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How to future-proof your firm with process improvement

I spend a lot of time talking to law firms who are trying to find new ways to solve problems using technology, and I frequently run into the same scenario: a firm has identified a process they would like to improve, but they are struggling to articulate the solution and bring a better process to life.

Challenges with mapping existing processes, applying technology, creating new processes or implementing and adopting improved workflows can create roadblocks to innovation. Regardless of initial struggles, firms who invest in process improvement are already on the road to practicing SmartLaw, which positions them to perform well during the pandemic, supportive of a disaster recovery plan, puts them one step ahead of the competition—as well as for continued success in the future.

Stuart Barr, Chief Product and Strategy Officer at HighQ explains, “as process improvement techniques and technology have become more widely adopted and firms start to reap the benefits of more effective and efficient ways of working, those firms that haven’t adapted are now at a significant competitive disadvantage that is only going to get worse the longer they leave it”.

In short, firms must prioritise process improvement now to ensure they are not left behind.

The promise of process improvement

The benefits of better processes are fairly well recognised within the legal industry. They include more consistent service delivery, reduced risk of human error, improved efficiency, better communication and workflow tracking, and improved data capture. All of these improvements are worthy landmarks along the road to the final destination—business growth. That is what future success comes down to, retaining current clients and winning new business.

Growth will not come easy and it will not come to those who wait. Competition from disruptors within the legal market means that client loyalty is more important than ever before. But firms that provide unfailingly consistent, innovative legal services won’t have to worry when other firms come courting their clients.

That’s what process improvement delivers.

Taking process improvement further

Because of the potential benefits of process improvement, the practice has been quietly gaining ground in the legal industry for years and is seen by many as one of the most dependable strategies to improve productivity throughout the firm. As legal technology advances, so must legal processes.

Many firms already have some process improvement initiatives in place, but they are often department-based or ad hoc. While these point-solution-style processes will certainly result in minor, temporary gains in productivity, they leave the true power of your team undiscovered.

Overcoming inertia and taking the next step in your process improvement can be a daunting task, but will certainly pay dividends in the future. Firms need to aim for process improvement that spans the entire business and future-proof the firm.

Firm-wide culture change

One of the greatest challenges within firms is resistance to change. Whether that’s new technology, new ways of thinking or new processes, partial adoption will stop progress in its tracks.

Casey Flaherty, founder of legal consultancy Procertas, “unless we are prepared to invest in personnel, process redesign and training, we will continue to underperform regardless of what tools are at our disposal”. And he is correct. For process improvement to work as designed, the firm must embrace a culture of change.

Process examines the way things have always been done, keeps what works and optimises what doesn’t. It applies science and logic to the entire business, and it simply doesn’t work unless everyone is on board. Therefore, it is crucial that process improvement is encouraged and endorsed by the firm’s leadership.

Individuals must feel empowered to try new things, even if failure is possible. Dan Wright of Osborne Clarke Solutions advises that firms must, “embrace failure and empower their people to try good ideas, and be happy to kill them off (the ideas, not their people) if they don’t deliver as planned, and move on to the next good idea”.

Strategic technology investments

Firms often have access to a wide array of technologies that can improve efficiency but selecting the right solution and applying it to firm-wide processes can be tricky. Meeting with IT to understand and evaluate your current technology options is a good place to start. The best solutions for process improvement have a few things in common:

  • Cloud solutions offer frequent updates and easy access anywhere in the world
  • Extensive integration options maximise the value of existing technology
  • Visual dashboards can help you track and report on efficiencies at a glance
  • Easy-to-use workflow and task features empower quick changes and updates
  • Enterprise-grade security protocols protect your business and client data

Embrace new roles

Process improvement is a weighty undertaking. It can be difficult to determine who within the firm is best suited to take responsibility for overhauling processes. Enter the process engineer. Common in other industries, a legal process engineer is responsible for understanding the goals of the firm, examining the interoperation of departments, mapping existing processes, and then designing and deploying new processes with a focus on efficiency.

Firms should also consider hiring a business analyst or digital solutions architect to manage their process initiatives. Regardless of title, the roles responsible for process improvement must:

  • Work closely with all departments to develop a deep understanding of their work and how changes to existing processes will impact them
  • Stay up to date on technology roadmaps, cultivate knowledge of technology capabilities and find creative applications
  • Receive ongoing feedback and evaluate process effectiveness, optimising where required
  • Report results to the business and further encourage firm-wide adoption

Workflow automation and AI

I know the words ‘process improvement’ does not fill people with excitement the way that buzzier terms like automation and AI do. But within SmartLaw firms, process is what takes automation and AI from a novelty to the next level.

Unfortunately, there’s an ongoing misunderstanding about what these tools can actually achieve. When I inform clients that the automation of everything that they have envisioned just isn’t possible (yet), they are often disappointed. Sci-fi movies have done us a disservice here because what we can achieve is remarkable but tends to be overlooked or dismissed.

Today, the application of workflow automation and AI deliver efficiency and accuracy to processes by performing time-consuming, repetitive tasks, freeing staff to complete more complicated work.

Let’s use client intake as an example. Instead of having staff dedicated to answering calls or receiving emails from clients when they need the firm’s guidance on a matter, and then manually managing next steps like an initial screening, you can combine different technologies that automate—and dramatically speed up—the process.

Perhaps you could offer online instructions that provide clients with quick, self-service access to the information they need to better leverage your expertise. From that web portal, the client can then request your services using an online form. Once submitted, the data collected from that form can be used to automatically triage the request, route it to the right people for action, and trigger a series of project tasks that will be tracked from day one.

Now, apply that potential time savings to other processes across the business. While it’s not the magic solution that firms dream about, automation and AI make your daily routines more efficient, trackable and accurate—positioning your firm for ongoing success.

Process improvement is never really over, but don’t let that discourage you. An important note is that it’s likely to be a complex and time-consuming journey, but one that will be well worth the effort. By optimising your processes with a culture of change, new technologies and new roles, and automated workflows—you are more than ready for whatever the future holds.

For more information, download the report ‘SmartLaw 2.0: Expert insights for the new future of law’ here.

Tom MacDonald, Product Manager at HighQ, part of Thomson Reuters

Tom is responsible for the Project and Process use cases at HighQ. He has over 10 years of experience working in legal publishing and software development, most recently working at LexisNexis as Product Owner for Workflows. Tom is a qualified Scrum Master and Prince2 Practitioner and has a degree in English Literature.


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