Jordan L. Couch is a workers’ compensation attorney and the Cultural Ambassador at Palace Law in University Place, Washington. Outside of...
Nehal Madhani is an attorney, self-taught programmer, and the founder and CEO of Alt Legal, a cloud-based IP docketing...
For years, businesses have been using automation to free their staff from repetitive tasks—and are reaping the benefits for their bottom lines. Now, with the help of technology, law firms too can automate processes and focus on delivering an incredible experience to their clients.
However, many law firms have been slow to adopt automation: According to ILTA’s 2018 technology survey, 46% of firms still aren’t using any system to help themselves automate business processes.
Nehal Madhani of Alt Legal and Jordan Couch of Palace Law break down some of the misconceptions around automation in law firms. They also explain how automation works, and provide tips for automating processes in your own practice.
With the power of technology, it’s easier than you think to automate repetitive tasks and get more out of your day.
Matters – A podcast from Clio
Why Automation Matters
Jordan Couch: I don’t think anyone really loves writing the same will over and over again. We love thinking about these legal concepts. We love fighting in court. We love delving into the research of things, the things that can’t be automated yet. That’s where automation really is an opportunity for lawyers rather than a harm for lawyers. It lets us do the things that we love.
Nehal Madhani: And so, for me it’s always been about efficiency, finding ways to do things easier and faster, and streamlining things that are administrative and repetitive. Human beings were never really meant to do that well. We’re meant to think. And so I wanted to free up time for IP lawyers to think, to be creative, to give that strategic advice to their clients.
Derek Bolen: I’m Derek Bolen.
Teresa Matich: And I’m Teresa Matich. And this is Matters. Matters is a podcast presented by Clio, the world’s leading cloud-based legal technology provider, where we look at small changes that can make a big impact to your daily life and practice. In this episode, we’ll be talking about automation and why it matters.
Derek Bolen: Data entry, routine document drafting, new client intake, all processes that include repetitive tasks, and all processes that can be improved with the help of automation.
For years, businesses have been using automation to free their staff from repetitive tasks and reaping the benefits for their bottom lines. Now, with the help of technology, law firms too can automate processes and focus on delivering an incredible experience to their clients.
Teresa Matich: However, many law firms have been slow to adopt automation. According to ILTA’s 2018 technology survey, 46% of firms still aren’t using any system to help themselves automate business processes. Why the hesitation? According to Richard Susskind, Author of the book ‘The End of Lawyers’, there is an inherent fear of automation that we see replicated across other industries, that lawyers will be replaced by robots, and legal advice will be replaced with artificial intelligence.
Derek Bolen: However, many leading legal thinkers believe that rather than replacing lawyers, AI and automation will support lawyers to do more in what they do. And it’s not just about efficiency, it’s about getting more clients too.
As mentioned in previous episodes, clients expect the same experience from their law firms that they get in other industries where automation is more common place and legal has some catching up to do.
Nehal Madhani: So a lot of it is this role of AI and there is often sometimes fear of AI and how that all fits in their practice or whether or not they need to adopt everything. And so when they start to think about automation, they think that they have to automate every area of their practice at once, and then it starts to become an overwhelming project and then of course it never gets done.
Derek Bolen: That’s Nehal Madhani; Founder and CEO of IP Management Software at Alt Legal and former lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP. We caught up with him at the Clio Cloud Conference.
Nehal is passionate about using automation to make businesses run more efficiently, so much so that when you came up against endless tedious tasks when doing IP work for his own business, he shut that business down, and started to do new one focused on making the IP process more painless for businesses and IP Lawyers.
Nehal Madhani: So I started my career at a big New York City law firm and today, we are very traditional. While they were entrepreneurial, they were still very traditional and there were set processes and set ways to do things.
And you know, coming from someone who’s always been interested in efficiency and someone who was always looking for shortcuts and was always interested in computer programming, it just always begged the question of how could we do things better.
And so, when I left the law firm, I actually started one business and in the process, I had done all my own IP work. And the whole process of collecting information from clients, navigating government websites to fill out the same form over and over, and then tracking each one of your deadlines manually by waiting for like an email or snail mail updates just drove me crazy, to the point where I shut down whatever I was working on, learned computer programming, got together with IP paralegal and we started building software to automate IP work.
Derek Bolen: Nehal is a strong believer that automation doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It’s about keeping it simple, starting with processes you don’t like and making them better.
Nehal Madhani: And so what I often advise attorneys and a lot of our customers is take the most painful segment, right, take what causes the most agony and what keeps you up at night about mistakes that could be happening in your practice, or what takes up the most amount of time and makes you regret going to law school in the first place, and start there and pick that like finite project and work through automation to that specific project.
And I’ve also written articles about something called legal process mapping, where you take a whole project that you have. So let’s say you’re drafting a motion to dismiss and you break it down into its most discreet components. So, what parts does it involve, and what parts of those are administrative that could be done by software or could be done by assistant. What parts are repetitive that could definitely be done by software, where you could teach it a rule and say every time this happens do this.
And what parts are substantive and really require that legal education that get you excited. And then figure out what technology tools can help you streamline the administrative and the repetitive parts.
Teresa Matich: Automation is becoming increasingly important for law firms, and not just because it helps make businesses more efficient and successful. Lawyers increasingly have an ethical duty to be aware of the benefits and risks of technology in their practices as well.
Nehal Madhani: Well I think it comes down to a lot of things, but one is business element, right? In order for you to be competitive with other attorneys, in order for you to stand out from larger law firms, you need to be able to bring efficiency into your workflow. And efficiency partly means automation these days.
And then a second element that I think is interesting is, now more and more states are introducing this element of technology competency. So you have Model Rule 1.1 which was always about competency, but now they’ve added this comment that speaks to technology competency.
So from a malpractice standpoint as well as an ethical standpoint, you’re going to have to start making decisions and defending them as to whether or not you adopt a technology and why or why not. And so, when you look at it from that standpoint, you need to know what things you could automate so that you can reduce the chances of mistakes in your practice as well.
Teresa Matich: 35 states have adopted the duty of technology competence so far. If your firm hasn’t begun using technology and experimenting with the benefits of automation yet, it’s definitely time to get started. In the past, setting up systems to automate law firm processes could have involved a significant up-front investment.
But with today’s technology, automating tedious processes at your law firm is easier than ever before. And in many cases there’s no coding required.
Nehal Madhani: For a long time it was a lot, right. You needed tools. You needed to know how to get programs to talk to each other. But things like Clio, right, makes it very easy, because you integrate with a 100 plus platforms. And you can directly map data from one source to the other so you don’t have to manually enter something twice for example, again, which all could lead to mistakes.
Teresa Matich: This is largely possible because of APIs. If you start automating more processes at your firm, you’ll likely hear the term API tossed around quite a bit. Here’s a short definition from Nehal.
Nehal Madhani: API stands for Application Programming Interface. And the benefit of an API is basically it’s a language and a process by which two computer programs can talk to each other. And so you could set it so that you can come up with all these rules that say, again, like if this event happens do Y. And that’s all possible due to APIs that allow data to be transferred from one computer program to another and actions to be triggered from one computer program to another.
Tys von Gaza: Say you’re using a product through a web browser and you have this interface that you click and you enter data in and you’re able to navigate different functionality.
Teresa Matich: That’s Tys von Gaza, Clio’s Director of Product Development.
Tys von Gaza: API is the equivalent for developers and programmers. It defines, instead of it being like a visual interface for the product, it’s a programming interface to the product that defines different ways to access and modify data programmatically.
Derek Bolen: Automation might conjure up images of immense factories full of robots, but sometimes it can be as simple as connecting the apps you use to manage your day-to-day business. Clio has made their API for Clio Manage publicly available for other technology solutions to integrate with, to the benefit of their customers. This helps to ensure that vital information is being communicated between your technology without having to redundantly enter it in multiple places.
Tys von Gaza: It’s a public API, which means if you just Google Clio API you find our documentation that defines all the different ways you can interact with the application programming interface for Clio. As a lawyer or a developer working for a law firm, that’s a great place to start to see what is possible.
And other tools that may be useful are tools like Zapier, which we’ve built a way for Zapier to talk to Clio’s API, and connect and automate workflows within Clio in a more graphical interface that sits on top of the API.
Teresa Matich: Plenty of tech companies have used the API to build tools that connect with Clio Manage and help lawyers automate repetitive tasks to get more out of their day. Some of those even compete in Clio’s annual Launch/Code contest, where entrants design and develop an app integration for Clio Manage for the chance to win a $100,000 grand prize.
But, you don’t need to be a tech company or even a developer to implement automation at your law firm and reap the benefits. Palace Law, an innovative law firm focused on Workers’ Compensation in Tacoma, Washington, has used this functionality to automate plenty of its day-to-day processes with incredible results.
We sat down with Jordan Couch, an attorney at Palace Law and the firm’s cultural ambassador, to talk about how the firm approaches automation, and how that’s allowed them to succeed as a business and better serve their clients.
Jordan Couch: At the end of the day, there’s only so much time we have to spend on things. And our mission here at Palace Law is to help the injured in every community. And if we’re going to do that we have to find better ways to serve people more efficiently.
And so the big part of that is finding ways to do our work better, and automating helps with that a lot. So, when we kind of sat down and were revamping the firm and kind of moving in a better direction and moving stronger towards that, part of that was focusing on what we can automate and how we can do things better.
Teresa Matich: In short, automation is about changing how you spend the limited time you have at work. The best way to start is by looking at tasks you and your staff don’t like doing, or things that you do repetitively, and figuring out how to automate them. Process comes before technology.
Jordan Couch: I always tell people to think about things they hate, things that take a lot of time, and things that are repetitive. Because if you can identify these things, these are the things that you know you can automate or you should try to avoid spending time on, especially the things you really don’t like.
Those are the things that it’s easy to sell automation in your firm on, because no one wants to do them. So in our office, after we had kind of our baseline of technology set up and after we started thinking about what processes we had in place, we reached out and did surveys of the entire staff asking them what was taking them a long time, what their biggest hold ups were during the day, and what they had to do every day that they didn’t like doing, and we got this big list of things.
Then we sat down with that as a team of about five of us and started saying, okay, what here can we automate? What can we get rid of? What can we move around? What can we improve?
And again, you know it’s processes first. So the first step is looking at the process and saying, is there a better way to do this? And if the answer is no, then we say, can we automate some part of this? Or maybe automating is the better way to do some of this.
So the question to ask yourself is what do you hate, what takes you a long time to do, and what’s repetitive, because those are the things that are right for automation in a firm.
Teresa Matich: When Palace Law really started looking, they saw plenty of opportunities for automation.
Jordan Couch: There are so many, so I’ll try to keep the list without going too excessive with it. But big things we noticed initially were things like our mail process, getting all these paper files, and just in general having a not paperless office. And we realized that there’s a lot of inefficiency that goes along with that, with all the printing, with all the document management.
So one thing we really wanted to do was try to have a way to have all of our paper online all the time. But that requires noticing how do we do file reviews, right. Like, this big paper file that used to come up to my office, 25 or so a week, where does that go now? What happened to that? Or all of the mail that’s coming into my inbox every day, where does that go? What happened to that?
And so these were issues that we had to identify and address. And these were big problems that we had to find these new efficiencies in. So those are the big ones. Then, as we started getting a little more creative with it and got these big things out of the way, we started looking at things like adding dates to calendars can take a long time.
Naming and distributing mail can take a long time. At the intake process, we used to have a paper intake process where someone had to go walk a piece of paper from one office to another. So you could talk to the person on the phone and figure out was going on with them, then you had to take that paper and go online and enter all the information onto our practice management software. And that was all things that took a long time.
So we had to be a little more creative then and got to find new ways to kind of automate a lot of these processes.
Derek Bolen: Involving the whole team and focusing on tasks people don’t like as candidates for automation is key for achieving a culture that’s accepting of change and creating new processes that stick at your firm.
Jordan Couch: A big part of automation and, in general, tech in a law firm is you have to have a culture that is around that. And you can’t force people to do something because, if you impose a process on someone, they’re never going to adopt it, it’s going to fail. You’re going to waste a lot of time on it. You can’t impose culture.
What you can do is show people the benefits to them. And the way you do that is find out what they need. Find out what they want. If there’s something they really like doing, then you automating that doesn’t help them. But if you find the things that people don’t like doing and you can automate those, you get a lot of buy in really quickly because people see immediate advantages of it.
And so, one way you can tell that people are happier is just that they’re using these systems a lot. And I’ve talked to leaders in big firms and managers at big firms that ran into the issue of getting people to adopt all these technology tools they have. We don’t have that problem much in the office, because we train people on it and because we give them things that they want to use.
Derek Bolen: For example, Palace Law has vastly improved the way it handles both mail and calendaring.
Jordan Couch: The mail process of sorting through all of the mail and naming all of the mail, even when it was digitized, took a long time. These were kind of big time sucks for everyone. Or, I think I mentioned this earlier, adding dates to a calendar were big time sucks for people.
Jordan Couch: So, early on we spent a lot of time focused on these problems, and it’s still an ongoing thing. You know we’ve got it now where our mail system, we scanned in all of our documents and we have a program that we had built that automatically names and distributes everything. And we had a calendaring problem, especially when a case goes to litigation where there are so many dates you have to enter on your calendar for a trial, reminders and hearings and depositions and just all this stuff. So we built our own little system to automate all of that, and synced it up to Clio so it gets added on to our Clio calendars.
Derek Bolen: However, one of the biggest areas that Palace Law was able to improve on was time spent on client calls.
Jordan Couch: You know I’m not sure how much of it was a surprise, but a lot of the results we got were that client phone calls took a lot of time in the day, because clients were calling to get updates on their case, wondering whether a check was in for them, things like that.
Derek Bolen: This is a clear example of when process before technology is key. Rather than jumping to solutions, Palace Law succeeded because it invested in clearly defining the problem first.
Jordan Couch: And you know, for the client intake it’s a much different problem, because there are so many reasons a client calls. So we actually did another survey, and we’ve done it a couple times now, where we go and ask ourselves, why are our clients calling us? Because we can want to reduce their calls, but at the end of the day our main job is client service and how do we help them.
So, if we can identify the problems that they’re calling about and give them the information in advance, or automate it somehow so that they don’t have to call, that’s great for them, that’s great for us.
So one really good example I can give is, we spent a lot of time trying to make it easier for our clients to text us, thinking that would reduce calls. It didn’t really have much of an impact. So when we asked why our clients are calling us, a lot of them were wondering like, hey, do I have a check in today? Hey, do I have a check in today? And they could call three times a week easily.
So one thing we did is we set up a system that automatically, every time a check is ready for them in the office, they get a notification, a text on their phone. And we use the system we built before to do that, and that automatically caused client calls to go down quite a bit.
Teresa Matich: Jordan says that Palace Law learned a couple of things from this experience. First, clients care about results, not time spent on the phone. This goes back to the client experience, which we discussed in Episode 1 of Matters. To provide a strong client experience you have to give your clients what they truly want.
Jordan Couch: So there are a couple things, and I’ll try to separate it into two answers for editing. Number one, as you research it you find out that a lot of attorneys think that their client service is the most essential thing that they’re — you know I had an attorney at an automation conference CLE I was speaking at, very upset at the idea that I didn’t always take every phone call from any of my clients, and that I didn’t encourage my clients to call me all the time. But what we found doing studies, and what other companies have found doing research on this, is that clients don’t care about that very much. What they care about when they have an attorney are results and efficiency.
So when we bring in new processes to the office, what we think about is, does this help us increase efficiency and serve our clients, give them better results faster? And if we do that, the clients tend to not really care if they get a phone call.
So, if it’s things like having a chatbot on our website that we have now, clients like that. And actually, studies have shown that people prefer interacting with robots a little more than humans at times, which hurt my feelings a little bit, but I’m okay with.
So number two, you have to make sure that everything you do has client service as the goal. So that doesn’t have to mean that you are always taking calls from you clients. In fact, to increase my efficiency I often will not answer the phone, will hear their messages and then when I have the time, call them back with an answer ready for them.
Teresa Matich: This mindset is something Palace Law has used to guide the way it shares documents with clients as well.
Jordan Couch: So one big thing we do in our office is, whenever any document comes in for a client, rather than us holding on to it, reviewing it, sending it out to them, calling them and talking to them about it, we automatically send it to them through Clio Connect, so that they often see their mail before I even see it. Because what they care about is knowing what’s going on in their case.
So if we provide them answers immediately, client satisfaction goes up instead of down by that automation. Or if we, you know, give them answers like telling them when their check is available, they’re not sad that they’re not calling the office and talking to an attorney. They’re happy that they don’t have to worry about it anymore, that it’s all automated for them.
Teresa Matich: Jordan believes that being driven first by a goal to run a client-centered law firm rather than just a goal to increase profits, provides a big opportunity for law firms to differentiate themselves.
Jordan Couch: So start with just asking yourself why you want to do it, right? And there’s a big reason a lot of firms don’t do this, and it’s because they have, their culture is based around billable hours and their mission is to kind of, be profit centers. I think, especially in the small-firm community, a lot of lawyers break that mould and are really trying to find new innovative ways to do something.
So if your goal is to provide better client service, ask yourself what it is you’re providing to your clients. What are the essential elements of that? And start by just identifying what it is you give clients and then the processes you go through to give that to clients.
And sometimes it helps to even, on a notebook which I have sitting next to my desk, write out what your process is for doing something.
Teresa Matich: Jordan shared a few more tips for getting started with automation at your own firm. First, start with one small thing.
Jordan Couch: Start with little simple things, like if you want to try it out on your own, there’s a company called Zapier or another company called If This Then That that just allows you to link cloud services.
So an easy example I can say is, every time you send an email, it can automatically add a note to your Clio Matter. Or in our office, we have it set up so that, sometimes if I move a Trello card it can add a matter, or it can add a note to my Clio Matter. It’s these simple things, and they’re really easy to get started with, because all you’re doing is saying, if this happens, I want this to happen, and you write it in that way. And it’s a very simple place to get started on the idea of automation, see where some of the benefits can come from.
Derek Bolen: For Nehal, billing and client intake are two places to start when looking for small processes to automate.
Nehal Madhani: So one thing that definitely comes to mind is just really around billing entries, right. Billing entries are certainly a repetitive administrative task. So if you have a certain workflow, every time you docket a trademark you bill your client 0.1 hours, then go ahead and create that into some sort of automated workflow. Use Alt Legal to talk to your billing software for example.
Jordan Couch: We started out doing just little things like that, and through it ended up building huge systems that are 10, 15 steps at a time sometimes to try to run through these processes. But it’s start small with a repetitive motion. Every time I do this I have to also do this. Every time I enter a date on the calendar here I have to also create a note here. If you do it once and it goes automatically to the next place, automate that. Find a way to make that faster and simpler.
Derek Bolen: Also, Jordan stresses that lawyers and legal professionals shouldn’t feel pressured to do it alone. Reach out to other businesses and experts for ideas on how to automate and streamline your business.
Jordan Couch: So whether it’s writing a will or helping someone with a bankruptcy or even taking on a litigation matter, what are the processes that you go through in order to provide this service to your clients? And once you’ve looked at that, and identify the things that you think can be done a little more efficiently, don’t worry if you’re not subject matter expert. You shouldn’t be. You’re a lawyer. You should practice law and that should be your subject matter expertise.
But reach out to the community and see if you know anyone who has ideas. At Palace Law we work with I think about five outside companies at this point in time trying to build better systems in our office, because we don’t have all the answers and we don’t have all the skills. What we do is we find people who have those skills and can build them for us.
Derek Bolen: Finally, while thinking of process before technology is important, Jordan also recommends starting out with a few quality cloud-based technology tools before anything else.
Jordan Couch: So it’s a bit of a process. I always tell people it’s processes before technology, but it begins with having a baseline of technology that is all kind of related. So do you have a way to manage your cases, like some sort of practice management software? Do you have your email, your cloud-based services for document management? And do you have something monitoring your workflow, whether that’s just a task list or whether it’s something like a Kanban board, a little more complex visual system? But all of these need to be – you need to have all of these baseline technologies, and you need to have that up in the cloud where they can communicate with each other.
Teresa Matich: Overall, automation has greatly improved Jordan’s productivity while also improving his work-life balance. Thinking outside the box led the firm to think outside the billable hour, which has helped him handle his cases far more easily.
Jordan Couch: So if you are billing by the hour still, my advice is stop or find a way to ease out of that. Because at the end of the day, if you are billing by the hour you are limiting yourself in a huge way, because I can handle probably, 50% more cases easily than I used to be able to handle because of the automations we have in place now. And that opens me up to either take on more cases and as a firm make more money, or have more of a life and enjoy myself more, right. Like I love being a lawyer and this is, I do it because I really, really do love it. But I also love going hiking and I love going fishing.
So yesterday my boss and I went out fishing in the morning and came into the office a little late, and then I went and got engagement photos done. And I’m on top of my work because I can work from anywhere and because I can move through my cases in an efficient manner.
Automation is the key to having a better, happier law practice. In my office, it’s allowed us to fulfill our mission of serving the injured in every community by helping us have more time to serve more clients and provide better results to them. And on a personal side, it allows me to enjoy the work I do more and enjoy my life more, because I have more time to do the things that I enjoy outside of the legal profession while still being better at my job.
Teresa Matich: More importantly, Jordan also sees an opportunity to provide greater access to justice by using automation to make services more affordable.
Jordan Couch: But there are more people out there that need your help. I mean, the most recent study in Washington said that 76% of legal needs, civil legal needs go unmet in the state. That’s a huge untapped market of people willing to hire you if you can offer them services at a price point that they can afford. And when you think about 76% of the population, it’s not all people who can’t afford any attorney. They can afford something, just maybe not what you’re offering.
So, efficiencies and automation allow you to find ways to offer more services to those who are out there, and that’s a huge market that is waiting for you. So it doesn’t have to hurt your bottom line, it can help your bottom line.
Teresa Matich: Contrary to popular belief, robots won’t be taking over law firms any time soon, or probably ever. Instead, you can use technology to automate processes that hold you back from providing excellent client service, so that you can do more of the work you love.
Automation doesn’t need to be complicated. Focus on automating what you don’t like, and think process first, not technology first. From there, continue to test and change your processes. As long as you’re guided by providing better service for your clients and your firm’s values reflect a willingness to change, you’ll be automating like a pro in no time. You can find more information to help you get started with automation at your own law firm in the Resources section of this podcast.
Derek Bolen: Thanks for joining us for the fourth episode of Matters. Matters is produced by Andrew Booth, Teresa Matich and Derek Bolen, and by Clio, the world’s leading cloud-based legal technology provider. Be sure to subscribe to Matters to ensure you never miss an episode. If you’d like to learn more about Clio, please visit us at clio.com.
In the practice of law, small changes can have a big impact. Each episode of Matters features legal professionals and subject matter experts focusing on one topic that transformed their firms.
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