Demystify Your Back Office Operations With Technology

Law firms face many challenges in today’s competitive environment, not the least of which is ensuring that work completed in the back office is as efficient and effective as possible. Many firms lack insight into the amount and type of work that back-office staff are managing, which attorneys are generating the work and if the firm is properly staffed for that work. Firms lack a comprehensive view into which back-office staff are completing what work, and if the work is done efficiently. It is also difficult to quantify how much work is waiting in the queue, and whether back-office staff will be able to complete today’s deadlines, next week’s deadlines or the work they will face in six months, all of which is critical to meeting client service-level agreements.

Current Task Delegation Process

These challenges arise because most firms do not have a comprehensive workflow management system. Attorneys typically submit tasks via email, and these tasks are either managed by the individual assigned or tracked manually on an Excel spreadsheet or something similar.

Let’s dive deeper into how task delegation typically works in a firm and what the issues are with current processes: When attorneys need a document formatted or travel arrangements made, they will usually send a quick email with basic information to their support person or team. While this may seem like a quick and easy approach, in reality, it can be very inefficient and time-consuming for several reasons. It is likely that all the necessary information to complete the task is not included in the first email, so the recipient must take additional time to follow up. If there is a shared inbox for administrative support, more than one assistant may receive the request, which can cause confusion as to who will take the lead on it and may result in duplicated work or missed deadlines. In addition, the staff member who receives the request may be overwhelmed with work that day and not able to focus on this task, causing further delays in the process, with no simple way to reassign the work. Compounding all of this is a lack of real-time vision or understanding of the work in progress.

Another absolutely critical issue that many firms don’t recognize is that emailing a task typically leads to highly experienced, knowledgeable staff performing very simple tasks such as making copies that less-experienced staff could manage just as effectively. Therefore, you may have your most tenured and valuable support staff spending a disproportionate amount of time managing work that should be completed by lower-cost employees (who might well be better skilled to execute the task). With an email or other manual approach, firms also do not have any insight into which attorneys, offices and departments are requesting the most tasks, who is completing the work and whether that makes financial sense. The most progressive firms which have already understood, investigated and solved this issue are saving significant money each year, with a positive impact on client responsiveness and satisfaction. They are better positioned to compete with those firms which have yet to lift the lid on this topic.

As clients demand more value from their outside counsel relationships and institute SLAs, firms struggle to quantify how they are better serving clients than their competition. This lack of transparency is also extremely costly for law firms. Back-office support is typically the third- or fourth-largest area of firms’ total costs, usually only ranking behind attorneys, real estate and insurance when it comes to expenses.

Advantages of Workflow Technology

With workflow technology, many of these challenges can be mitigated. Workflow technology enables law firms to easily prioritize and allocate requests for such specialized resources as word processing, travel and meeting setup. It also ensures that the right work goes to the right person or team, automatically and immediately, and that all relevant information is included in the initial task request. Workflow technology offers a simple yet powerful improvement in firm processes and gives transparency and visibility into the everyday tasks that go into managing client cases. The robust analytics that workflow technology produces makes all this possible and allows firm operations management to make fact-based firm-wide decisions that will improve processes, streamline operations, save money and meet client SLAs.

With a workflow system, firms can capture crucial analytical information, such as:

  • What is the volume and type of work being requested?
  • Where is the work originating?
  • What is the priority of the work in the queue and can we meet current deadlines?
  • Who is requesting the work, and what department/office are they in?
  • Who is completing what type of work, and how efficiently are they doing it?
  • What is the cost of actioning the work (a more granular view of matter profitability)?
  • How are our outsourcing vendors performing to their SLAs?
  • Are we properly staffed to handle the type and volume of work we are processing?

The key to implementing a successful workflow system is finding one that is as easy to use as sending an email, since attorneys are not always open to changing their daily routine. Finding a configurable system that can be adapted to what works at your specific firm is an important consideration. Equally important is ensuring it is not so configurable that it becomes impossible to implement. The firm should be able to designate required fields (based on job type) within the submission process to ensure the right instructions are captured at the time of job submission, eliminating the excruciating back-and-forth that email submission typically generates. Some firms may have attorneys with a high tolerance for detailed questions to complete a word processing request, while other firms may find that their attorneys will not bother with a complicated form for travel arrangements; the system must allow for either case. Attorneys tend to live in email and the DMS, so the workflow software should function in tandem with those systems, provide a similar look and feel and make it very simple to operate between them.

The system should allow for delegation of tasks. Many attorneys have grown accustomed to having their assistants submit their work, and those assistants know exactly how attorneys want tasks completed. With the delegation option, the assistant can submit on the behalf of the attorney, while maintaining reporting integrity within the system.

The workflow system should allow lawyers to track the progress of tasks from a central dashboard. When relying on email or other manual systems, attorneys have no vision into whether an important assignment will meet a deadline. With a workflow system, attorneys (or assistants) can easily check a task’s progress. That gives peace of mind to the attorneys and minimizes stress for staff.

Getting the software choice right is obviously critical. But focusing on user adoption, communications about why the change is happening and staff engagement is likely to determine long-term success more than the features themselves. A very shiny new workflow tool will deliver no value to the business if users don’t embrace it. Of course, having reporting and analytics underneath the system allows for real-time monitoring of utilization and ultimately success.

One Firm’s Experience

Consider one large firm’s experience. This firm had three centralized teams of back-office staff and worked with an outsourcing partner. The firm decided to shift away from its antiquated and manual task assignment approach and install a workflow system. Simply removing the back-and-forth instructional clarifications between the firm and its outsourcing partner more than justified the investment.

Conclusion

While law firms tend to track attorneys’ time in six- or 10-minute increments, they have virtually no insight into how support staff are spending their time. Given the significance of costs in this area (sometimes a firm’s third-largest spend), that’s quite a black hole.

With current manual task delegation, law firm executives are running their firms on hunches about how they think work is being assigned and completed, and how efficiently their back office is functioning. Hunches typically are not an effective way to oversee a business operation. Using a workflow system with reporting and analytics allows for fact-based decision making and increased transparency into back-office efficiency. In today’s world of more-for-less and the need to be lean to compete, putting a bright spotlight on this area needs to be a top priority on every COO’s to-do list for 2018.

About the Author

Eric Wangler is president of the North American business unit for BigHand, a leading provider of Microsoft Office integrated practice management software, services and applications for the legal market. Eric can be reached at eric.wangler@bighand.com.

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