I recall a strategy paper I enthusiastically presented to our operations board last December. It was full of new ideas around greater utilisation of client data to inform decision-making, expanding our use of artificial intelligence (AI) across new use cases and setting up a new workflow automation unit within IT. 

By late March, those plans had been effectively paused because of covid-19 and my focus rapidly shifted from strategic planning to frontline tech support alongside my IT colleagues. 

Now, as the nation begins to ‘unlock’ and society leans towards a new normal, I reflect on how the innovation function pivoted to support the firm and our clients during these unprecedented times. 

In these difficult times, I believe more than ever that ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ and that doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.

Know your client

The lockdown has changed priorities for all of us, however our obligations and duties around anti-money laundering (AML) and know your client (KYC) checks are unchanged. Being able to onboard a new client safely, with appropriate regard to your professional obligations, remains essential. 

If your business entered lockdown still reliant on new clients physically attending the office with their passport and a recent utility bill, how then could you discharge those duties when the office closed? Physically meeting at an alternative location would carry a public health risk and many clients would be understandably uncomfortable with such an arrangement anyway. 

An entirely digital AML/KYC process should have been on your radar already, otherwise now is the time to consider it. Suppliers such as Amiqus and Encompass have been offering digital ID verification services for a number of years; and with the rise of challenger banks such as Monzo and Starling, you may find clients are already familiar with remote ID verification.

At Burness Paull we already worked with Amiqus in this regard, so when physical access to our offices became impossible it made no difference to our AML/KYC procedures. Our clients and staff would now be loathe to do this essential task any other way.

The vast majority of legal work is a team effort – how do we replicate this collegiate environment when we’re working from
home, or perhaps split between office and remote working?

It may no longer be an option to grab a physical meeting room for a few minutes and brainstorm a problem, yet that collaboration still needs to happen somehow. Thankfully, we’ve been spoiled for choice in recent years between the various conferencing apps and collaboration platforms, so much so that the diversity of solutions has become a problem in itself.

Whether it’s Webex, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype, we’ve all had to quickly become experts in navigating the different menus and subtly different functions. This has come naturally to some more than others, but the important thing is to embrace the opportunities which remote collaboration offers – sharing screens and co-authoring documents, for example. 

Done deals

Now more than ever it’s right to question what the output of your efforts should look like. Before lockdown we would still routinely issue hard copy engrossments, usually in multiple copies, for signature, circulation and return.

Once lockdown began and ready access to printers was cut off, I saw little lingering demand for hard copies. Clients took a pragmatic view of things and generally accepted soft copies and electronic signatures where viable with little hesitation. 

The kinds of conversations we had with clients in the early days of lockdown were commercially focused: ‘How can we achieve this end result?’ rather than ‘what are the rules around X?’. 

For a commercially-minded solicitor this should be music to your ears – results-driven advice is what we’re all about. Clients by and large were asking us for enabling solutions, not lengthy advice notes. 

Thankfully, we have seen a huge boom in lawtech offerings which pivot around this same fundamental concept – that it should be the role of the solicitor to enable the client’s desired outcomes in the most efficient way, within the confines of whichever rules and regulations apply. 

A classic example is electronic signatures. Despite having been most recently codified in EU law by the eIDAS Regulations 2014 (with direct effect on member states from July 2016), prior to lockdown I saw little evidence of adoption in any home jurisdiction. At Burness Paull, we started using DocuSign in 2018 to process all paperwork for new employees joining the firm, but client-facing use cases were few and far between. 

The arrival of counterpart execution caused considerably more fuss and the conversation around closing a deal was often, ‘Are we circulating principal hard copies, or using counterparts this time?’ Come lockdown, suddenly e-signature was no longer a niche option for unusual circumstances but a business-critical necessity. 

Fortunate were the firms who had already done their due diligence and appointed a preferred supplier of e-signature solutions. For those caught on the back foot, April would have been an especially stressful month poring over regulatory guidance, product demonstrations and (one would hope) risk assessments. 

Concluding deals also came under scrutiny during lockdown, when the reality of not being able to host a traditional financial close hit home. We must now concede that this approach was never that practical and, with a global pandemic in full swing, it would be grossly irresponsible to rush back to hosting physical deal rooms. 

Suppliers such as Litera have been banking on the profession reaching this same conclusion with its acquisition of deal management platform Doxly last August (though no one at Litera would claim to have had ‘global pandemic’ on that business case). 

Our role as solicitors must be one of enabling and facilitating the wishes of our clients rather than throwing up barriers, so we must be prepared to engage with such platforms and come to the conversation around financial close with more ideas than obstacles. 

Remote cash room

If your business is still reliant on issuing hard copy invoices and being paid by cheque, think about your personal finance at home (do you still settle your own bills this way?). Even the venerable monthly BACS run might not be best for either or both parties in the new normal. 

Suppliers such as Legl have been pushing a different approach for some time now – allowing clients to settle their invoices via an online payment portal using a debit or credit card, in appropriate instalments (so long as the balance is settled within terms). Ask yourself whether you’re putting any barriers in place between when the invoice goes out and the client making payment. 

Once on an even keel, you should turn your attention to making the most of the new opportunities created by the challenges of the pandemic – the biggest opportunity for lasting change in a generation. 

Whatever disruption and uncertainty the legal profession will continue to endure, our clients have endured just as much and more. If your clients are making fundamental changes to their business practices but you aren’t, ask yourself whether you’re still in step with their needs. There’s never been a better time to ask.  

Samuel Moore is the first accredited legal technologist and is innovation manager at Burness Paull burnesspaull.com

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