Law firms are facing a rough go. Productivity is waning. Growth is minimal. Corporate legal departments are looking to alternative providers for more cost-effective service. It’s more important than ever for law firms to take a hard look at how work is delivered.

For more than a decade, Nonlinear has been building intranets in the legal sector.  Our research, including conversations with hundreds of lawyers and legal support staff across North America, has revealed some uncomfortable insights about the changing nature of the industry.  Even if you don’t believe that radical steps need to be taken to futureproof the law firm from digital disruption, many law firms struggle with effectively supporting work as its done today.  

Available technology still not up to the task of efficient legal work

From our vantage-point, the tools at the disposal of law firm partners, associates and employees have faced the same set of problems for a long time.  It’s not that solutions to these problems don’t exist… but for a variety of reasons, many mid-sized law firms have still not been successful in addressing them.

Five challenges continue to surface in relation to which the way work gets done today:

  1. Email dominates, inundates and isolates
    Strong reliance on email as a channel leaves people feeling overloaded.  While alternatives for firm-wide, practice, client and matter-oriented communications and conversations might exist, much of the firm’s knowledge is still, quite often, locked away in inboxes.
  2.  Internal search fails to surface timely, relevant results 
    Finding people, documents and other resources relevant to daily work takes effort, patience and teamwork.  There’s still a long road ahead in delivering accurate results for these types of searches.
  3. There’s still no good place to put your work and collaborate with teams 
    It’s nearing the end of 2016 and we still encounter firms relying on (or turning back to) the shared drive to store and share documents.  Information is decentralized and often siloed.  The practice raises administrative and operational costs and opens the firm to greater risk.  Quality aggregate views into matters are still rare, as well as opportunities for digitally-based collaboration
  4. Routine work is still highly manual
    A surprising volume of front and back office tasks remain manual processes despite the existence of alternatives. 
  5. Disparate systems offer disjointed experiences resulting in wasted time and click-fatigue
    Systems are purchased and implemented without much regard for the user and the big picture.  Users must jump from one tool to the next in order to accomplish daily work. Switching context in workplace naturally takes time to reorient and few systems play well together without significant integration effort.

 

The renewed importance of the law firm intranet

Since 2005, the demand for law firm services has proven to be relatively flat and since 2011, there has been an overall downward trend in productivity.  Strong pressure now exists for greater efficiency, predictability and cost effectiveness but firms have been achingly slow to address the demand.  The Center for Study of the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor has reported that corporate clients are increasingly “voting with their feet” by choosing to reduce the volume of work referred to outside counsel. Instead, corporate legal departments are opting to keep the work in-house or seeking alternative legal service providers.

Law firms that take the threat seriously are looking at their intranet with fresh eyes.  The law firm intranets of 2016 and beyond aim to support priorities of key strategic importance related to productivity, recruitment, mobility, business development, culture, client service, communication and knowledge management.

Bright spots

The highlights of the latest generation of law firm intranets include:

  • Reporting - Access and the ability to manipulate near real-time data on client, matter and practice performance
  • Communication, Collaboration and Cooperation - Collaborative platforms and tools that span silos – offering opportunities for true client-centricity across the firm, efficiencies in daily operations and more unified culture
  • Enterprise Search - Federated search that blends sources of information inside the firm and out
  • Personalization - Clever use of machine learning and social usage data to deliver an experience that is not just personalized to the role of the user logging on… but to the individual.  Algorithms can surface recent work… making it easier to pick up where you left off or ensure that you never miss an important file shared by your peers.
  • Unified experience - Truly integrated calendaring, collaboration, document management, project management and billing systems
  • Automation - The capacity for the non-technical user to rapidly assemble workflows and apps; automating key processes
  • Adaptable experiences – As lawyers and support staff change contexts – from desktop to mobile phone… from office to home environment… the experience adapts to suit the context of use


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