Law firms are undergoing a rapid transformation as they transition at pace to a digital future. Here, Doug Hargove, MD for Education and Legal at Advanced, shares some thoughts on how to manage your firm and workforce to achieve successful implementations.
The first thing to say is that digital isn’t the future, it’s now. Among the many consequences of the pandemic, a major impact for law firms is that it’s catapulted them into digital ways of working. There are still many firms at a digital “halfway house” with staff logging in remotely using a VPN link. But the real transformation that’s underway is one that’s characterised by the end of paper and the move to cloud-based applications and data storage. We know that already 84% of the UK’s Top 100 firms are using a Document Management System. This indicates firms that have embraced digital and relinquished much of their legacy on-prem IT infrastructure. But what are the implications of this and how does it impact people, practice and security? What should firms be doing to implement an effective digital workplace?
What it means for people
Digital creates opportunities and pitfalls when it comes to people. The indications are that fee-earners have adopted well – for instance UK law firm revenues have risen in the last year which included periods of remote working. But a danger with the digital future is that the human dimension gets overlooked. Digital is liberating for some; but isolating for others. Firms are recognising that with too much remote working, social cohesion can get lost, and official and unofficial mentoring and coaching are eroded, as is delegation of work. This is why – when it’s possible under government guidelines and despite the costs of the office – the majority of firms still expect staff to be in the office between 40% and 60% of the time.
Notwithstanding, in a digital future, firms will need to pay active attention to staff mental health; to maintaining what creates the firm’s unique culture and nurtures staff loyalty; and to the tangible and less tangible elements that are going to attract and keep talent. These include training and personal development opportunities, and delivering on ESG commitments in areas like diversity and inclusion, and action on climate change.
What it means for the practice of law
Digital wouldn’t be adopted if it didn’t bring clear efficiency gains and support higher productivity. But it’s up to firms to make sure that all the advantages of digital are being explored and exploited.
For instance, you need to think through the move to a paperless office. A cultural change needs to happen, but that has to be enabled by paperless policies and procedures. For example, firms must institute a process to “attack” paper coming into the firm so that each and every piece of information is scanned if necessary and given its own unique identifier within the DMS. This ensures that virtual official client matter files are kept up to date and complete, and become trusted. Firms need to relinquish paper files. You also need a policy for shredding paper.
Firms also need to ensure that their people are using the full functionality of their new digital toolset through appropriate training, and through adopting intuitive solutions or ones that offer contextualised and targeted help to users and deliver a positive user experience. Firms also need to ensure the tools are customised to fit their workflow needs and to boost their effectiveness.
Another part of the digital transformation that might be overlooked is the access it gives firms to enhanced data analytics – use this. Relatedly, another benefit of digital is to the client relationship. Not only does digital enable more timely billing and enhanced realisation; it also gives you more visibility of what’s happening with clients to enrich business development and customer relationship management; and it provides the opportunity to increase real-time collaboration with clients which deepens the relationship.
What it means for security
Data security is a big deal for law firms and rightly so because the threat is very real. In the year to March 2021, the UK Government reported that four in ten businesses experienced an identifiable cyber security breach or attack, with businesses that hold personal data more likely to be targeted.
However we also know that cloud-based systems are purpose built to safeguard data and they benefit from high and ongoing investments in many layers of security. This increases the firm’s resilience to cyberattacks, and obviates its need to invest in disaster recovery, excess capacity and continuity planning. But the danger is that this makes you complacent. Firms need to bear in mind that people – usually by being careless and sometimes by being malicious – are often the weakest link. The best technical cyber defences in the world won’t protect the firm from phishing attacks – which are the most common (83%) type of attack.
So firms need to create a security-minded culture. They need to put formal cybersecurity policies in place that include things like password management protocols, privacy settings, physical device security (particularly important when people are working remotely), staff cyber education needs and the procedures to be followed if there’s a breach. They must conduct regular cyber awareness training for everyone. You can back this up by regularly sending fake “phishing” emails to identify who’s not paying attention.
In summary, the key to transitioning is that digital opens up a lot of opportunities to reengineer and reconfigure how and where the firm works. You just have to identify those and take advantage of the moment.