Digital technology is dominating headlines and discussions within law firms, from board level to the water cooler. There is no avoiding the fact that Law 4.0 – the era of smarter automation, Artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-enabled large language tools including ChatGPT and Bard is here to stay and already radically transforming the way lawyers work.
Of course, technology has been transforming the way the legal sector operates for decades. Earlier changes are embedded within the working landscape and although it has not always been an easy journey for a profession mired in tradition and historical process, there will be more disruptions and challenges to come and they too will become an accepted part of legal working life.
Relatively new entrants to the sector include the Big Four accountancy firms - Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers - global giants that have already invested heavily in technology and are making inroads into the legal marketplace with this one-stop-shop approach. Law firms that don’t embrace digital will be left behind in the races for competitive edge, securing talent, and driving greater client satisfaction. All of these make a dramatic difference to the bottom line.
The ten steps to becoming a digital-first firm
- Meet client expectations with online FAQs and customer portals that give people 24/7 access to the services and information they need. Automated replies to emails give clients assurance that their message has been received and will be actioned promptly. Chatbots can effectively handle the FAQs that would otherwise take disproportionate time to deal with over the phone, freeing up fee-earners and support staff to work on higher-value tasks.
- Streamline billing and invoicing with digital tools that ensure more accurate time capture for more billable hours, thus higher productivity and profitability. Transparency for clients results in fewer disputed invoices and less time spent recalculating and sorting them out. Fewer disputes also lead to happier clients and more repeat business and referrals - crucial in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
- Increase access to justice. Many courts have already adopted digital tools to increase access with virtual and hybrid hearings, video conferencing, and digital exhibits, improving transparency for all. Firms need to implement their own digital technology to enable them to work in synergy with the court system, as well as be able to lead in the new online legal space.
- Offer a great employee value proposition (EVP). Professionals expect hybrid, remote and flexible working now, so implementing technology that enables this is crucial for securing the best talent. Solutions that automate repetitive tasks give professionals more time to focus on more rewarding and interesting work, enhancing the employee experience while also delivering higher-value productivity for the firm.
Employers can put themselves ahead in the war for talent, implementing digital performance management and learning platforms that can have a transformative effect on employee development and advancement.
- Maximise the Cloud for running all platforms and document access, enabling real time access to information from anywhere. This is essential for effective hybrid and remote working, including being able to access important documents from client meetings and courts giving lawyers much more flexibility and versatility. It also significantly reduces the need to repeatedly copy and share multiple documents such as court bundles, as everyone who needs to see a file can access up-to-the-moment versions ensuring no one is excluded in error.
- Transform roles and job function. Digitally-literate talent is already skilled at making the best use of technology and most lawyers are doing more of their own admin these days. The role of office support staff and paralegals has changed. Many firms are using fewer legal secretaries, with the Law Society predicting in 2019 that numbers would drop by two-thirds by 2027, from one secretary for two lawyers in 1998, to one for 20 lawyers by 2027. New roles are emerging instead as the demand for on-site IT support grows. There will be other roles in future too, that may include legal AI and Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality (VR/AR) experts and a growth in areas relating to copyright and AI.
- Get in step with the sector. Even small law and solo practitioners will need to keep up with the rest of the profession in order to work effectively within it. As third-party digitisation grows, all firms must work to keep in line with new digital requirements, such as the Ministry of Justice’s Digital Strategy 2025. One example of this in current practice is the National Will Register, a Cloud-based will registration and search service with over 10 million wills already in the system.
- Ensure compliance with digital solutions that have integrated compliance, making sure best practice workflows and processes are adhered to. This is vital within the legal environment where errors and oversights can be disastrous for professionals, partners and an entire firm both financially and reputationally. Digital solutions provide partners and firm managers with the assurance that they are operating within the very latest versions of the law and other mandatory requirements - invaluable during times of change such as post-Brexit employment law.
- Raise security levels. Recent years have revealed disturbing increases in cyberattacks on businesses and legal firms hold particular allure for criminals. Remote and hybrid working has increased the risk of ransomware entering a system via a poorly configured connection or device. As holders of large quantities of sensitive and personal data for clients and employees, firms have a responsibility to implement the highest available levels of security to safeguard this data. Unlike on-premise systems, the Cloud incorporates high levels of in-built security with encrypted data held across multiple servers, making it far more robust and resistant to cyberattack.
- Implement smarter business strategies. Good governance, effecting planning, strategy and budgeting all require accurate and up to date information. Digital solutions can help improve these processes in numerous ways, for example by easily and accurately identifying high and lower performing areas of business, tracking the performance of fee-earners and much more. Actionable insights based on high quality data ensure that every decision makes the greatest possible impact on efficiency, productivity and profitability while ensuring high quality client service and employee satisfaction.
Implementing a digital-first strategy can help firms get on top of some of the other, current challenges that impact on firm management, including ESG reporting often required by clients, employees and investors. Sustainable, low carbon strategies can help reduce costs associated with printing, copying cost and waste removal, while remote working reduces pollution from commuting. Fewer employees in the office at any one time enables hot-desking and down-sized premises with lower energy emissions and costs.
Digital technology such as employee platforms help firms to build an accurate view of their people so that policies and new ways of working can be shaped to suit everyone. Seeing people like themselves represented in a firm may attract new clients. It may also attract talent from more diverse candidate groups who can see the potential for a long-term career in an authentically inclusive working environment.
In conclusion, a digital-first approach will elevate all areas of business and functions within it. It can raise productivity, reduce operational costs, increase profit and market share. It also plays an important role in a successful talent attraction and retention strategy, helping to attract new business and retain existing clients for repeat work. It ensures legal compliance and elevates data security. As law enters this new era it will be important for leaders to invest time in getting to grips with all of the considerations in order to access the many benefits that digital technology can bring.
This article is part of our 'How to become a digital-first law firm' series, you can download our insightful and intuitive step-by-step guide of the same name by clicking here.