(This article has been published in Praxis April-June 2014 Supplement )
Why technology should be a vital consideration in your law firm selection
Technology has become so firmly ensconced in our daily lives, both personal and professional, that it has become almost impossible to imagine life without e-mails, mobile phones and computers, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google search and all the other forms of social media and cloud computing.
In 1988, when I commenced my legal career as a fresh associate in a mid-sized firm, the state of technology comprised standalone Wang word processors (which is what we used to create and edit documents) and telex machines (for instantaneous communication). In those days, it would have been hard to imagine how we could possibly fill up even 30MB of hard drive storage.
In a few years, Wang word processors, floppy disks and telex machines had altogether disappeared from the office inventory. In its place today are personal computers, thumb drives and e-mails as the primary tools of trade. In addition, mobile computing, social media and cloud computing have hijacked our lives and now become both commonplace and indispensable.
Technology has permeated every facet of our lives. What impact will it have on your practice experience, and should the level of technology adoption in a law firm be a factor you should be concerned about?
In this article, I explore how technology is critical to providing a fulfilling practice experience and why the level of technology adoption in a law firm is an important item for your consideration.
1. Technology Makes Light Work
Technology is no longer relegated to back office support operations. For the progressive lawyer, technology is taking center stage as a critical component in the practice. Proper use of technology can empower an otherwise overwhelmed legal professional, helping the lawyer reduce and control the busyness of the practice, achieving “More with Less”.
In other words, technology makes it possible for lawyers to achieve greater work outputs and greater client satisfaction, and with significantly less effort. It is really the only strategy that can help lawyers achieve what every client demands: good, fast and cheap.
Generic applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, electronic mail, electronic calendars, practice and financial management applications, hosted research databases and Court/Government e-filing systems are now baseline technologies in law firms.
Beyond that, off-the-shelf legal technologies can further eliminate labour intensive efforts and costs associated with various legal processes. For instance:
- In litigation or arbitration, where the average volume of evidence continues to grow exponentially, human search and retrieval of relevant documents has been supplemented or even replaced (in jurisdictions where an eDiscovery framework has been approved, such as Singapore, UK, Australia and North America) by search engines processing instantaneous keyword and concept searches;
- The use of secure cloud-based online document repositories enable lawyers and clients based in different locations and jurisdictions to access, manage, review and collaborate on a single set of electronic documents with ease and efficiency, in both litigation and corporate transactions;
- For conveyancing and corporate lawyers, the use of automated document assembly and intelligent templates facilitates fast and accurate turnover of standard documents (conveyancing and Court forms), and more complex documents (syndicated loans, project finance documents and commercial agreements). In fact, any structured, rule-based document that you need to produce on a repetitive basis can be transformed into an automated template, no matter how lengthy or complex it might be.
The smart use of appropriate technologies in a law firm ensures that lawyers do not spend time and effort undertaking repetitive and tedious work that is better carried out by computer processes. Lawyers in such practices are able to focus their efforts on undertaking more higher-value strategic analysis work that justifies the charge out rate their clients are paying.
2. Small is the New Big
Increasingly, today’s complex world requires a level of competency that can often only be honed with specialism. In the past, it was extremely difficult for small law firms to develop a specialist law practice. Hence, young progressive lawyers who were keen to develop specialist skills had no choice but to join large law firms.
Low-cost web marketing and social media platforms have made it much easier for boutique practices to develop and market specialist practice areas. Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of breakaway boutique/specialist law practices helmed by entrepreneurial and progressive founders with enough clout and dynamism to attract high-end legal work and talented lawyers who are keen to develop specialist legal skills.
As Thomas Malone, author of The Future of Work, writes:
For the first time in history, information technologies allow us to gain the economic benefits of large organizations without giving up the benefits of small ones, like freedom, creativity, motivation and flexibility.
Boutique practices usually afford lawyers greater exposure and the opportunity to rise up the ranks faster.
3. Mobility and the Ability to Work from Anywhere
The use of mobile and cloud technologies enables lawyers to work from anywhere. This ability to work from anywhere can mean a big difference in you enjoying legal practice or not. Armed with a smart phone, lawyers are able to convert traditionally non-productive Court waiting time, cab rides, waits at airport lounges, etc. to productive fee earning hours. Working mums also enjoy the ability to work from home.
4. Technology – A Key Factor in Determining the Success of a Firm
In today’s hyper competitive world, technology plays a key role in differentiating the winners from the losers. The strategic advantages of a law firm’s technology adoption manifest as:
- Speedy and accurate document production;
- The ability to handle transactions with technology components. This is more common than you think. For example, increasingly, evidence in dispute matters is in the form of electronic mails and electronic documents, as well as social media posts and SMS messages.
- The ability of a law firm to extract and digitalise the knowledge residing in the minds of its lawyers and make it available on demand to its members; and
- Service Delivery (using electronic methodologies rather than traditional paper-based methodologies).
Given the advantages that technology confers in today’s world, law firms that continue to deploy only baseline technologies and traditional paper based methods are likely to lose whatever competitive edge they may currently enjoy, and longer-term prospects at such firms may be less than secure.
The level of technology adoption in a law firm impacts the firm’s long-term survival, as well as a young professional’s work scope and enjoyment of work.
Young lawyers, with their grasp of social media and competence in using computers, are well placed to embrace the use of technology in practice. They should explore the possibility of using technology in their work whenever possible.
With today’s Software As a Service (“SaaS”) business models, law firms are often able to enjoy the flexibility and economies of scale of subscribing to technology on an ad hoc “as-need” basis without the need for any hardware or software purchase, or hefty capital investment. As such, conditions for technology adoption have never been more optimal.