Law firm technology: reprogram your culture

It is a truth universally acknowledged by commentators and consultants to the legal sector that law firms need to change in order to compete effectively with “alternative” business and charging models.

What’s changed?

We continually read about technology disrupting the legal services marketplace. Of course advances in technology transform how firms are run and how lawyers and others work, but genuinely disruptive technology such as mobile connectivity on a range of devices has changed working practices across all industries and sectors. Everyone expects to access their work online and on the move, and lawyers are no exception, so legal IT faces the same issues around mobility as other industries and professions.

Client expectations have shifted too, from looking for “more for less”, and again this is not just about law firms. As the corporate procurement function has become increasingly involved in law firm panels and pitches, it is not just about pricing. Nowadays clients are looking for “value”.

How does legal IT add value?

Legal IT adds value in various ways. Effective practice management supports compliance and efficiency and highly integrated systems supported by comprehensive data sets and sophisticated search capability leverage legal content, knowledge and expertise, combining proprietary and online resources to enhance the quality and speed of advice. But however good a firm’s IT resources, they can be leveraged effectively only if people know what is available and how to use it.

Legal IT training

Kia Motors corporate counsel D Casey Flaherty’s technology audit is evidence that some corporates are looking for IT competency from their panel firms – not real tech expertise, but the sort of thing that is expected of people working in any other organisation these days. IT is a basic workplace skill – like being able to answer the phone, or send an email. However, my unofficial straw poll of law firm IT directors revealed that user skills vary considerably and training is an ongoing, universal challenge for most firms. Before we hit the topic of making sure people can use firms’ legal-specific IT investments, it seems that many lawyers fall short when it comes to basic IT – Word, Excel etc.  Partners in particular are reluctant to admit they need training, let alone participate in training sessions – because training is not “billable” time.

Upgrading your IT skills

Although IT directors and their teams work hard to ensure that their firms’ systems are as integrated and intuitive as they can be and that everyone in the firm knows what is available, it is worth lawyers and others taking the time to get to know the applications they use every day and keep that knowledge up-to-date.

Word is a case in point as everyone has some degree of competence, but there is often little or no consistency across a firm – and as a result each version of a document includes different styles and formatting. Every time formatting is added, the risk of producing a corrupted, unusable document increases. The importance of user education applies across the generations as social media savvy digital natives may well not have similar familiarity with Word and Outlook. Many firms have invested in template and proofing software to help them produce clean, consistent documentation, but users still need to be able to use these effectively.

The challenge is cultural – to engage people in upgrading their IT skills in the same way as they update their legal knowledge to include the latest legislative changes and precedents.

Why cultural change is fundamental

Technology is driving change but legal IT also represents a barrier to cultural change maintaining “the way we do things round here”.  For example, the latest sophisticated time capture technology looks across the firm’s software and systems to capture every possible moment a lawyer might be spending on a matter and automatically add it to the client’s bill – ensuring they never “give away” an “extra” piece of advice by taking a quick call, for example. Measuring by time in this way is positioned as “efficiency” by firms whose spokespersons ironically wax lyrical about “added value” and offering clients “extra” resources or services.

Of course time is relevant and productivity is a function of time. But using time as a universal measurement is a direct disincentive to change as it encourages everyone in the organisation to associate value with time – rather than results. This can be directly challenged by the fact that the time a lawyer spends struggling with the firm’s systems to create a client document is chargeable, yet the time that same lawyer might spend learning how to use those systems properly is not.  Or, more dangerously: is advice that takes longer to produce more valuable or effective? Does it produce better results?

Law firms are experiencing more mergers and consolidation than ever. They face competition from increasingly well-established alternative legal service providers, many of whose business models are based on efficient use of technology and processes, while expanding corporate legal teams are bringing more work in-house at the expense (literally) of external counsel.  It seems that the key to maintaining a solid market position is not investing in more technology, or strategic or operational factors: it is cultural change.

The sector needs to shift from the “time is money” mentality and look at how best to leverage its resources to meet the value-based expectations of a new generation of clients. Within firms, the issue is to find the heart of the organisation’s culture and decide which function or functions should lead cultural change – IT, knowledge, L&D, risk or finance – successful change needs champions to deliver it.

Filed Under: Technology

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