrastructure from an infrastructure point of view, the set-up of VC and internet remote access is fundamentally different at home than in the office. Ironically, if you add up all your staff’s home broadband internet bandwidth it is likely to be way in excess of what you have in your own buildings. New, extensive levels of VC use in the office may cripple your internet connection if you’re not careful.  Firms are advised to “do the math” and seek options, costs and lead times now to be ready for heightened use of VC in the workplace making much greater demands on internet connectivity.

Some firms only provide meeting room WiFi . A combination of social distancing and the need to use desktop VC may place increased pressure on your WiFi and extend high performance WiFi throughout the office. In many buildings, the WiFi network is now taking over as the primary network with the latest equipment providing gigabit throughput and support for IP-voice and video. Senior management should know what its infrastructure is capable of. To put it simply, your office infrastructure may be a US freeway with lots of lanes or it may be a single-track English country track that is just about to contend with summer holiday traffic levels – it’s best to know which one you are in advance!

Product choice – there is no doubt that the pressure will be on for a longer-term investment in the strategic collaboration tools and video platforms that are enabling this cultural phenomenon.  There are considerable differences between the available products. Some are obvious: take the limit on numbers of simultaneous video streams – Microsoft Teams belatedly managed to roll-out the increase from four to nine people mid-lockdown.   But other, equally critical but less visible differences exist. Careful consideration is necessary to choose your future product portfolio. Some areas of consideration are:

  • Use-Case – it should go without staying, but what you want to use the tools for will govern what tools you select. Products differ widely with some being strong for webinars and others better for file collaboration and 1:1 VCs. There is a perception that all tools do all those tasks but, in reality, each of them has some clear strengths and, perhaps more importantly, real weaknesses; so know what you want to use it for
  • Integrations and APIs – what you want to integrate with the collaboration product will affect the choice of product; the tight integration of Microsoft Teams with the Office suite is an obvious example, but it is sensible to explore the full range of integration on offer
  • Cost – be wary about usage costs. They can rocket depending on various use-cases and licensing methods. These vary enormously between products and can only become obvious once you are up and running and incurring monthly usage bills with the product rolled out across your firm
  • Telephony – some products lean towards voice (and therefore could potentially replace your previous telephony system) and others towards PC-based collaboration. Most firms want a product that can provide a combination. This is probably the time to abandon your attachment to physical phone systems and handsets, if you’re still there, and move to soft phones, headsets and integration with existing collaboration software and with mobile devices.  But this will depend on your existing phone investment, contracts and budgets
  • Skills – managing these technologies on a big video call whilst also trying to focus on a message and delivery can be hard. New “broadcaster” skills will be required for presenters and hosts, but also for admin support in complex meetings who will handle the more technical elements of the session (such as Q&A, raising hands, note taking). Some lawyers already struggle with PowerPoint presentations so combining this with broadcast technology may need a little more support to be effective
  • Reputation – don’t lose sight of public and client perception; some of your clients may block or actively mandate certain products. certain products. It may pay dividends to check with your larger clients before making a big selection decision.  However, don’t be swayed by press or advertising hype; the whole area of working from home, video comms and collaboration is subject to all sorts of rumour and myth right now and your decisions need to be founded in evidence and your own firm’s needs, not some stranger’s opinion
  • Hidden technology – an example of this is mobile versions of some collaboration products using the phone’s GPS to be able to track location by default. Your IT team need to be very alert to these settings and features, many of which may also have privacy and data law (e.g. Europe’s GDPR rules) implications
  • Policy and protocol – VC tools can come with a raft of other collaboration functions such as chat, presence, file exchange etc. What governance is there around the use of them and is it fit for prolonged use embedded in the working culture? Law firms have worked hard to control documents and enforce governance around files and document management systems (DMS), yet some firms may have paid little attention to locking down features in these newer tools or developing policies in the rush to get lawyers on-line remotely.

Not necessarily a ‘top 5’ technology investment decision in the pre-COVID world your firms choice of collaboration product(s) now looks like a critical one, which could have a major impact on your future way of working and may even become the keystone technology in your client service delivery armoury.

 The next digital, agile model will change many other parts of your organisation

Basically, we are into the realm of predictions and prophecy here – albeit, we like to think, we only do informed predictions.  We have tended to focus most of our analysis so far, understandably, on the core working use of tech by lawyers in the post-COVID world.  Looking beyond that to the way in which other parts of the law firm environment will change, we expect to see a host of other parts of the firm evolve as a direct result of the stimulus of the COVID period:

An overdue renaissance of training effectiveness – caught between over-busy, chargeable hour fixated lawyers, reducing attention spans and uninspiring training delivery models, imparting new skills and knowledge to experienced people in law firms has been in a rut for years.  The partial attempts to embrace online, e-learning and ‘just-in-time’ methods haven’t made enough of a dent in that challenge.  How do we continue to train and develop our people, not just in IT tools, but in legal practice?  Technology can be an enabler to achieve a new dynamic model for training, exploiting the collaboration and comms technologies we have all just installed and rapidly got used to; video, remote collaboration, machine learning and smart knowledge management tools.  The opportunity to reinvent legal training is there as it has never been before, but it will be easy for firms to overlook it amidst some many other priorities.

Centralised, relocated and outsourced back and middle office services – hardly a new trend, even in the relatively slow to adopt legal world.  We have seen various waves of outsourcing, lower cost location Shared Service Centres and managed service contracts over the last 10 or so years.  One truism often repeated during this period has been that the hardest part is the initial relocation of any service – IT support, accounting, knowledge management, typing – away from the lawyers/internal customers.  That’s the point at which we typically see ‘tissue rejection’ and a battle over whether the restructuring goes any further.  Once over this hump with service being provided from somewhere else for a period, process reengineering and further outsourcing have proved easier to implement.

Well, we have just been through an enforced, no-blame moment where almost all of these internal services are being provided from a remote, non-office location and face-to-face contact between lawyers and support, including secretarial, has almost disappeared.  With so many firms looking to reap the benefit of a more agile model by reducing their real estate footprint and responding to recessionary conditions with restructuring, the stars do appear to be aligned for another, more pervasive wave of centralisation and outsourcing of all kinds of support and administration.

Remote project management – both volumes of projects and demand for project resource are likely to be high over the next year.  Managing the project portfolio and inter-related strategic programmes of work (such as the migration to a hybrid / agile model) will be critical.  Doing this remotely can be difficult and project managers with limited experience may struggle. You will need to find different ways to deliver projects, train people, apply control and maintain effective project team communication.  Some projects just need people onsite and working in close proximity and the project portfolio will need to be re-shuffled if this remains impossible for an extended period.

Office 365 – firms already using this in anger and not just as a licensing approach have benefited from the flexibility it affords and licensing will mean that products such as Teams will make Microsoft 365 even more attractive. Office 365 migration is a complex project and not one that should be undertaken without experienced input.  There is a danger, in the rush to implement, that too many firms will underestimate the complexity of this environment and the depth of understanding and careful planning required.  Leaders should pay attention to Office 365 projects and not assume they will be quick, easy or painless to deliver.

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) gets real – for many firms COVID has been the first real-life test of at least part of their BCP and, for a few, it may have forced the creation of the first real draft! COVID has demonstrated the key role that IT plays in keeping a business moving and the importance of solid yet flexible infrastructure during unplanned disruption.  Whether this involves simply formalising the adopted plan, dry-run testing it with newly experienced eyes or identifying and implementing new infrastructure, it is important you set time aside to do this now and involve the owners and leaders of the firm. Now is the time that owners will be most receptive to accepting their accountability and involvement in what can sometimes be seen as a support department’s domain.

Sustainability and environment – with restrictions imposed by governments around the world and an understandable reluctance to undertake any travel unless absolutely necessary, both international and national travel for face-to-face meetings has been replaced by video conferencing tools. If there has ever been a time for a firm to embrace sustainability-enhancing technology and low carbon ways of working, it is now.  This will require drive from the top and governance around implementation and management in order for it to embed fully; only the best-led and most determined firms will truly achieve this and head towards what should be the net carbon neutral goal.

Admin processes – how well did your admin processes stand up to the tests of home working? Many HR, Admin and Finance processes may have suffered from lack of electronic based workflow.  Lockdown will have revealed the effectiveness of your digital workflows better than any review or debate has done.  Addressing digitisation of those processes that didn’t work seamlessly, including a focus on digitally handling approvals and notifications, will be critical to meet the standards of the 2020s agile law firm.

Virtual introductions – new client relationships may begin virtually far more often in the future. New techniques and skills are going to be required to be able to put the best virtual foot forward: reading the room and eye contact don’t work well on VC so do your staff need training on ‘effective Video conferencing’ for engaging new business, closing deals, pushing projects along?

Recruitment and onboarding of new staff – during lockdown, more law firms have interviewed candidates by video. This was already being used by large organisations before COVID and, as in so many other areas, we anticipate a dramatic acceleration of take-up now.  It can be a highly effective and efficient process, which also tests applicants’ ability to work in a digital environment.  Irrespective of changes to social distancing guidelines, video interviews are an approach worth exploring to help streamline recruitment processes.  Your initial engagement with potential recruits will also demonstrate the extent to which your firm has successfully balanced the efficient / digital and human / personal.

 Conclusion: The Agile Law Firm

This three-part series co-authored with Peter Owen from Lights-On Consulting has taken a look at what next for law firms from the perspective of technology change.

As anyone who is used to looking at the impact of technology on legal practice will be well aware, the implications extend far beyond the boundaries of ‘IT’ to touch every aspect of and every person in the firm.  Responsibilities for leveraging the competitive opportunities arising post-COVID as well as for ensuring the firm handles the multiple challenges and risks does not lie with the IT function only either.  We have produced this series at Edge International because we believe these are issues which demand immediate, Board and Partnership level attention and decision-making.

We are now focusing a lot of our time, research and insight into this emerging Agile Law Firm model and we welcome contributions, ideas and the opportunity to engage on agile strategies right across the legal marketplace.

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 pharmaceutical sectors. peter.owen@lights-on.com

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Christiaan Frickel for his great contributions to this piece.