Episode 2: Closing the automation gap

A set of SME legal leaders and experts come together to understand why firms are yet to achieve their automation potential, and share their experience of automating processes.


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While there is widespread acknowledgement for the value that automation could bring to SME law firms – based on LPM Frontiers research from recent years – large segments of the SME legal market remain hesitant to take the automation plunge. Why? We brought together a set of business leaders from sector with a diverse range of expertise to try and understand the key issues.

The first key challenge raised by our Tigers was understanding how much of they firms’ operations really have the scope to be automated. Sean Stuttaford, chief operations officer at Thompson Smith and Puxon, described how his firm undertook an exercise at the cusp of its automation journey a decade ago – plotting the various types of work along a spectrum of ‘bespoke’ to ‘standardised,’ ‘systemised’ or ‘commoditised.’ A complex undertaking in itself, he reveals that it can also be a controversial exercise, stating that “lawyers tend to think their work lies more towards the bespoke side of the spectrum.” The next step was to identify a target position on the spectrum based on the firm’s strategic goals – placing client needs at the core of this work, while prioritising efficiency and costs savings, particularly under the current circumstances.

Lindsey Dewart, practice manager at Thomas Flavell & Sons, noted that property work occupies a significant position at her firm, which made it a good starting point to examine the entire client journey and identify automation opportunities. For her, the biggest challenge was adoption – “it’s hard for lawyers to rely on a third party to handle certain aspects of their work, so there was a lot of resistance to change at first.” Rolling the solution out on a pilot basis and allowing others to realise the benefits and adopt the technology organically proved to be an effective strategy for the firm.

According to Andy Vigus, finance and operations director at Talbots Law, distinguished between the cultural side and the investment side of automation. Risk averse cultures at the management level in law firms can block new investments – it’s hard to know for sure if new technology will deliver value, so it’s crucial to convince people that it’s necessary for future competitiveness. For lawyers, they need to be convinced that automation doesn’t threaten the value of their work, or their job itself. Given the volumes of work that firms are dealing with at the moment, he argues that it’s easier to convince lawyers that only part of their work is being automated, and that they’ll be freed up to do more lawyering. According to Stuttaford, promoting a growth mindset, more generally speaking, can help create more openness to change.

Also on the panel was Mike Kaye, senior solutions expert from NetDocuments, who brought a product perspective to the discussion. According to him, technology providers have the expertise to help firms conduct their gap analyses and needs assessments, so it helps to get providers involved in the discussions early. Another thing that suppliers can help with is measuring returns on investment (ROI) – Kaye reveals that NetDocuments has an ROI model for firms, which can help them identify how much repetitive work is being done by each individual and multiply it by the number of individuals to provide a full picture of how much time can be saved. The model has room for monetary evaluations too, though not all administrative work within the firm that can be automated is necessarily billable. Still, knowing how much time is being saved, and returned so lawyers can do more billable work, can help firms identify the value of automation.

All these strategies can help convince people at all levels within an SME law firm that automation is the best way forward. The panel also discussed challenges that come once automation begins – from training and utilisation to costs, risks and, importantly, integration challenges.

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