Three ways to bring the legal sector up to digital speed

By Verity White, Principal at Checklist Legal

Some of this year’s more positive developments have been rapid digital adoption across workplaces and the large-scale demonstration of its benefits: faster processes, collaboration despite distance, flexibility for remote workers. Social distancing and government restrictions have been catalysts for digitisation that used to be all too easy to put on the back burner.

But if you work in a highly risk-averse function or sector, you’d be forgiven for feeling like the digital revolution hasn’t yet materialised in your day-to-day workload. The legal sector is a perfect example, one that’s traditionally slow to embrace technology-enabled approaches. In a survey by Ernst and Young (EY), 64 percent of general counsels say the legal space hasn’t benefited from digital innovation as much as other functions.

This isn’t sustainable—that same survey found 82 percent of companies planning to reduce legal function costs over the next two years, despite what 87 percent of respondents describe as growing demand for legal services. Technology seems like one obvious way to reconcile that disparity, but our sector hasn’t always excelled at leveraging it.

Here are three steps for changing that.

1. Start with mindsets

Some legal professionals tend to employ an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mantra when it comes to technology. They think the way they have been working and serving clients is good enough or in line with client expectations.

But, along with the tension between cost pressures and service demands, there are many  reasons why lawyers and legal professionals need to take a fresh look at what clients want and start thinking differently about technology.

A risk-focussed and sceptical lot, lawyers are openly wary about the potential risks of new tech. Not only does this ignore the security credentials of many existing solutions, as well as the ability to customise them for compliance purposes, but it ignores that paper-based processes may increase your risk exposure in some ways. Those processes lack the visibility and clear audit trail afforded by most digital workflows.

Risk as a reason to delay technology implementation (or refuse it completely) is a false protest, as it masks a deeper fear or hesitation about one’s ability to adopt new ways of working.

Additionally, those who wait to implement new digital ways of working are gambling with their competitive edge and their ability to keep and attract talent. A change in mindset requires a top-down recognition of these risks. The current emphasis on remote work gives leaders a prime opportunity to innovate, with legislators updating rules in support of the digital landscape and relaxing musty rules about electronic signatures. Incredibly, both employers and employees in the legal industry are becoming more open to new ways of working. These mindset shifts -- pushed through years earlier in other industries --  shouldn’t be squandered.

2. Identify your most critical needs

In the legal sector, a lot of technology information gets thrown at you and it’s hard to know which tools are legitimately useful. Some are super shiny on the front-end but don’t do what they say on the label. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

To cut through the noise, start with your most obvious bottlenecks or employee pain points. EY found 67 percent of legal functions devoting 20 percent of their time to low-value tasks and routine compliance. Is this true for your organisation and, if so, what’s driving it? From there, you can map out how a digital solution would help and why a specific product is a good fit for those needs.

For instance, contract management is fertile ground for inefficiencies, with over one-third (36 percent) of all major agreements still using manual processes.

We use DocuSign eSignature for cloud-enabled contract management. This digitises and streamlines processes, which previously spanned days or weeks but now take hours or even minutes. Before implementation, these workflow processes were halting rituals with back-and-forth emails. Now, with DocuSign, we can auto-generate a one-page consent form and details that guide the customer to specific areas for initialling.

It’s not a magic wand, and there are other systematic complexities we are looking to address, however it is great to have the ability to monitor agreement processes from any location, empowering us to flag problems early and keep transactions ticking along despite physical distancing requirements. It’s also helped reduce some of our biggest bottlenecks, which means we can focus on proactive and strategic tasks instead of chasing paper or emailing for approvals.

3. Establish digital champions

Understanding what’s at stake and narrowing your priorities are important first steps, but you also need to find team members who can act as ambassadors for change and digital efficiency. There are usually early adopters hungry for the conveniences of digital tools—identify who they are and enlist them to bring others on-board.

These digital champions are crucial partners from start to finish. They can provide on-the-ground feedback about inefficiencies and potential product solutions, as well as communicating the benefits to the wider team before, during and after implementation.

It’s not just about bringing people on-side. Change management can be a major hurdle even if your team is enthusiastic about the change, particularly if they aren’t used to digital tools or automation. A good digital champion can improve use and offer best-practice tips, encouraging adoption while helping everyone get the most out of the solution.

Of course, talking about digital change is easy—making it happen is hard, especially since most legal teams are time-poor already. But the legal sector has reached a stage where it’s time to think seriously about technology as a priority. With regulatory environments becoming more complex, Australia’s economic recovery likely deepening pressure to cut costs, and digital trends showing no signs of slowing, legal function leaders need to ask themselves not whether their processes are ‘broken’, but could they be broken in the future and how could we fix things now to prevent or reduce that breakage.

 

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