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Dancing with the devil?

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Tanya Corsie of Iken Business explains why you should be using technology to improve your service.

The automation of legal services is not a popular concept amongst lawyers. The thought of a ‘tick box mentality’ among less experienced staff for commoditised legal advice is enough to put many talented lawyers off the legal profession altogether.

However, using tools such as workflows to automate processes can be an effective way of supporting client departments to do more for themselves, and using client portals to provide routine advice as well as self-service updates can reduce your team’s workload while maintaining an excellent service for the council.

Local Government Association figures show the amount of central government funding available to local authorities has dropped 40% since 2010 and austerity is not likely to end soon. Yet despite these figures local authorities are still responsible for supplying core services that meet legal standards regardless of greatly reduced resources.

So it is not surprising that the 100 heads of legal involved in the Local Government Lawyer survey put cost controls and budgetary issues at the top of their list of management challenges.

The second biggest management challenge facing legal teams is a lack of experience in client departments: 81% of respondents expected their team’s overall volume of work to increase, in part as a result of client departments losing corporate memory along with the growing number of innovative projects local authority departments are embarking on to generate income. The combination of more complex projects that have greater legal considerations and client departments with less experienced staff has led to an increasing need for input from legal teams with fewer staff and less capacity.

Alongside this, 46% of heads of legal are expecting the number of junior lawyers working in local government legal teams to increase. Taken in tandem with an expected decrease in senior staff, teams will need to restructure to accommodate lower levels of experience with the law – although junior lawyers’ training more extensively covers the use of new technologies.

Helping clients to help themselves
Altogether this helps to explain why excessive workloads were cited as one of worst aspects of working in local government legal today. How could workloads be reduced? More support staff and better IT were two of the favourite suggestions.

But what if client departments could take the place of support staff? What if routine advice was readily available for less experienced internal clients? What if technology was used to help ease the burden of fiscal fatigue and ever increasing expectations?

A common concern across local authority legal teams is the balancing act between empowering client departments and needing some dependency from them to justify the legal team’s existence.

Although automating some services through the use of technologies can make it seem as though the legal team is providing less value, efficiency tools such as workflows and client portals are best applied to clearly defined and routine processes.

The types of varied and complex work that are the reason many lawyers choose a career in local government cannot be delivered by technological platforms. The exercise of judgement applied to a specific circumstance and put in context of applicable laws can only be done by trained and knowledgeable professionals. So asking internal clients to complete a workflow for a routine case and to submit their information via a portal not only relieves some of the added pressure of administrative work for lawyers and support staff, but frees up your team to focus on the work they enjoy and can provide value doing.

The use of technology does not even have to end at setting up cases. Client portals can also be used to reduce the administrative burden of keeping clients up to date by providing self-service access to information about the cases your team undertakes on their behalf.

With growing numbers of people considering technology to assist their teams, we have noticed more frequent requests to include mandatory fields in workflows. This prevents users from progressing to a different section of a workflow, or being able to submit it, without completing all of the required fields, ensuring your team has everything they need and saving time following up for information.

Risk management
Using workflows can also mitigate risk. By mapping the processes for routine work important information and regulatory steps are set out for clients and junior team members. This not only saves time and ensures consistency, but helps you to clearly demonstrate compliance with Lexcel and practice management standards.

The fact that more people are asking for workflows with mandatory fields could well be a symptom of less experience within legal teams, in combination with less experienced client departments. However, adopting workflows and increasing the use of client portals to automate aspects of your service should not be seen as a means to reduce cost at the expense of the service you provide. In fact they can be ways to relieve some of the pressure on your team while ensuring that legal standards are being met, despite less knowledge and experience.

They can also be ways of freeing up your staff to do the work that interests them and to even save enough time for members of your team to take part in more training or specialist activities, ultimately improving the overall level of experience and job satisfaction within your department.

Perhaps the adoption of workflows and client portals could even improve the results of future surveys!?

Tanya Corsie is Director and Chief Operating Officer at Iken Business Ltd.

LDOF Supplement Front CoverThis article appeared in the Legal Department of the Future report, published in February 2016. To read or download the full report, please click on the following link: