People and process – digital transformation in the legal sector by Nick March

Digital transformation has become a major buzzword in the past couple of years. Every industry is wrestling with the challenges and opportunities afforded by automation, artificial intelligence and the cloud – and the legal sector is no different. However, like many long-established and process-driven sectors that come under the “if it ain’t broke…” category, the industry has been slow to build momentum.

The clock is really ticking now, though. It’s critical for law firms to boost competitiveness by cutting costs, increasing efficiency and improving productivity, while at the same time delivering best value to clients, who increasingly want more for less. According to a recent PWC study 80% of law firms understand that digital transformation is necessary, but only 23% are in progress.

To me this points to reticence and uncertainty over deciding on the “right” path to take – a lack of guiding principles around which projects to pursue. I’d like to make the case that transformation must always deliver opportunities to enhance the client relationship, and that value can be created through the active management of digital technology.

Lifting the admin burden through automation

As a legal software company that’s been serving the sector since 1998, at WebTMS we’re naturally strong advocates of the benefits of automation and the flexibility of web and cloud-based software. Automating administrative processes cuts management time, freeing up staff for higher value tasks. It also reduces the risk of user error which, it need hardly be said, can have serious consequences in the legal environment. Furthermore, making management tools available to remote workers 24/7 via the cloud also increases employee flexibility, improving the working environment.

So far so good, but there are also pitfalls to over-automation that can lead to lost opportunities to deliver strong and profitable client management. There’s a need to strike a balance between automation and human management in order to deliver the best, most efficient client service.

Balancing automation with personalisation

Taking trademark prosecution within the management of Intellectual Property as our example: It’s well-suited to automation: typically it’s a fairly linear process that is deadline driven. There are several trademark management software options out there that assist in automating many aspects of trademark monitoring effectively, lifting the significant burden associated with docketing and deadline tracking – exactly what digital transformation is designed to achieve.

Nevertheless, I believe there has to be a human window on that automation. This means active management and alerts at key points that prompt client engagement activity. For example, when a trademark moves from pending to registered. The updated status will be refreshed automatically by the trademark management software and renewal deadlines created, so from that point of view no action is needed. However, this is also an excellent opportunity for client engagement, advising them that a long-awaited or business-critical mark has been granted and the context of the action. This shows that the firm has active control over the management of clients’ marks, building confidence and trust – two essential pieces of ‘soft’ capital in today’s competitive legal market.

Integrating people and process

I suppose what this really comes down to is the fact that the business of law, intellectual property and brand management is fundamentally a people-based endeavour. When we’re pursuing digital transformation/technology projects, whether that’s client-facing online “lawbots” or business process support for paralegals, the key questions are “how will this enable us to provide a better, more personal service to our clients?” “How will it make our employees’ lives easier?” Incidentally, those are the questions that potential suppliers should be falling over themselves to answer, too.

It’s also important to look at the cultural changes that digital transformation projects entail. Software, systems and processes that are designed to assist staff and clients will flounder if they meet resistance from those who have become accustomed to the “old ways”. That means software needs to be incredibly user-friendly and training straightforward and accessible.

Ultimately technology tools and staff must work effectively in tandem to deliver the best service for clients, while also reducing costs and administrative burden. Digital transformation and automation has a vital role to play, but should be viewed holistically in terms of the client relationship. Fundamentally, the human factor needs to dominate in the integration of people and process in order to reap the benefits of digital transformation.

 

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