How incremental innovation can benefit law firms
Jenny Hotchin explores various methods of incremental innovation which firms can benefit from.
The word ‘innovation’ has received somewhat of a bad reputation in recent years, due to a combination of factors, including overuse of the term and unrealistic expectations about what it can achieve. Yet incremental innovation helps slice away some of the hype, and provides a practical starting point for law firms looking transform themselves.
The truth is, incremental innovation can actually deliver big benefits. While the mind might automatically jump to big-ticket items when the topic of ‘innovation’ or ‘digital transformation’ comes up, keeping an eye on some of the smaller items and making some incremental changes can be highly beneficial – especially in the near-to mid-term as law firms adapt to new working routines and the changing demands of clients.
So, how does one get started with this incremental innovation?
Start with the Basics
One of the first and most important steps is making sure that everybody within a firm has regular IT training to establish a baseline standard of IT literacy.
Sound basic? It is. But it’s when you skip the basics that inefficiency can creep in and take root.
For instance, how many lawyers within the firm aren’t taking advantage of the latest shortcuts, features, and functionality in tools that they use every day like Microsoft Word or Microsoft Outlook? Simply knowing that there’s a new and more efficient way to accomplish the routine tasks that people have been doing for years can add up to significant productivity enhancements and time savings.
A similar approach should be taken around core pieces of technology like the document management system (DMS). Is everybody actually using the DMS? If so, are they doing so properly and consistently? Are the full capabilities of the DMS being utilised? Does the law firm have the latest version of the DMS?
Similar questions could be asked around the practice management system, time and billing system, or other platforms. The common theme here is that just by making sure that you’re running the latest version of your core software tools, and that people are making best use of the features and functionality, you can make incremental improvements that can deliver real value.
Look for Process Inefficiencies
A next step on the incremental innovation front is to step back and take a look at some of the existing processes that are in place. Are there legal service delivery processes that are consistently expensive, with a high level of write off? If so, they warrant further examination.
Corporate due diligence is a classic example here. Clients are pushing for due diligence to be done cheaper and cheaper, and faster and faster. Law firms are having to do that work – sometimes almost at a loss – to get the more profitable work surrounding the deal.
Best practice here is to really understand the process around delivering that legal service before jumping to a piece of technology or making a big change. Simply writing the processes out can help highlight pain points and inefficiencies.
For instance, it could be that once you write the processes out, you realise that you’re sending a document to a team, who sends it to another team, who then sends it to somebody else. It might be entirely possible to “cut out the middleman” here, but when things have been done the same way for years and years, work patterns become ingrained, and no one thinks to question them.
The lesson? Make sure to document any resource-heavy and costly process and then really examine whether the process is efficient, effective, and sensible. It’s highly likely that you will find a couple of very easy changes in there that will drive efficiencies, productivity, and higher quality work.
Find Specific Areas to Introduce Technology
Process-wise, once you've got a really good idea of what you're doing and why you're doing it, it's easier start to look at how technology can be applied.
Let’s return to the example of corporate due diligence around an M&A deal. After reviewing the processes, you could start to examine where it might make sense to use extraction technology for one particular aspect of the due diligence process, like document review.
Fast forward to the closing of that M&A deal, after the diligence has been done. There are signatures to gather, closing books to create, and myriad other activities surrounding the successful closing of that legal transaction. Where can technology be introduced to streamline and automate those activities? This is where a legal transaction management solution might make sense.
Keep in mind, you’re not introducing technology to ‘do due diligence’ for you – you’re finding a very specific area where it can assist and add value, such as ‘technology assisted review.’ Likewise, you aren’t introducing legal transaction management software to ‘successfully close a deal’ for you – you’re choosing it to add more structure and automation tp an existing workflow.
In other words, you’re changing a part of the process, but that incremental change can provide quite a big return later down the line, particularly in terms of standardising the delivery of legal services.
Find New Ways to Scope and Quote
Once that consistency is in place – where things are broadly done in the same way – it serves as a catalyst for additional benefits, particularly from a scoping and quoting perspective.
Due diligence has historically had a bit of a ‘finger in the air’ quality to it when figuring out how much a job is going to cost. However, if you've taken a consistent approach to how you deliver legal services by making a series of small and incremental changes, like the ones outlined above, you can start to compare data across different transactions, gaining valuable information that can assist with more accurately scoping and quoting work.
This trend around scoping and quoting is gaining traction: Increasing numbers of law firms are introducing different grades of due diligence that can be applied to an overall deal or to a specific subset of documents. For example, it could be that a firm will apply a ‘five stars’ level of due diligence to a company’s most valuable customer contracts, and then a ‘three stars’ standard to the rest.
This trend around standardised levels of service will continue to gain momentum – all the more reason for firms to get started with documenting those processes and considering incremental innovation.
From Small Things…
A decades-old song tells us: “from small things, big things one day come.” Perhaps this is the best lens through which to view incremental innovation: It’s a series of small changes that eventually let law firms take big leaps forward in how they deliver legal services.
By making incremental moves ranging from establishing a baseline of IT literacy and making best use of available platforms, to making small tweaks to processes and finding areas where technology can assist with a specific process, firms will “suddenly” find new levels of consistency that enable them to quote and price in a new manner and deliver legal services in transformative and innovative new ways.
Given a pandemic that has injected uncertainty into global economies and the emergence of a hybrid work model that isn’t going away anytime soon, this embrace of incremental innovation is precisely what is needed for firms to work more effectively and better meet the moment. Simply put, those who embrace a series of incremental changes to drive efficiencies in their business and gain a competitive edge will thrive; those who don’t will struggle.
Jenny Hotchin is the Legal Practice Lead at iManage.