Adopt technology that allows clients to submit information online in their own time
Differentiation and standard process sound like polar opposites − but that’s not necessarily the case.
Process mapping methods and workshops are all the rage. Firms are painstakingly taking apart the typical transaction and reformatting for efficiency. In many cases legal business leaders are rethinking how tasks are resourced internally, using more third parties - especially for more standardised elements - and adopting new tools and techniques for internal collaboration on projects.
Automation of standard documents is another key weapon - with clients often now allowed to help createtheir own. The SmartDelivery team at Pinsent Masons, for example, has created technology that lets fee earners populate new documents from templates based on a single set of content-scoping questions. And clients can answer those questions themselves using a portal. The firm has integrated its own internally developed online instruction system with the ContractExpress document automation solution from Business Integrity, so that clients are able to submit information online in their own time.
Sarah Wilson, who leads the firm’s legal knowledge engineering team, says clients can provide information relevant to a document questionnaire, which a fee earner completes and assembles into an approved document.
David Halliwell, the firm’s director of knowledge, adds it’s seeing much greater client demand for such online collaboration with clients in general. “It’s a trend for a more collaborative relationship that informed development of our SmartDelivery platform – an initiative that won us an FT Innovative Lawyers Standout award for value resourcing in 2013. It allows lawyers to partner with clients directly in designing fixed fee arrangements for a growing range of work,” he says.
“The lawyer doesn’t have to do anything additional with that data when it arrives,” says Wilson. “It’s used to populate parts of the relevant questionnaire, and the lawyer can then complete the more technical elements of the document using their expertise and just-in-time knowhow.”
Pinsent Masons had been using ContractExpress for four years prior to this accolade. Internally, it enables legal knowledge engineers to create and update templates on receiving mark-ups from lawyers and practice development lawyers. They’re able to produce templates that provide for a range of optional elements and apply the questionnaire framework to automatically determine the information that must be included in each individual case. A particular advantage of ContractExpress is that this can all be done within Microsoft Word and so doesn’t require programming skills.
“The key benefits for us are a more efficient internal process and improved risk management,” says Wilson, whose team has created almost 500 automated precedents for its library since first using the tool. “There’s an obvious time saving having lawyers deal with one set of questions to create a new variation on a standard piece of work”.
As a result, Wilson’s knowledge team and the practice development lawyers who manage and update the templates can also switch from juggling a larger number of them to improving the content of a smaller, more select group.
Driving up initial template quality inevitably reduces risk – and with automation in the mix, the creep of human error is combatted on two fronts.
“Using the same entered information for a larger set of documentation safeguards consistency across a practice,” Wilson says. The result is a layer of reassurance over robust compliance and improved client service.
“We’ve moved to use the capabilities across all our practices now,” she adds. “We began with areas more obviously suitable for standardisation, such as parts of property and employment, but now we’re seeing banking and corporate becoming big users too – areas where people have often thought matters are just too complicated to introduce any automation.
“People have been led to see the efficiency gains gradually. For example, in the share acquisition process, even if a corporate fee earner doesn’t want to produce an automated share purchase agreement, which is a very bespoke deal, they can still use the automation process to create board minutes, lists and other parts of a suite of documents. ContractExpress can produce suites of documents, saving people the time of locating and amending each individual precedent – and I think that has increasingly won people over to the case for automation.”
At Pinsent Masons automatic reactions for greater process efficiency – and product consistency – are here to stay, because they’re helping to build a more transparent and streamlined business.