This article was originally published on Legal Management The Magazine of ALA.
The pressure is on legal organizations to be more digital and automated than ever. But that’s not exactly easy to do in a legal industry still operating in a world of paper documents, legacy systems and siloed data. Needless to say, the move to hybrid or remote offices brought on by the pandemic has accelerated a transition to an “anywhere-operations” model.
Efficiencies and cost savings are two of the biggest benefits to automating manual, time-intensive activities. However, for law firms that take a more data-centric approach, the advantages come in the ability to automatically classify and extract relevant data and put it to use within existing case management systems and processes — helping to improve cycle and response times and enhancing strategic decision-making.
Where to Start? Assess Workflow Bottlenecks
Implementing a permanent anywhere-operations model does not happen overnight. Firms will have to create a digital transformation strategy customized to their operational needs. Part of that strategy should involve assessing current technologies, policies, processes and workflows.
Below are six legal workflows worth automating:
1. Physical Mailroom
If all paper pushes through the mailroom, shouldn’t process automation start there? With the mailroom as the entry point to the firm, the faster these essential documents are captured and turned into usable, readily available data, the faster you can drive better, transformative processes.
Law firms can realize a number of benefits across the office from automating their mail workflows. Having the ability to process both inbound and outbound mail in a matter of seconds and quickly upload the information to a case management system enhances productivity immensely. With a digital mail solution, firms gain real-time insight into how many pieces of mail are being processed, the different document types, the number of pages and where a document may be in the workflow process. This type of automation creates a detailed audit trail for every single piece of inbound mail.
2. Form and Signature Management
Every law firm has certain forms that need to go out to clients for signatures. While some documents still require a hard-copy signature, many do not. Surprisingly, many organizations still use the painstaking process of filling out the form, printing it, sending it to the client for signature, waiting for it to come back, scanning it and then manually entering any updated form data. The most sophisticated document management solutions pull data out of case management systems to automatically populate e-forms, allowing legal staff to then send them out and have them completed, signed and returned digitally.
Combining e-forms with digital signatures automates the process of communicating with clients, as well as populating, collecting and integrating form data, while increasing the chances of getting documents back in a timely fashion — in many instances the same day.
3. Cost Recovery
Cost recovery is an important revenue-generating process for law firms. As an example, firms typically charge clients approximately 25 cents for every page they copy and/or print. However, when those documents are captured digitally, they’ve lost that revenue. A digital mail solution can provide them with digital cost recovery, for both their inbound and outbound mail streams.
“A digital mail solution has the ability to process inbound invoices in a matter of seconds, then quickly upload the information to case-management and accounting systems for approval. Sending payment is made easy with the click of a mouse.”
For outbound mail, there are digital mail solutions with the ability to provide a flat data file that can automatically be ingested into the firm’s cost-recovery accounting system — automatically creating an expense object in the case management system. Firms can keep track of how many pieces or pages they sent and how much that costs at 25 cents per piece. For inbound mail, the process is the same.
4. Processing Invoices
There are many types of invoices that attorneys receive. For example, they get invoices from expert witnesses and from medical offices, charging them for records releases, etc. In order for an invoice to get processed, it typically goes through several different people at a law firm. The first person opens the mail and routes it to the appropriate paralegal or case manager, who records the invoice in the case management system for approval. Once that happens, the invoice goes to accounting to be paid, then out the door and into the mail stream.
Again, a digital mail solution has the ability to process inbound invoices in a matter of seconds, then quickly upload the information to the case management and accounting systems for approval. Sending payment is made easy with the click of a mouse. All the work to print, package, meter and ship payments is automated.
5. Check Deposits
In a digital mail environment, one of the questions from law firms is always: “What happens with the checks we receive through the mail?” The newest versions of digital mail solutions will have the ability to automatically scan checks, extract the necessary information, route that to the case manager for approval, and then deposit them in the appropriate bank account based on direction from the accounting department.
6. Expert Testimony
Expert witnesses are used in nearly every complicated legal case, from financial litigation to car-crash lawsuits to medical negligence. It’s customary for law firms to have a preferred list of expert witnesses they trust and use regularly. These experts are responsible for reviewing myriad documents, sometimes 50 to 100 pages worth. Customarily, the law firm will print out all pertinent documentation from the various sources and place them in a file folder for physical pickup. The experts then take the files back to their offices to read and write a one- or two-page abstract to send back to the law firm.
A document management system can create a digital workflow that allows law firms to provide designated experts with 24/7, secure access to all the necessary information. It’s a workflow task that routes relevant documents to the necessary experts and tracks their responses. The system allows attorneys to know exactly how many documents have been delivered and where the experts are in the process. Once an abstract or response is received, it can be uploaded right into the case management system — and the task can then be closed.
Address Future Client and Staff Demands With Automate Now
There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technology capabilities, not only among law firms but also within their operational ecosystems (i.e., courts, clients, experts, etc.). Firms that embrace digital automation now are simultaneously preparing to effectively address future client and worker demands while setting themselves up for future growth in a marketplace that will increasingly rely on remote operations.
Law firms have a significant opportunity to build on their current technological motivations to build longer-term business models that allow for anywhere operations.
About the Author
David Winkler is Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer at Docufree, a provider of enterprise information management (EIM) and digital business process services.