The global pandemic instantly changed the way most businesses operate. Around March 16, firm-wide memos instructed everyone to grab their belongings, leave their desk, and begin working at home. Offices were abandoned and left with skeleton crews to try to maintain the infrastructure of the business. Remote work became the new paradigm overnight, and everyone has had to figure out how to continue doing their job. For businesses that rely upon documents and records, this has caused an immediate issue. What do you do if you need to access critical business information remotely? And for those that still rely heavily on paper documents, this shift has caused a logistical challenge. Nowhere is this more evident than at law firms. Like most offices, the stereotypical law firm – with its gleaming reception areas, art-lined hallways, 20-floor office views and file rooms – is now empty. The state of digital transformation for every law firm was suddenly apparent. Each attorney now trying to work remotely is facing the results:

  • How can you access the incoming case documents that are being sent to the office address?
  • How do you retrieve a document from a file that is stored in the file room?
  • What happens when there are several attorneys on a case and someone else has the file you need at their house?
  • How will you decide what box to retrieve that has the document you need to complete your new brief?

Remote work has accelerated the replacement of hard copy paper documents with digital processes. Until recently, this change has been a long, slow journey. While the benefits are obvious – faster access to information, more secure and resilient format, easier distribution – the requisite cost, resources and change management have been inhibitors.

Law firms aren’t built to be innovative

Law firms are a document-intensive business. Their work generates a large volume of official records – contracts, agreements, court pleadings, matter files, wills and minute book records, among countless other examples. The volume of content created and collaborative nature of working a case means that law firms could benefit greatly from a successful digital transformation initiative. Yet law firms are often the most resistant to change. Part of this is the nature of the profession; attorneys look backwards to establish precedent. Paper is an established format with established routines that ensure compliance to client confidentiality and ethics standards. A digital solution needs to be thoroughly vetted to ensure that it meets the codes of professional responsibility governing attorney ethics.

As a generalization, attorneys tend to hoard files, control access, distrust technology, and want to keep their documents close at hand in order to protect client confidentiality. In addition, the law firm business is a partnership. Investments in technology and innovation come more directly from the partner’s pockets instead of as budgeted expenses within a corporation. The perceived risk around adhering to ethics standards combined with pooled fiscal resources has caused many law firms to lag in innovation and automation.

It’s time to digitize legal operations

Meanwhile, the pressure to operate more efficiently has been mounting. Courts are seeking to lower costs and become more efficient by eliminating paper and developing electronic filing procedures. Typically, in litigation, the act of discovery, where opposing parties exchange requested documentation, results in massive efforts to “bury the other side in paper.” Courts have mandated that these occur digitally, eliminating paper from the process. In addition, law firms are continually recruiting new talent from law schools, and it’s a competitive process. Law students that have been educated in a digital world are trained to leverage technology systems and automated tools. The ability to support these skills has now become a recruiting imperative as law firms seek to attract the top graduating talent to their firm.

This has created a dynamic of slow and uneven adoption within law firms. Attorneys who adopted technology early are gradually driving innovation, while technology resistant partners insist on maintaining old practices and fight funding the necessary investments. The pandemic has suddenly placed these opposing forces on speaking terms. Pending initiatives for digitization and automation have been quickly enacted, especially where cost savings can be demonstrated.

As an interesting dynamic, while attorneys have fled the office, firms confronted the long-held fear that productivity would decrease, and the billable hours that drive their revenue would go down. The pandemic has offered a mass test of this theory and the results are showing that productivity has not been impacted at technology-enabled organizations. Many argue that eliminating the need to suit up for the office, long-commutes, office disruptions, and hunting for lunch have all increased productivity.

Streamlining legal operations costs through digital transformation

What happens to those high-cost offices that are now empty? What happens when attorneys realize that they are still efficient without going into the office? The mass review of real estate leases and obligations has already started. Shrinking footprints and consolidation are inevitable outcomes. Along with that, the file cabinets, file rooms and boxes stacked with paper are standing in the way of progress.

As the workstream becomes digital, that paper will be eliminated. Incoming mail is being scanned and routed electronically to the proper recipients. Documents and records requested are no longer being pulled from the shelf, put on a cart and walked down the halls to the attorney. These files are also being scanned and delivered electronically. So too are the closed files that are boxed and sent to storage. Why request a box from storage, that will be put on a truck and driven across town – to where, an empty office? This can be scanned and delivered electronically.

Abandon the paper-first mindset

In today’s world most documents start off in digital form. The behavior to print and create a paper version is a habit that perpetuates the need to manage and store physical records. For many years, law firms printed out each email so it could be put in the correspondence file, overwhelming file room staff with stacks of paper each day. Embracing effective digital transformation presents an opportunity to leverage the capabilities of the internal technology systems. These systems are designed to manage documents and integrated digital processes to create, distribute, collaborate, store, track and dispose of the documents. You can create strategies to reduce and eliminate existing paper by digitizing and delivering requested documents electronically, develop and apply policies for the secure and defensible disposal of documents once they are no longer required or useful.

There is no time like the present

Of course, all of this takes effort, know-how and money. Most law firms already have plenty of capable software systems that are not being fully utilized. Change management, for all the reasons discussed, is a major barrier. The processes involved are not the bailiwick of attorneys, but process engineers and systems specialists. There is no time like the present and the pandemic of 2020 has raised both the benefit and consequence of addressing change.

For more on how to transform your processes for a digitally-distributed way of working, check out this webinar with we recently produced with ARMA International: Capture and Digital Transformation in a Work from Anywhere Environment