The traditional calculation of client fees based on the hours worked, is not only an outdated measure of work type and profitability but also a shining example of the legal sector’s over-dependency on transaction paperwork, says Christiaan Frickel, IT Consultant at Lights-On Consulting.
He believes that too many processes continue to be paper-based, and this is holding back the profession’s digital transformation, so here he explains the routes to going paperless and why it is part of a firm’s business transformation strategy.
Let’s be honest, the legal sector has been talking about paperless firms for so long it’s almost boring. Like it or not, the management of paper is still a critical service in just about every law firm.
In my experience, the most common reasons firms say they won’t begin their digital transformation journey to being paperless are their size, work type, staff numbers – but also, the digital mindset of the senior team.
As well as the benefits to operational efficiency, treating the paperless office as a strategic decision has the potential to power the firm’s business transformation strategy.
“Too many processes continue to be paper-based. This is holding back the profession’s digital transformation”
Driving law’s paperless revolution
The last 18 months have been challenging but they have also done much to promote the value and benefits of being digital-first. As lockdowns began, some firms were in good shape. Others were woefully unprepared with inadequate, outdated IT that meant remote working was not a viable, secure, or immediate option, so were forced to take a reactive, sticking plaster approach to getting staff kitted out for homeworking.
The upside? Remote working has proved lawyers can advise clients and complete transactions paperless or paper-lite from anywhere.
The downside? The reactive firms that cobbled together an online and digital platform and CDM now have a pretty clunky incohesive IT system.
A firm’s technology and operational strategy, including only paper-based systems, are significant inhibitors to its digital and business transformation, and this will limit its longevity and agility – but there has never been a better time to sort the paperless office. Now is a great opportunity to build on the lockdown experiences, and move on from the ‘disaster recovery’ stage, to embrace remote and hybrid working models as a catalyst for permanent change, digital transformation, and paperless.
What is a paperless firm?
A paperless firm implements its end-to-end customer process without using any physical media.
Achieving successful paperless operation from the first customer interaction to matter completion, requires a full business transformation process, plenty of vision to consider tech like AI and machine learning, and a paperless supply chain.
First stop for paper documents is the mailroom, where documents are converted to digital assets. Printers and managed print services are not the most exciting topics, but modern print technology and supporting software can be the facilitators of a fundamental shift in the processing of paper. It can print, scan and photocopy, and when configured correctly, streamline business processes, support ISO accreditations, generate cost efficiencies and help protect the environment.
Five steps to paperless
The senior team must lead the paperless strategy to guarantee firmwide engagement.
Why? It isn’t an IT project or a tech-tooling exercise. It’s a business transformation project that needs top-level endorsement and experienced change management and operational strategic planners.
To ensure the paperless transition works within the firm’s business and digital transformation, follow these steps:
1. Executive advocacy – the senior team must revisit the digital and business transformation strategies, and understand the current process, the mechanics of the customer journey, associated cost, and how paperless/digital transformation will enhance, change, and benefit the firm and its clients. These should be central to the culture, purpose and attitude of the firm, so leading from the front is essential.
2. Audit – analyse every existing process, and report using a process mapping summary that logs workflows. This will be invaluable in informing the change project and identifying every requirement of being paperless. Take a deep-dive analysis of the market to deliver recommendations and select the very best fit for the firm’s needs.
3. Implementation – don’t just pick up the phone to the printer supplier. This is a business transformation project that needs an expert IT project transformation team. Switching paper-based systems off and turning paperless systems on doesn’t happen at the same time and this is a great way of putting it to the test.
- To ensure the technology is capable and the service relationships are effective, undertake a series of pilots using one service department or ‘model’ office.
- This should be representative of the business, with obvious synergies with the rest of the firm.
Establish the model works well and use it to ‘upsell’ the benefits to the rest of the firm.
- Budget and staff attitudes to change will impact the speed of implementation and so it’s difficult to put a time on how long a transformation project will take, but as a guide, plan a three-year strategy.
- Be sensitive to subtleties of the implementation to maximise the process – AI and assisted learning could help to leverage.
- Schedule regular reviews of performance, risks and profile security, and staff training.
4. Persevere – all good things come to those who wait, and this is true of transformation projects. It will feel like lots of individual projects because the roll-out should be scheduled for the individual stages of the end-to-end client workflow model.
5. Communicate – effective implementation requires planned internal and external client comms, that addresses the changes, any exceptions and omissions, and features of the paperless office such as the digital print room.
Existing IT infrastructure:
The pre-implementation audit is critical here. By starting at the periphery of the physical systems and devices, any missing tooling, hardware or IT infrastructure will be identified.
AI and assisted learning may optimise implementation and leverage data but are not essential.
When paperless, digital files are stored safely, securely and efficiently in the cloud. Of course, security of client records is a concern, but no different to other elements of the firm’s IT and business strategies
GDPR, SRA, Lexcel and so forth must be front of mind and again, the pre-implementation audit will be key.
Having clear, strong strategic leadership for this type of project helps to facilitate the multiple parts that are necessary for a successful digital and paperless strategy. Interdisciplinary projects like this involve many moving parts, so allowing a realistic amount of time and budget is sensible to successfully achieve paperless law firm status.
This article was first published in Alternative Insights.