Jane Pritchard, founder and consultant at Elawvate, discusses SME law firm technology assimilation and how not to get absorbed in the disruption
If only it were as easy as a Star Trek Borg assimilation – being plugged into the mainframe platform and obtaining the mindset needed for the digital transformation.
Over the past 20 years in practice, and the last five in consultancy, I’ve been immersed in digital transformation – working from an SME private practice background as a practising lawyer and then into consultancy across multiple firms. The behaviour and attitude of lawyers to a digital revolution can be unrealistic. I’m allowed to be brutal when discussing lawyers’ attitudes to technology, as I am one.
Chairing a national technology user group for the Tikit P4W UK client base gave me some real traction to incite revolution from within a trusted network of tech-lawyer specialists. It may be total sci-fi overkill, but it has been a journey not unlike navigating the matrix – thinking you’re all alone and finding a network of rebels already unplugged and ready to take up the mantel.
When I talk of rebellion, I mean the disruption in legal needed to deliver digital transformation from within. So much emphasis is on tech companies providing solutions lawyers need: big data needing big solutions based on the perception of how legal services need to be delivered in a fast-moving international market place.
The problem with relying solely on software houses to deliver solutions is that without techlawyers being involved in the design process, without true consultation and stakeholder collaboration, digital solutions often fall short. Not just for the lawyers expected to use them, but for their client base too. As soon as expectations are not met, tech is put back in the box and rather than having moved on, firms can move backwards.
In SME firms, where we can inform and deliver transformation more speedily owing to our agility, there are several barriers to change which can be removed remarkably easily.
I have been incredibly lucky over the last five years to be able to work for client firms that have already made the decision to invest in a digital transformation of their business. Whether it has been regulation changes (GDPR and pricing transparency) or business planning, which inspired the commitment, let’s look at how the tech transfusion can succeed:
1 Identifying digital transformation as central to the business plan
Goes without saying, right? Well no, not really. Investment in a plan for digital transformation is fundamental but often missing. The strategic roadmap, which places digital legal services at the centre of the practice, is as important as winning new clients for future growth; how many business plans detail the roadmap? In my experience in SME, resources are directed to dealing with the short-term challenges as they emerge, reacting to them and moving to the next one: making tax digital; SRA rules; accounting changes; what the latest regulatory framework will provide. Those firms I have worked with who are well on their way to transformation are those who have embedded the project into the core business and designed all of their business strategy around it.
2 Attitude to change management
So, we have the plan, the big picture, the way the future will look, but who is going to deliver the change needed? It’s no secret that lawyers, like many professionals, are poor at coping with change. In fact, it is not a lawyer thing at all – it is often a reflection of poor change management. Get your key stakeholders within the business involved in the business plan itself and the change management process will be far easier. Understanding how the changes needed will impact on the entire practice, on each team and identifying barriers can be liberating.
Start from as basic as who can use a mobile device, and build robust training cycles. All the most successful projects start with face-to-face consultation, round tables, and on to the shop floor.
3 Training in-house teams of tech lawyers
This next challenge is the one I get excited about. That addictive lightbulb moment when lawyers who have worked one way for 30 years embrace change that improves their working methods. It is where we started with the Borg and where we need to concentrate our tech transfusion without the radical assimilation!
I can confirm that there is no mayday signal that is to be intercepted by a digital hero, who can transform legal practice in a Captain Marvel fashion. We are without doubt the masters of our own destiny. There are gaps all over the profession for tech-lawyers who can translate the business needs into plans for software development, intelligent workflows, streamlining and automation, but we simply can’t wait for those new waves of lawyers in law school to provide the disruption we need.
I asked myself how I became a tech-lawyer, why I refused to accept mediocre out-of-the-box solutions that didn’t fit and I guess it started when I was introduced to the treasury tag. It never made any sense to me that we would work digitally, store digitally, print the document off, punch a hole in it and push it over a treasury tag into a paper file. Back before we talked cloud technology and digital legal services, many of us were practising at paper-light firms, believing in better, and I was lucky enough to work with colleagues and partners who encouraged my curiosity and determination to be different. What are we doing now to encourage the tech-lawyers who work within our practices? Give them the freedom to design, invest in their training and promote IT skills in the same way you would business development. Recruit yes, but invest in the talent that is without doubt already within your business and your technology transfusion will be complete.