What's automation? And, why should I be using it in my law practice?

Issue November/December 2016 By Heidi S. Alexander

In the current state of the legal market, the demand for legal services is high, but clients are looking to pay less. This plays out in a number of ways. For large law firms, companies seek reduced rates while holding firms accountable for practice inefficiencies. Take, for example, the Casey Flaherty Legal Tech Audit. Former general counsel to Kia Motors Casey Flaherty designed a legal tech audit to vet potential outside counsel. When disseminating the audit, he found that across the board firms spent too much (billable) time on tasks that a machine (i.e. computer) could handle (and handle better).

Large firm inefficiencies aside, there is an entire middle market not currently being served and priced out of traditional legal services. This is why products like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have become wildly popular and successful. For the price, most people seem content with the end product they receive (at least in the short term). Could law firms emulate the efficiencies created by LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer? Yes, and they should. Lawyers even have an advantage - the human element; an essential piece that will save these folks loads in time and money down the road.

What does this mean for you? It's time to get in the game and find ways to commoditize your services and create efficiencies in your practice. You need to churn out products just like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer to make time for customized solutions that require your training and knowledge, experience and specialization, problem solving and analysis. Even if you aren't the one doing the churning, someone in your office is; and thus creating efficiencies will then open up space for your staff to focus on something else that does require human attention.

So, how can you commoditize services and create efficiencies in your practice? Automation is the answer!

Whereas automated cars (i.e. "self-driving cars") aim to reduce traffic congestion and minimize accidents through more effective driving, automating legal processes does the exact same, saving your time and minimizing mistakes through more effective legal practice.

What exactly should you automate? Anything you handle more than once is capable of being automated. But, here are three examples to get you started:

1) Text. Most attorneys spend a great deal of time drafting. When you write, you should never type the same thing twice. For example, any time a potential client emails you, you should have a form email ready for response. You might have a variety of responses to potential clients depending upon their inquiries. If you have Microsoft Outlook, you already have a tool available to automate your responses. Next time you respond to a potential client email, type your response, highlight the text and save it to Quickparts. Then, when you want to use that response again, open a new message and click on the Quickpart. You've just saved five minutes in your day, and that's only based on one email; imagine if you did this with multiple email responses. There are numerous additional products that can help you save time when writing, including a popular tool called TextExpander. This tool removes the step of having to click to insert text (with Quickparts) by instead using keyboard shortcuts. It even tracks how much time you've saved by using the tool.

2) Documents. Beyond basic drafting, document generation makes up a huge part of most law practices. Hopefully, you've already started to build a document database for your practice - documents that you use repeatedly. These might include letters to opposing counsel, intake forms, contracts, estate planning documents, and much more. To automate document generation, first, you need to take those documents and turn them into forms. You'll need a central repository to save those forms as well as additional clauses to tailor documents to individual clients. After you've established your forms library, you'll need a simple process to then input client/contact information into individual documents. This is called document assembly and it's become easier with the advent of products that do just that. There are tons of products out there (such as DirectLaw, DocMoto, DraftOnce, HotDocs, LEAP, Pathagoras, Smokeball, TheFormTool, TurboLaw and XpressDox), all with variations such as inclusion of state-specific ready-made forms, prompts for building customized documents, and case management features for storing client and contact information.

3) Scheduling. This is another area ripe for automation. Think about how many times you've participated in never-ending email correspondence between multiple parties trying to schedule one convenient meeting date and time. If you are not already using Doodle or TimeBridge for these situations, you should start now. These services allow you to input (and, in some cases, sync with your calendar) times when you are available and then create a poll for other parties to input their availability, thus resulting in one winning date. Now, how about scheduling with clients? Try using tools such as Calendly, ScheduleOnce or Microsoft Bookings, which allow the client to book an appointment with you electronically. By syncing these services to your calendar and embedding them in your website, you (or your staff) don't have to do any work. Your client books the appointment, receives an auto-confirmation, the appointment is automatically added to your calendar, and the client receives a reminder email sometime before the appointment.

By taking advantaging of those automation tools, you've created efficiencies in your practice and thus made your services more attractive for clients because you can do more in less time. You're on your way to creating an empire that will rival the likes of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer!

Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. is the director of Practice Management Services for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she advises lawyers on practice management matters, provides guidance in implementing new law office technologies, and helps lawyers develop healthy and sustainable practices. She frequently makes presentations to the legal community and contributes to publications on law practice management and technology. She is the author of the forthcoming publication by the ABA's Law Practice Division, Evernote as a Law Practice Tool and serves on the ABA's TECHSHOW Planning Board.

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