Whiteboard tools: Why they should be part of the legal toolkit
Jack Shepherd explores how whiteboard tools can be an effective and accessible resource for the legal sector.
For many lawyers, word processing, email, document management and document comparison tools, are all essential parts of the legal toolkit. Some may venture into spreadsheets, slides or even project management software and other modern communications tools. But few may have ever used whiteboard tools.
With remote or hybrid working part of the foreseeable future, lawyers will continue to look for ways to make their teams more cohesive. Whiteboard tools can do that, along with bringing improvements to legal work product and client service.
What is a 'whiteboard tool'?
You’ll be familiar with a physical whiteboard. There are apps that replicate this experience, on a screen. They are designed to be written on by hand — probably on a tablet on a touchscreen device, but I don’t think they are very helpful for lawyers. I’m talking about a different kind of whiteboard tool.
True whiteboard tools are designed to be used with a mouse, not a pen. The two main examples are Miro and Mural, although there are others entering the fray such as FigJam. They let you sketch ideas and diagrams. They let many people contribute ideas to a page simultaneously. You can allow people to vote on things. You can group, spot connections and separate out different themes.
These tools help you think and help you explain things to others. They are, in my opinion, the quickest way of drawing diagrams. They can bring meetings to life by encouraging true collaboration. They can help build teams. Lawyers should make them part of their everyday toolkit.
It’s hard to read long and wordy memos that lawyers are famous for. Clients often ask lawyers to deliver concise legal advice that is simple to understand: “It must fit on the screen of my iPhone”.
Beyond just simplifying their language, some lawyers may use pictures and diagrams instead of text.
The problem is, a lot of lawyers don’t know how to make diagrams. Most rely on drawing things out on paper and sending to somebody else to create. This can get the job done. But it can also cause frustrations, particularly with tight timescales and if you need to make edits yourself – making it too easy to fall back on long and boring memos full of text.
Whiteboards are easy enough for anyone to pick up and use instantly. Diagrams can be easily exported to an image to include in other documents, lowering the barrier to make work product clearer and easier to understand.
When I was in practice, I would say 90 per cent of my interactions with clients happened in email or over a conference call. On a video call, it’s difficult to read body language to see whether people are following the conversation. And it’s not possible to jump to a flipchart or hand diagrams around to explain complicated things.
Instead of walking people through a memo sent prior to a call, lawyers could use whiteboard tools to sketch out legal situations, as they go. Take the example of a lawyer walking a client through the legal steps they need to follow to implement a transaction. Standard practice might be to send out a set of slides beforehand that documents these steps.
Alternatively, a whiteboard tool can be used to show things happening in real time, making changes to the structure as you go. It’s like visualising someone’s words as they speak. It makes things so much easier to understand.
Whiteboard tools can help you anticipate things. Beyond 'showing' things created in a whiteboard tool to others, it can help you collaborate with others and anticipate needs and outcomes.
Let’s take a long and expensive example: a due diligence report. Some firms might be tempted to get cracking on this right away, producing a long Word document flagging the standard change of control risks. Such firms risk racking up fees for a work product that clients didn’t really want.
Using a whiteboard tool, you could spend a few minutes with clients mapping out exactly what they want to achieve and what they will do with your work product. In the due diligence example, you could spend 20 minutes on a client call to map out the scope of your report with them. Doing so encourages people to exchange ideas more easily, changing things as required. Meetings become less like presentations, more like collaboration sessions.
The key thing about this kind of exercise is that it gets everything out in the open. You don’t have to wait for a drop in conversation to make your point. It captures input from people who might not have the confidence to speak up. You can cluster ideas together and spot common themes. It’s the ultimate form of collaboration, because everybody is involved from the start.
It’s hard to manage teams in a remote setting. I used to be able to tell who was busy or not, or who was closing a transaction by the pace of their footsteps down the corridor. Team training and colleagues on leave were listed on a board when I came in through the door.
Rather than run a call every week where everybody talks about how busy they are, you could allow people to drop this information into a whiteboard tool at a time that suits them. The advantage? You can run the process asynchronously — you don’t have to find a slot in people’s diaries where everybody is free.
Whiteboards can help you manage projects. Many legal projects will require detailed matter/project management tools. However, whiteboards can help you track things at a higher level - replacing post-it notes ona wall, or things written on a physical whiteboard in the office.
The advantage is that you can share it with people who don’t work in the same physical space. These high-level milestones are often the things clients care about the most. Lawyers could use a whiteboard tool to map out key dates on a legal matter and share the link to the board with clients, or export the document to PDF.
An accessible tool
You don't have to turn into a full-on, card-carrying, blue-sky-thinking innovation guru to enjoy whiteboard tools. For lawyers wanting to dip into these tools, using them to improve their existing work product is a great idea.
My advice is to start with use cases you and your team are comfortable with and scale up from there. Don’t scare people off too early. That said, in due course I hope we see more lawyers using these tools to work with each other and with their clients.
Most exciting to me is the prospect of allowing lawyers to develop skills that do not come naturally to them, such as designing processes, rigorously understanding their clients and thinking in terms of outcomes. At the same time, these tools and skills help flatten hierarchies and bring about a much more collaborative working environment.
All of this will help lawyers focus on the key outcomes that matter to their clients, and direct efforts at the problems that really matter. And their clients will love them for it.
Jack Shepherd is Legal Practice Lead at iManage imanage.com