Continuing our discussion about SmartLaw and the future of the legal industry, which hopefully we can all say with some degree of comfort is here NOW, let’s consider another major theme of HighQ’s recent eBook – the intersection of technology and people. This idea is one that we touched on during our last series on the future of law, and it will continue to be a hot topic. As we seem to be in the midst of an almost technological revolution, with exciting new advances happening daily, it can seem very real that maybe robots will replace lawyers.

But many of the contributing authors (and I would wholeheartedly agree with them) take an alternative view – while technology will become increasingly important in the practice of law, it will not replace lawyers. Nor will lawyers have to be programmers any time soon – though my decision to major in computer science is looking more and more fortuitous as time goes on. Will many jobs and roles change? Of course, but that was the case with the advent of the telephone and email, and as those technologies improved too. Telephone operators used to be essential in order to place a call, and now you have a device that you can hold in your hand with which to place a call directly – operators lost their jobs, but other jobs were created as well by expanding technologies.

If we’re embracing the idea that change is afoot, what does that really look like, per the authors in the eBook? What are our opportunities and challenges? 

Start with Clients

With the recession, long before we started asking Siri where the nearest Starbucks was, the client realized that the power in their relationship with their outside counsel was shifting in their favor. This is where we begin – with the client at the center of the legal service experience.  We’ve been talking about this for the last decade, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. What is different is the trend for “design thinking,” which Interaction Design Foundation defines as:

…an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.”

So, that sounds like a lot of consultant-speak for what essentially means better understanding your clients so that you can focus on the end-result of what they want, instead of the means to get there (the means come later).

Rachel Roberts, the head of business solutions at UK law firm, Burges Salmon LLP, sees design thinking as powerful, and I agree – this is the intersection of everything we’ve been talking about: people, technology, and processes.

She makes some excellent points in her chapter:

  • Firms must be both digital and people-focused.
  • While firms care about “what goes into the sausage” (so to speak), clients don’t – they only want clear solutions.
  • Technology is essential, but it is people that bring innovative ideas to life.
  • Law firms can’t be all things to all people, and either can lawyers. We should expect to see more “bridging roles” in the future – these are “professionals who can bring together legal thinking with organisational skills and technology competencies: lawyers, project managers, legal innovation and technology innovation specialists all working together.”

When you begin with the client, and build out from there, focusing all of your process, people, and technological solutions around the radical service of their needs, THIS will be the superior law firm of the future.

Improve your Processes

Stuart Barr, who leads product strategy and innovation at HighQ, agrees with Roberts, and identifies dual goals to pursue to get started. The first is one we’ve seen as a roadblock before, and that’s a big one: culture.

Overcoming the cultural inertia within your firm and encouraging new behaviors is the first and most crucial step towards true digital transformation and thinking differently about your clients.”

We saw this played out in the Altman Weil survey, and you may recognize the frustration of it within your own firm. How do you overcome cultural pushback? We’ve observed that there are three camps that people fall into – the early adopters, who accept that change is necessary and are excited to move forward, those on the fence, who may need some evidence and proof before they’re willing to make any adjustments, and those who are sure that they will not change the way that they practice law now or ever. The early adopters are where you want to begin, because that’s where you’ll have the most success. You can use them to form your “pilot groups” to test new processes and technologies, and to even develop their own ideas and suggestions, which they also test. The results of these pilots, when successful, will help to convince your second group, and you can roll out the successful pilot tests to wider groups and eventually the entire firm. At some stage, you may have to decide what to do with that third group, and make some hard decisions about whether they continue to fit in with the firm’s future.

As you’re addressing these culture challenges, technology seems to be an easy bandaid to slap on the change issue. Slow down. Technology is exciting and necessary, but you want to ensure that the solutions that you’re investing in, both in terms of money and time, are the right ones for your firm. That’s not to say that there may not be some failures – there will be, and those are part of the learning process. But also part of the process should be first identifying the problems that you want to solve, and THEN the potential technology or process-oriented solutions that solve them. Your answer may not lie in a nifty piece of software.

That’s why you want to focus on process here, emphasizes Barr:

…the key to a law firm’s success in the coming years will be enabling people to be more efficient and focused on higher value work to drive predictability, repeatability, consistency, transparency and profitability.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

Fundamentally, firms can’t keep reinventing the wheel every time they undertake a piece of work, they must continuously improve on the way it has been done before. This is why a focus on process is so crucial for law firms to thrive in the future.”

The nice thing about this is that as you improve your processes and become more efficient, you will also get more data, which will allow you to continue to improve your processes and become more efficient. That further enhances your firm’s ability to achieve predictability, repeatability, consistency, transparency and profitability.

Human first, then Technology

Dan Wright, who leads Osborne Clarke Solutions and is a former corporate lawyer, agreed with all of the above, and had a few other essential points that he distilled into a bulleted list. Some of these may hit close to home:

  • Don’t ignore simple solutions in favor of “innovation:” we can easily get caught up in the next big thing, but sometimes the way to be most efficient and deliver the best value for your clients is a truly simple solution that is easy to implement. Get creative.
  • Invest in more than just technology: Wright emphasizes that a firm needs to do more than just buy the software – they also need to invest in the time to train in it. We’re all guilty of expecting technology to give us a quick fix, but sometimes the things that will make us more efficient and effective in the long-term take up a tremendous time investment in the short-term. It is worth it, but we have to be committed to it.
  • Normalize the capturing of data: I have heard a LOT that lawyers and law firms are too specialized to capture and analyze data in a way that’s worthwhile. Since your clients are doing it, I can’t believe this to be true. Start embracing this before your clients wonder why they can do it, and you can’t. Then use that data to improve your service offerings.
  • Don’t be innovative for the sake of innovation: Identify the real problems and challenges you’re facing, and the solutions that you require to meet these, be they technology, people, processes, and complicated or simple.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail: this is a tough one for lawyers, but failure is a part of innovation. We all like to know that we’re going to succeed before we get started, but in the current marketplace, we’re definitely going to fail if we DON’T get started at all. So even though it’s hard, embrace failure, be open about it, and use the lessons you learn to move on to success.
  • “Focus on the human, not the machine. Use technology to augment what those humans can do and the value they deliver.”
  • And my favorite – “Make [your] clients think, ‘We had no idea we could ask our lawyers to do this.'”

Read through their comments in full in HighQ’s eBook and let me know what your thoughts are on the intersection of people, technology and processes!