Digital Transference Before Digital Transformation: You’re Already Doing It

Digital transformation—we hear it a lot. According to one law firm CIO I spoke with recently, every dollar that was once spent on expensive real estate ought to be spent on digital transformation instead. She was right. Ultimately it will. And it should.

Maintaining the relevance and innovation of legal practice is critical to ensure our ongoing prominence and importance to clients. Digital transformation is highly relevant to both the maintenance of the lawyer and the law firm as central to the legal system, as well as continued advances of access to justice and sustainability.

The Promise of Digital Transformation

This “transformation” holds tremendous promise to revolutionize legal practices and help them mature into highly efficient, tech-forward businesses. To future-proof them. Today’s technologies will in due course turn the practice of law into a seamless operation working hand-in-glove with clients, using data and technology to smooth the way, add value and reduce unnecessary legal spend. This maintains the relevance of the firm in a landscape that promises an ever-increasing amount of AI.

But what is the CIO’s road map from here to there?

Is digital transformation elusive for lawyers? Until COVID it seemed impossible.

Why? And are we done now?

The Trouble with Transformation

True digital transformation is an enormous task without a defined ending. It requires the compliance of the majority of fee-earners most of the time. And with most top lawyers working at or above 100% utilization, can this actually happen? Will it happen enough to truly “transform” a legal operation? And how do we know when it is over?

The panacea of “transformation” can be perceived as a kind of clarion call from managing partners and heads of innovation. With the best of intentions, it may not be actioned by the partnership and fee earners in a way that delivers meaningful change.

As we know, the way we work is unlike almost any other business. Legal practice is not even similar to other professional services offerings, considering the nature of our profession, the depth of our security needs, the requirement to follow a centuries-old canon of ethics.

In law firms, the partners often identify as independent practitioners with ownership of their own “practices,” and may resist the notion of firm-wide policies. The power structure of a partnership is often diffuse. As professionals whose partnership structure was designed around the concept of partners as owners, that is fair enough. Why interrupt a partner who is billing well with requests, or demands, of reform?

Lack of precise clarity around the term “digital transformation,” coupled with a huge expectation and ambitious ideals, may result in failure or at least benign inaction. I felt this when I was a fee earner. Even with the best intentions and most amazing user experience and design, I could be reluctant to use new technology because it’s just another thing to learn or do.

“Digital transformation”? The promise, the idea of complete digital transformation, often strikes the partnership as too big, too daunting, too hard. The kind of culture change required to effect “transformation” of cemented working rules is almost unfathomable.

The Impact of COVID

It has been said that the legal industry historically takes a slow approach to tech adoption. This was most obvious to me in relation to the conduct of litigation and dispute resolution and avoidance. As the part of the profession steeped in history, precedent, and ritual (including interacting with judges and the bar dressed in robes which were implemented to celebrate the passing of a British royal in the 17th century), litigation seemed to lag behind the most.

The technology change was easier for future-forward advisory and transactional firm practices and for internal law firm management than it was for litigation. When I started at the Bar in 2013, we were wearing wigs and the technology scene was commensurately non-existent.

When I started in legal practice in 1999, the fax machine and cassette Dictaphone were in full flight, and some firms still have them to contact and communicate with counsel and other law firms in litigation. My counsel business card still has a fax number on it.

However, the pandemic’s global shutdown forced firms and courts to adopt a decade of technology in one month in order to continue to practice and maintain access to justice.

Many firms found it drove profitability and helped the delivery of legal services to thrive.

This experience showed some firms (and validated for others) the immense promise in the use of technology to augment or enhance what we already do. It enables flexible work, and to the CIO’s point, minimizes the need for expensive real estate.

But to what extent is it “transformative?” Arguably, COVID was a catalyst that required technology change literally overnight to continue with litigation and dispute resolution. It was certainly a major leap forward. It is recognized consistently in surveys of law firms, courts, consumers, and practitioners that we are not going back to only in-person dispute resolution and litigation.

But having achieved a major radical step in digital adoption, will the litigators breathe a sigh of relief, and go back to their traditional reticence to change?

Will the “box” of “innovation and “transformation” be forever checked on the “to-do” list?

Arguably, it may be best to approach the rapid digital adoption of the post-COVID world as part of a process of “digital transference” rather than being seen as the beginning (or end) of “digital transformation.”

Digital Transference in Action

My take is that approaching the task as ”digital transference” rather than absolute “transformation” is an easier step to take. Simply taking what we do and placing it in a digital context—it’s not transformational. It’s easy. And it’s already proven doable.

Witness the following changes that slipped in when we weren’t watching. Even before COVID, we had moved further than we realized in certain areas of our practices.

When I started practicing, we recorded our time on pink timesheets. Now we use Verdict. Very few barristers still bill their time manually as they did five years ago.

Clients used to call you at your desk. I remember a massive sense of change in 2004 when the partner I worked with at Slaughter and May first emailed me on his Blackberry on the train from London to Paris. Now operating without constant mobile contact with clients is unfathomable.

Instead of a filing cabinet, we have document management systems like Net Docs and iManage.

In the UK and Australia, until recently, barristers were provided a “bundle” or “brief” wrapped in pink ribbon (or white if you were prosecuting). This still sometimes happens—I had a box of ribbon in my chambers. During the past two years, barrister briefing tools such as e-Brief Ready are on the rise, as are e-filing systems such as InfoTrak.

We made the jump from keeping client lists on spreadsheets to CRM systems like Legal360 or Intapp.

Instead of old-fashioned paper bills, we have automated billing systems like Elite 3E or Aderant.

While each of these moves improved our efficiency, no one would call them “transformative.” We simply transferred what we do in real life to a digital platform.

We should look at legal tech through that lens. By measures of efficiency.

Think of it like this. For those old enough to recall a typewriter, we traded that for a “word processor,” and we traded that for a computer with programs. No one of those trades was in-and-of-itself “transformative,” but it did make work more efficient.

Transferring to systems like document management or CRM are successful when they are relatively easy to implement and, importantly for fee earners, easy to operate. In short, digital systems that authentically replicate the way we work in a digital way ultimately feel like home. I’ve seen them work best when they make legal practice feel and function just the way “it used to do (lest fee earners cry ‘don’t make me learn something new!’).”

And, of course, we require these systems to adhere to our ethics, our rules, and our way of working.

Beyond the practical matter of increasing efficiency, let’s tackle the lack of broad adoption by fee earners. This remains a challenge for tech adoption on any level—whether transferring or transforming. How do we create technology lawyers will actually enjoy using? How do we continue and cement the journey of digital transference that is taking place on the way to “transformation?”

My answer may surprise you: Start with a lawyer!

Making Lawyers Feel at Home Using Technology

No doubt the pandemic drove legal tech adoption. As a result of the global shutdown, law firms and corporate legal departments made attempts to “transfer” daily work to a pastiche of systems never intended for use in a legal context.

Enter the broadscale adoption of video conferencing platforms whose security was lacking; where controls were not in place; and multiple apps were required to replicate the ease of “in-person” meetings. Lawyers are not IT specialists, and based on the feedback we’ve heard, this has largely failed to deliver a good experience. It fails because of two main points: it was not easy or intuitive for a lawyer to use, and it did not resemble how we work in real life.

In my experience, lawyers do not love technology if its benefit is hard to identify or its interface does not resemble how they work today.

Yet when looking at a platform that “looks and feels like home” I’ve seen attorneys have a big “Aha!” moment. They make the “transfer” right there because this does not feel so far afield from daily life. When built to replicate daily work, the notion that the tech has been tried and tested is evident. It is a digitized version of an existing process.

I see this when presenting Immediation to lawyers—we almost never finish a demo because they have halted on a key pain point we’ve addressed. Why? Because unlike most tech providers, I have been in their shoes; making submissions in those courtrooms; in arbitrations; in mediations—and that knowledge and experience are “baked in” to the product. It’s all there in one place.

I am not alone. The legal tech market is seeing more lawyers like me become tech entrepreneurs for a similar reason: to tackle a hole in the current offerings. Pursuit, Index, and Kira were all created by former lawyers. Why? Mainly because they were fed up with missing elements in the legal technology landscape. I am not a “recovering lawyer,” I am a proud one, but I could see that lawyers and their clients needed more.

Cementing Digital Transference on the Way to Digital Transformation

Now that we know technology can address geographic hurdles; can tackle access to justice, and can address sustainability while respecting the legal requirements of our work, the post-pandemic paradigm presents a continuation of remote mixed with hybrid meetings of all kinds.

So the question remains, how do we increase and cement fee earner adoption of legal technology in a post-pandemic world?

My proposition is two-fold.

First, start with technology created by lawyers who understand and replicate the practice of law, to make lawyers feel at home.

Second, take small “transfer” steps before you attempt to “transform.”

Ultimately the grand arc of “digital transformation” will one day arrive. All these acts of digital transference, when combined, will result in transformation. But you can’t eat an elephant in one bite.

Until then, the winning formula is a simple execution of technologies that replicate a lawyer’s world, in a secure setting that is controllable and is easy and intuitive for fee earners.

It’s easier to implement, faster to achieve, and renders your fee earners more effective as a result.

Ultimately, this secures the long-term power of legal practice and makes sure we will not be replaced by “robo-lawyers.”

About the Author

Laura Keily has 20 years’ experience as a corporate lawyer, barrister, and arbitrator. She is the founder of Immediation, a secure and specialized digital legal environment for dispute resolution, justice, and legal practice.

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