LawTalk takes a look around the globe at some of the innovations and changes being made to embrace the ‘New Normal’ and what law firms and organisations across the world are doing to make themselves fit for the 21st century.
It took a global pandemic to show us that we are not that different. Sure, some things set us apart, notably New Zealand’s isolation which compounded things like the labour market and supply chain issues. Some may have grappled a little harder, in rural and remote areas with limited bandwidth for the omnipresent online meetings and consults, but our issues were also shared by our counterparts across the globe.
If we consider “necessity to be the mother of invention,” the past two years served as a time that needed rapid adaptation and innovation.
In this article, we look to innovators and innovations in the legal profession overseas and share insights on innovative practices borne out of the global pandemic. Are there learnings for New Zealand or did our ‘Number 8 Wire’ culture that so encapsulates the spirit of Kiwi ingenuity serve the needs of our business and clients in a time of immense uncertainty?
Three themes that resounded the loudest to the challenges that led to adaptation and innovation are:
These elements came together in a novel way as businesses navigated through and beyond the global pandemic.
Maintaining professional standards while sharing your new work environment with home-schooling teens or other working family members while beaming yourself to colleagues and the world from the privacy of your own home presented a unique challenge.
Information technology (IT) and compliance providers managed security and governance that enabled virtual networks to be used from anywhere by anyone and everyone in the organisation. Fly-in-fly-out meetings were replaced with virtual encounters that connected clients and colleagues worldwide.
So, are our newfound practices here to stay? Did we really see the rise of innovations across the legal sector or did a global pandemic just accelerate innovations already underway and force the profession to take a giant leap forward?
The rise of the virtual lawyer
When it was no longer possible to meet in person with your lawyer or come by the office to sign documents, technology became the saviour of our daily practice and livelihoods. The year 2020 would mark a point when resistance to change would be futile and commercially fatal.
The challenge of change, how lawyers worked and how client services were managed, was met by leading Irish law firm William Fry with two exceptional innovations launched in September 2021.
“We have helped keep skilled lawyers in the profession and encouraged those who left to return. We have given back personal autonomy to live and work where suits and, in doing so, hopefully empowered and encouraged skilled lawyers to stay within the profession”
Designed to solve ‘people puzzles,’ ‘William Fry Connect’ and ‘PeopleBridge’ have been lauded for their solutions to offer fully flexible working to senior lawyers and to address resource-strapped clients’ specialist skills shortages. At only one-year old, both initiatives were shortlisted for the Financial Times Innovative Lawyer Europe Awards in London on 13 October 2022.
Being ‘first mover,’ William Fry is the only top tier law firm in Ireland and the UK to offer both solutions. Under ‘William Fry Connect,’ partners and senior lawyers who have their own client following, have an opportunity to join William Fry and to practice on fully flexible terms with all the support and resources that come with such a leading firm.
‘PeopleBridge’ on the other hand offers clients a short-medium term solution to meet the shortage of skilled and specialist in-house lawyers. William Fry has built up a panel of lawyers and matches their specialist skills to clients’ specific needs.
William Fry Managing Partner Owen O’Sullivan says both initiatives “have helped to smooth out some of the disruption of Covid-19.
“We have helped keep skilled lawyers in the profession and encouraged those who left to return. We have given back personal autonomy to live and work where suits and, in doing so, hopefully empowered and encouraged skilled lawyers to stay within the profession.”
Having completed more than 20 current ‘PeopleBridge’ lawyer and client care meetings during November, “the feedback from both clients and lawyers has only been positive,” according to Richard Breen, one of the partners leading the projects along with corporate partner and London office head, Ivor Banim, and Linda Morris, the PeopleBridge Manager.
“Clients are taking comfort that they’re getting the right skilled lawyers for their specific needs and the lawyers appreciate the flexible nature of the mandates. Having assigned ‘partner contacts,’ and the full resources of William Fry behind them, it’s a ‘win-win’ for everyone,” Banim said.
“Since New Zealand is similarly a common law system with both the solicitor and barrister branches to the profession, there is no reason our models would not work there – it just takes the courage of being the first mover,” according to Morris.
The William Fry models extend the scope and specialist capability beyond practitioners simply moving from desk to home and pave the way for a future that connects client and specialist in a meaningful way. With over 460 staff across three countries and five locations, William Fry has been in business for 175 years and attributes adaptation, innovation and people to its longevity and ongoing success.
Is innovation only about technology?
Canadian legal innovation and legal project management professional, Arthur Wilson (Art), says, “innovation does not need to be linked to technology, though technology is often a part of the equation.”
Art points to three elements as being crucial to Innovation in the legal profession:
Legal project management
Legal process improvement
Legal Project Management (“LPM”)
Skilled in both ‘Six Sigma’ and ‘Lean’ business process improvement methodologies, Art believes that legal project management is vastly underrated as an innovation tool. “Outside of law, project management across professional services has been de rigeur for 50+ years and is critical to improving client service.”
However, law firms offer a unique set of challenges around project management. The adversarial nature of some aspects of business, together with a highly fluid and often unknown set of variables, can lead the best-planned project down one or many paths. Despite this, the following core principles apply:
Understand what the work is and ensure your client shares that understanding.
Reach a common understanding with your client about the estimated costs of the work.
Manage communication both with your client and internally with your team.
Manage the team.
The other challenge with embracing legal project management as best practice within legal firms is “quite simply, the human will to do it”, says Art. With efficiency as a “collateral benefit” of project management, this can often be counter-intuitive to the mindset around traditional legal billing models.
Art encourages firms to look at their write-offs and write-downs because better LPM can help bring these numbers down without impacting actual revenue. He also asks any firm that has clients “complaining about their bills” to stop, take stock and reconsider their approach to project management within the legal framework, because “unhappy clients are often a red-flag for poor LPM within the firm”.
“The best benefits are when the targeted application of technology leads to Innovation... Whoever would have thought that 5-10 years ago that paperless merger and acquisition deals could be possible?”
Outside of the time-plus-materials billing model, there are obvious incentives to work efficiently. Good project management does not adversely affect the bottom line and has positive add-ons. Some of these benefits include inclusivity among teams, employee well-being, and improved client service.
Plus project management can enhance the bottom line with something as simple as a road map redirecting work to lower-cost regional offices or resources within the office.
Legal process improvement
Art explains how the pandemic forced us to follow innovative paths, most of which were just inherently relevant to follow. One such approach was how to be meaningful to our business, ourselves, colleagues, and clients whilst remote.
This required wholesale and rapid revision of traditional legal processes and administrative protocols. “Look, for example, at our earlier approach to video conferencing. We gathered people from multiple floors of the building and put them in one big room that housed all this specialist technology.” Such formal and often protracted arrangements have now given way to more spontaneous meeting formats where we freely “jump on” a zoom call, often at short notice. Art points to the hunger for virtual interaction when a physical presence was curtailed as helping drive the rapid transition to online meeting platforms and talk technology.
“Anecdotally, I sense that a once email-heavy profession has seen a reduction in traffic due to the familiarity and favour of an online catch-up to resolve issues with one comparatively quick meeting.”
What started as a process shift has now become a workplace norm and goes with a suite of changes to workplace processes and preferences.
Legal process improvement can enable firms to work more efficiently across the board. This delivers better value to clients through effective scoping, pricing, and allocation of work. This could include creating simple new processes like fixed price models for specific pieces of work that can use document assembly technology.
In considering the role of technology through the pandemic, Art believes that it spurred progress in an area that was happening already.
Whilst technological advancements tailored to the legal profession were well underway, the temptation to take on the newest offering still needs to be well considered.
The first question Art always wants to ask of the business is, “What do we need tech to do?” When looking at a new piece of technology where you’ll likely use only 50% of its capacity across 20% of your practice, that should at least be a yellow flag for your purchase decision.
The following checkpoints are helpful starting points when it comes to assessing technology:
What do we need tech to do? What functionality is needed?
Acknowledge the problem we are trying to solve and then look for the solution to that problem. Too often, tech is touted as a “solution,” but do we know what we are trying to solve?
Talk with the lawyers and other legal professionals right across the organisation. Get direct input on what their problems are.
The best benefits are when the targeted application of technology leads to Innovation. An example is the smart use of quality templates for lawyers and legal secretaries. Thomson Reuters’ ‘Contract Express’ is a simple and effective way to cut down on drafting time as well as on proofreading that reduces the editing cycle. Legal transaction management software, ‘Closing Folders,’ is another popular piece of kit. Software like this came to the fore during the pandemic when in-person signing was not possible. “Whoever would have thought 5 – 10 years ago that paperless merger and acquisition deals could be possible?”
Art was in fact initially not a big proponent of Closing Folders. But after completing a current state process review with a client’s M&A department it was clear that using the application could eliminate more than a dozen pain-points in the deal process.
“Anything that can help you pull 18 pink [pain point] stickies off the wall is great news,” says Art.
Which takes us back to Art’s assertion that it’s important to know what your problems are, in some detail, before you make the technology purchase decision.
Across the Tasman
Melbourne-based award-winning legal innovators Lander & Rogers are an excellent example of a multi-disciplined approach to legal innovation. With over 600 people, including 85 partners, Lander & Rogers pool global insights and trends while staying true to their Australian values. Their two key technologies; LawTech and iHub.
The LawTech Hub fosters innovation by supporting start-up businesses. A shining example of this is Stephen Foley’s ‘eBrief-Ready’, which has now become the leading briefing solution of the Victorian Bar. Here the challenge was to recreate the briefing experience digitally and then enhance it. Lander & Rogers Head of Analytics Stephen So explains that supporting “bright ideas across the legal tech sector through the LawTech Hub programme enables us to transform not only ourselves but also clients, communities and ultimately the profession at large.”
Stephen points to different drivers for innovation. “Take, for example, ‘Project Zero,’ a paper-reducing innovation driven by environmental goals. Covid came along and lit a fire under this. The result was a rapid acceleration of its rollout to bridge the paper-to-person gap.”
The iHub is the innovation team from Lander & Rogers aimed at business transformation through improved legal processes. Founded in 2018, the iHub’s benefits were quickly realised when Covid-19 hit. Likewise, embedded Cloud services enabled the organisation to move swiftly off physical hardware and surfaces, including “people’s desks,” quips Stephen.
At a time that required high levels of agility and rapid adoption of new technologies and processes, Stephen regards the following three adoptions as making the most significant impact on workflow and practices:
Collaboration tools such as Teams and Zoom. To see Zoom used for court events was groundbreaking;
Cloud access and infrastructure. Remote access enabled a smooth transition for organisations with an established, underlying, invisible infrastructure;
Transition to mobile-ready platforms. This has also led to rising expectations that may now become a future challenge as we manage the human element of heightened accessibility.
Speaking on the role of technology across the legal profession, Stephen describes it as the “engine that runs beneath.” Powering processes and people, technology can transform the client experience while increasing efficiency for the organisation. The outcome should be adding higher value for the client through better fees, client experience, and value.
Moving toward tomorrow, Stephen says there is scope and opportunity within the legal sector to look and learn from the numbers-driven banking and finance sector. Notably, Stephen sees the enhanced use of data as the next step. “The ability to provide contextual and analytical information across our sector will benefit the profession greatly in terms of efficiencies and identifying trends and insights.” Stephen points to the global pooling of information and the ability to sync the various strands of data as key to this process.
With innovation being core to the Lander & Rogers identity, the firm is also working toward a future where innovation affects change for the better. Alignment of priorities to environmental goals and the principles of the UN Global Compact are the firm’s focus on its innovation trajectory.
Common challenges with differing approaches
While there is a commonality of challenge, there is equally a difference to approach as the legal profession resolved a unique set of challenges presented by the past two years. These include making use of existing but under-utilised tools. This pandemic period also served as a catalyst for legal innovators to come to the fore. An admirable constant throughout the most uncertain of times has been sharing information and problem-solving across the global community. Emerging from this are learnings and opportunities for all. For some, this may validate a current path or position. With innovation has also come an increased awareness of support structures that are very much within the grasp of the collective.