What is the case for case management automation in the face of ABS?

Around 33 stage two ABS licence applications have been submitted to the SRA and a further 92 are at stage one at the time of writing. We can expect competition for clients will this year reach new heights. Some see this as a trivial number. But it would not take many applications from the likes of the Co-op or new movers such as LawVest, or perhaps American giants Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom to make a massive impact on the legal market.

Discussion about the challenge to come from entities such as these has tended to focus on the marketing spend that they will have at their disposal and how difficult it will be to compete with that.  This is undoubtedly true, but dynamic commercial enterprises such as these do not invest millions in marketing just so they can do the resulting work at only a small profit.  Great attention will be paid to the cost of production and advantage therefore taken of technology and effective delegation of work to an appropriate level.  This will include automated online legal services, which if meeting a generated demand for such services creates a virtual circle of delighting clients by doing more for less.

Law firms facing up to these challenges still have an advantage in the local, regional and in some cases national markets they have created over generations, but that advantage is more likely to be lost by a failure to embrace changes to working practices than the inability to match marketing expenditure by those with deeper pockets.

For some firms this means making more of the technology already at their disposal, whilst for others it requires putting the first step on the ladder before it is too late.  Case management systems have been around for a long time now and any firm that is operating without using case management workflow in any part of its business needs to take an urgent look at its working methods and ask itself whether clients will continue to pay for inevitably more expensive work when those that do use the technology can drive costs down.

If a firm is persuaded of the need to use workflows to their full extent, what should they be looking for in modern systems? 

Workflows should no longer be confined to purely matter management.  Every contact recorded in a firm’s database should be recognized by the system in terms of what matters the firm is or has undertaken for him, what relationships he has with individual members of the firm, what relationships he has with other clients and contacts of the firm, what his current and past financial dealings with the firm are and have been and so on.  In back office, it is just as important in terms of efficiency and profitably that repetitive work is not re-invented every time it is undertaken but is systematised just as much as client work is.  The entire operation needs to be integrated, rather than having standalone HR software, for example.  Good modern systems will do all these things.

Automation is starting to emerge as an interesting facet of workflow technology.  This has long existed to some extent, but generally has had to be initiated manually be a lawyer or assistant.  Now, however, companies are starting to enable completely automatic workflows from a particular data entry being made or a communication being received from a client or other contact.  Those automated workflows can in turn drive other automated workflows.

Most case management systems grew out of legal accounts software, as the client and matter data recorded for accounting purposes became used for communicating with clients and other parties related to a matter.  In some cases, the gradual grafting of workflow capability onto accounting systems show and this is exacerbated when companies then tried to build a layer of marketing capability on top.

I have often been told by marketing directors that they cannot get the data out of the firm’s database that they need to enable them to perform marketing activities in the best interests of the firm.  Some companies have addressed this by starting again and re-writing the database with marketing functionality at its heart and others are emerging without any legacy systems to compromise this capability.

It is in online services where the more forward thinking software companies, driven by like minded clients and prospective clients, where the real difference is likely to be made.  Some of this has been reactive in providing for example interfaces between a firm’s personal injury case management system and the MoJ portal.  This is great so far as it goes, but how much better still if the data that a client enters online about his case can be sucked into the firm’s database and then spat out again into the MoJ portal.  This is what is being made possible by some companies.  Once that principle is established, the only limitation on what can be achieved is one’s imagination and courage.  Workflow can run a series of interactions with clients online, making the process highly automated and yet very personal and particular to the client.

Add to these developments, device and geography agnostic technology enabling lawyers to work from anywhere, whether on laptop, tablet or phone, there can be no excuse for firms not to become as efficient and profitable as the biggest of the emerging competition.  The hardest part of this is not the technology, but the desire for change and the ability to inspire everyone in the firm to share in and commit to that desire.