An all-or-nothing approach often gets in the way of adopting and implementing legal tech — fortunately, there are better options.
This article first appeared as part of the ‘Tech from the Trenches’ series in the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, in The Big Ideas Issue, July 2021.
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Too often, lawyers believe that integrating technology into their practices involves all-or-nothing investments. Boggled by product marketing, attorneys may shudder at the thought of redoing all their internal processes at once. Others may encounter resistance from longtime partners or office administrators. Usually, such opposition stems from risk aversion (thinking “law should be practiced the way it has always been done”) and a narrow interpretation of costs (“if our firm automates our processes, what will we have left to bill?”). However, there are fallacies with this kind of reasoning.
Risks With Manual Methods and Technology Avoidance
Let us first consider the potential costs associated with manual methods and technology avoidance. Some lawyers heavily rely on manual processes. They track their time and tasks by pen and paper, think of files and tasks only in terms of paper, and fail to utilize available technologies. Case management technology can track how long attorneys worked on a matter (instead of being left to underestimate or overbill lost time), electronically organize files into one location, track case deadlines and automate document assembly.
Embracing the Continuum of Technology Adoption
Legal norms have progressed far beyond the days of typing up handwritten documents on typewriters. The more modern example of the analogy is copying and pasting client information into a standard document. Most manual systems require either modifying previous templates for use with a new client or starting from scratch (if previous templates cannot be found). Regardless of the manual processes employed, too much time is wasted searching or pasting client information. Even worse, recycled templates carry the risk of having internally inconsistent information (inconsistent client, court or other information) and stale case law.
Attorneys ready to reduce inefficiencies can start with base-level document automation steps. Document automation requires identification of fields for variable elements, such as individual client information. Merging client information into document templates immediately saves the duplication of data entry. This first step is a building block toward other tasks, such as automating client intake. Firms that provide clients with the ability to enter contact information on complete intake forms free up their own staff time from populating information into the firm’s database.
Another incremental approach is making attorneys feel more comfortable with the technology they are already using. Using the AutoSave, Dictate and Transcribe and signature request features in Microsoft Word are great starters. For document collaboration, lawyers can utilize Track Changes and Comments and share the link to the cloud file, rather than trying to compile all the various edited documents each lawyer saved separately. For Microsoft 365 users, applications like SharePoint and OneDrive allow for saving and storing documents in progress.
Now, some attorneys will be scared by the notion of taking even incremental steps for systemizing document creation. They may think that they need to shut their practice for weeks as they learn to convert all their commonly used documents into templates and document automation systems. However, attorneys do not have to take an all-or-nothing approach.
Benefits of the Incremental Adoption Approach
A more incremental approach involves using the current building blocks of your successful practice while making a concentrated effort to save each new document type you create as a template.
That way, as your office template library accrues, you don’t need to start each subsequent similar document type anew. It’s also highly beneficial to note commonly used clauses as they occur and create a clause library. For example, if the client has children in estate planning or family law cases, that will prompt relevant clauses and conditional fields. Frequently used clauses also could appear in everything from distributions of property in trusts to formulating LLC operating agreements. Building a clause library is a handy way to reference and update needed information quickly rather than searching across various documents. This means you do not have to start from scratch, nor will you be fruitlessly searching for a similar document you created two years ago but cannot remember where you saved.
Building templates and clause libraries not only helps pull together substantive legal documents more quickly and easily, but these methods can also streamline other communications that your office frequently creates. For instance, clauses handily referenced in a clause library could include ones that follow up with past clients to see if they seek additional services related to their prior matter. (For example, perhaps the family law attorney aims to inquire whether addenda to a past parenting plan are needed.)
Addressing Common Concerns of Office Technology Resistors
Being open to making technology work for your practice can also mean recognizing and using the benefits of updated system features. For technology resistors in the office still hesitant to use cloud-based systems or subscribe to system updates, let us consider the alternative.
No entirely risk-free method exists. Hosting documents on-premises with servers puts you at risk for extended downtimes, costly server replacements and the possibility of losing your documents during a natural disaster. Cloud-based systems, software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service systems are by and large highly reliable. Further, no state ethics opinions prohibit the use of cloud services.
Having addressed some steps of how firms can take an incremental approach to technology, let us turn to the concern over costs. Part of running a law practice like a business means recognizing that trade-offs always exist. What you may be saving on the balance sheet by resisting upgrading any law office technology creates its own costs, such as unnecessary time, extra hassle and data security risks (never use systems that are no longer supported; those system updates protect you).
As to the concern that more efficient processes may lessen billable hours, there are many lessons to be learned. Keep in mind that your fees must be reasonable, and you always have competition. Using a manual approach and drafting every document from scratch would take more time, but that does not mean you could bill for all that time when more efficient methods exist and are widely known. For firms that heavily use document automation, the amount of time to create each document will be a fraction of what it was before (which is one of the intended time-saving elements), and in that case, a flat fee may be better than a billable hour.
Lawyers would be wise to note that as alternative legal service providers are increasingly adopted, clients are apt to choose the faster, cheaper form assembly approach and the guarantee of upfront fees over both manually intensive processes that lead to expensive billable hours and concerns of unknown final costs. Hence, if you do not edge toward at least the middle of the technology adoption spectrum, your potential clients may turn elsewhere.
Notably, this does not mean that you should fall prey to marketing nor think that you must have it because a product is the hot new product. Assess your firm’s needs, goals and pain points. By having your firm’s needs and pain points drive the decision-making process, rather than the tech resistors in your office, you will have technology work in service of how you practice law. By recognizing that incremental technology adoption creates wins for all, you will rid yourself of the fallacy that technology adoption must be all or nothing.
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©2021. Published in Law Practice Magazine, The Big Ideas Issue, Vol. 47, No. 4, July 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
Managing Change and Preparing for New Technology (ABA Law Technology Today, 2021)
Legal Tech Adoption: A Principled Approach (LAC Group, 2020)
4 Steps to Seamlessly Introduce Legal Technology to Your Firm (ABA Law Technology Today, 2020)
How to Implement New Technology at Your Law Firm (Clio)
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