Your business can WFH, but how do you cope without staff?

Posted by Michael Lewis, chief executive of Legal Futures Associate Claim Technology

Lewis: Covid 19 gives us the opportunity to think differently

Earlier this month, Jews celebrated Passover, a festival commemorating the exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Israel. The Last Supper took place on the first night of Passover, hence why Easter and Passover occur at the same time.

Both are holidays that take place at the beginning of spring, where the sun comes out, nature is reborn and the atmosphere is full of hope. Alas, we’re still all stuck indoors self-isolating.

In a period of just a few weeks, businesses all over have been challenged with the question of how they continue working without an office.

They have found a significant difference between enabling anyone to work from home (WFH) and everyone. That said, all they needed to provide was a VPN (virtual private network) so staff could securely access the network from outside of the office, a soft-phone replacement for a desk phone and a web meeting tool like Microsoft Teams.

These technologies have been around for years and can be turned on easily without touching your core systems.

The issue wasn’t that the technology didn’t exist – it was that it hadn’t been adopted. Faced with a crisis, businesses found it was relatively easy to both adopt and adapt. Seeing the light, many won’t turn back to the way things were even when they can. Offices will be re-imagined, smaller, more creative, collaborative and energised.

There is, however, a deeper issue than lack of office space and that is lack of staff. Many businesses have had to either furlough staff or have outsourced work to developing countries where that country’s internet infrastructure doesn’t enable staff to WFH.

If the present crisis continues, businesses with staff turnover will find it hard to integrate new staff. Coping without staff is a particular pain-point in the legal world, where the process is designed entirely around the fee-earner who manages the legal process from start to finish.

Existing case/practice management systems can’t help solve this problem as they too have been designed on the assumption that a fee-earner is there to push the case along. No fee-earner = no progress.

So how might a law firm leverage technology to solve for a reduction in available staff? Until now, IT teams have (understandably) looked for solutions that complement the systems they already have.

Firms have digitised some of their processes (such as onboarding) using approaches such as business process management from companies like Pega, robotic process automation (RPA) from companies like UI Path, or artificial intelligence (AI) tools to support client conversations or document management.

These are often mature tools – so perhaps the technology exists and just hasn’t been adopted? The issue I have with this approach is that, like the Hebrews leaving Egypt, it seems we are wandering for years investing in the latest tech fad without ever reaching the promised land.

Despite decades of multi-million pound investments in technology, have actual case loads/productivity improved at the same rate as the system complexity or spend? Rather than continue this path, perhaps Covid 19 gives us the opportunity to pause and think differently.

At a time like this, it is useful to draw inspiration by looking outside of our industry. Take a digital-first company like Uber.

Uber planned on the assumption that scaling a business built around people is impossible, so instead it turned the traditional process upside down.

Uber didn’t take the existing ‘minicab-centric’ model and try to digitise around it. Instead it (1) assumed there would be no staff, (2) made the process ‘customer-centric’, and (3) eliminated any non-value-added tasks whilst automating all of the value-added ones.

There was no longer any need to talk to a minicab dispatcher, no need to talk about which route to take and no need to ask whether the driver has change from a £20 note. The end-user experience simultaneously became more human for both sides.

Less stressed, I can more meaningfully ask the driver ‘How are you?’ The driver, meanwhile, offers to charge my phone.

This approach looks promising for the legal industry as it automates the process around the client, but leaves room for a lawyer to provide the human element that only a lawyer can do.

For now, your law firm may not be in a position to advance any new technology projects, but very soon this will change as firms seek to protect themselves from a second wave of Covid-19.

There will be pressure to continue what you have always done, which is to add yet more systems with catchy acronyms (AI, BPM, RPA) etc. But plugging more technology into your existing systems isn’t like adding a VPN or Zoom – it will just make an already dysfunctional set of legacy systems more complex and less agile.

So let’s put the specific technology to one side for a moment and think about some general business principles that can help act as a compass on your digital transformation journey.

For clients: Before coronavirus, case management systems were always designed around the assumption that a member of staff would process the case (inside-out). After coronavirus, your technology needs to enable your clients to self-serve the entire case instead (outside-in).

For legal teams: Before, it took IT months to implement new capability. After, you should be looking for low-code platforms that empower legal teams, rather than IT, to implement new capability in hours.

For IT teams: Before, case management systems were always designed to model workflow inside the law firm with a hand-off to supply chain (experts, counsel etc), leaving fee-earners chasing for updates. After, you should be looking for a workflow capability that can orchestrate processes inside and outside of the law firm and then sync the data/process state back into systems of record (outside-in) without a fee-earner touching it.

For innovation teams: Before, there was no shortage of lawtech/AI software but they’ve been impossible to properly evaluate and test without first procuring and integrating with them. After, you should be looking at how you can test-drive capability fast without waiting for weeks or months.

Rather than think about ‘specific’ technology solutions, it may be helpful instead to think in terms of acquiring a ‘digital core’ instead from a platform or eco-system provider.

A digital core (such as Claim Technology’s case-as-a-service platform for the legal sector or Mambu for the banking sector) tends to be agnostic in terms of specific technology solutions but instead acts as the glue for you to assemble a multitude of promising technologies together in a holistic, integrated way without having to replace your existing systems.

Compose solutions to become the law firm you want to be. Suddenly, it feels like springtime and a world of opportunity awaits…


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