Let me tell you a story about Joe Lawyer. Joe is faced with many challenges. He is constantly being pulled in different directions, and sometimes he feels like a chicken running around with his head cut off. He has a multitude of daily responsibilities, including scheduling clients, court dates and meetings; tracking time; preparing, reviewing and sending invoices; collecting payment and following up on past-due accounts; drafting and formatting documents; communicating with and managing potential, existing and former client relationships; building and cultivating referral relationships; marketing the practice; managing employees; and more!
When Joe is overwhelmed by the administrative side of his practice, he cannot provide the best client service. When client service is poor, clients are unhappy, referrals go down, profitability goes down, and there is potential for a malpractice claim and/or bar complaint. Ultimately, if he doesn’t get a handle on his administrative tasks, he won’t be able to sustain his practice and may make mistakes that could cost him his license. Get the point?
Introduction to Automation
How can Joe Lawyer solve his inefficiencies and maintain better control over the administrative functions of his practice, giving him a better chance of success? Yes, automation is the key.
You’ve heard the term before. Let’s start with a definition. According to Dictionary.com, automation is “the technique, method or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.”
What does automation mean as applied to your law practice? Your practice involves multiple processes, including client intake, document generation, communications and more. Automating these processes with technology has the potential to improve office efficiencies and reduce mistakes, making you more productive and ultimately helping you serve more clients, work better with them and improve your bottom line. No matter what your practice, automation can provide a benefit.
What can you do with automation? The sky’s the limit. Almost any aspect of your law practice could be automated, but what you automate may depend upon your particular practice and how you conduct business.
For example, say you are a divorce attorney known for your very personalized client experience, which requires individual interactions and sometimes hand-holding with each of your clients. Does it make sense to automate your client communication, forcing someone to communicate solely through a client portal or other electronic means? Probably not—they need a friendly voice on the other end of the line to listen. But can you automate other aspects of your processes, such as using a smart form tool to gather necessary information from the potential client before a consultation and then import it into your case management system? Yes.
Say you are a corporate attorney who specializes in counseling start-up companies. Automating communication with founders through a client portal that removes frequent communications from email and into organized streams of communication regarding formation, human resources, contracts, etc., may be ideal for your client’s needs and culture.
Let’s look at some of the most common tasks in your practice and how to automate them.
Drafting documents is a common task for many lawyers. This area is ripe for automation as it is costly for a lawyer to spend time that could be billed elsewhere on creating, formatting and editing documents. Document automation is available, from the very simple to the complex. Simple document automation might involve using tools to replicate oft-used clauses or words, while more complex automation involves setting up templates with merge fields to automatically insert client information. Here are three common practices and automated solutions to get you started.
Tired of typing the same thing twice? Or even finding a block of text from an old email or document you want to reproduce and then copy and paste it into a new file? This all takes time. You can be using automation to save yourself time. Here are examples of when this would arise in practice: a response to a potential client, contract provisions (i.e., wills, purchase and sale agreements), updating your biography, phrases and words, mailing addresses and more.
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 Quick Parts. Then, when you want to use that response again, open a new message and click on the Quick Part. 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. Quick Parts also works with Microsoft Word.
Numerous additional products can help you save time when writing, including a popular tool called TextExpander. Initially only available to Mac users, this product was so popular that developers enabled it for use across platforms, and it’s now available for Windows. This tool removes the step of having to click to insert text (with Quick Parts) by instead using keyboard shortcuts. It even tracks how much time you’ve saved by using the tool.
Lawyers often reuse documents. This is an area fraught with ethical violations of confidentiality. You all know the scenario: An attorney takes a document that she’s drafted for a former client, she wants to use it as a starting point for her next client, she opens that document and finds and replaces the former client’s information with the new client’s information. Because she’s busy, she fails to replace all of her former client’s information and has now shared that information with her new client or, worse yet, files this document publicly. Don’t let this happen to you.
Instead take that document and turn it into a reusable template. Essentially you will create a form with fill-in-the-blanks for your client’s information. You can do this with Microsoft Word by using the Developer tab. You can add fill-in fields for client data, drop-down menu items for the particular court, and auto date and time stamps. Save this as a Template, and each time you open it for use, you will be prompted to save it as a separate regular document file.
Taking this to the next level, you’ll want some way to insert a client’s contact information into these templates in bulk, rather than having to manually enter it throughout the entire document. The simplest method is by merging the template with information in an Excel database. You can attribute cells in your Excel database with fields in your template, bringing over information in bulk and saving you loads of time. This is called document assembly, and it’s become easier with products that do just that.
Organizing your electronic documents can be time consuming. Automation can make it easier. A tool such as TextExpander, mentioned earlier, can ensure proper document naming conventions by setting up a shortcut, for example, to name a document with the date first and a prompt to enter a description—such as “2018 01 01 [Ltr to Client].” Other tools, such as Hazel or Automator (for Mac) or File Juggler (for Windows), allow configuration of rules that can automate document management. You could set up a rule automatically to move files once downloaded to a new location and then delete from the original Downloads folder. A tool such as Hazel for Mac goes a step further by automatically renaming and moving documents by identifying keywords within them.
Scheduling is another time-intensive administrative task. Think about how often 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, 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, resulting in one winning date.
Even easier is Office 365’s free add-on, FindTime, which allows you to create a poll straight from Outlook and view availability of invitees also using Outlook. Now, how about scheduling with clients? Try using tools such as Calendly, ScheduleOnce or Microsoft Bookings, all of 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) need not 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 before the appointment.
The sales process begins with marketing, having contacts with prospective clients and then converting those prospects into clients. Fortunately many aspects of marketing and sales in legal work can be automated and help turn more prospects into clients—and thereby make time for doing the actual client work.
To get prospective clients, you need to market your practice. If not approached properly, social media will suck away all your time. You need to manage and store content for review, reference and sharing. Rather than subscribe and check multiple sources each day, use a source aggregator—Feedly, Netvibes or Reeder—to automatically pull in all the sources you want to review. Source aggregators typically include features that allow you to share directly to your social media platforms. You can automate dissemination of your blog posts or other blogs/sites you follow to different channels with services such as dlvr.it, IFTTT (If This Then That) and Zapier. IFTTT and Zapier enable multiple accounts and platforms to interact with one another automatically, allowing for even more sophisticated automated actions.
Marketing your practice tries to get clients to contact you. But, once they reach out, what’s next? You need a streamlined process to handle prospective clients in order to effectively “make the sale” and convert the prospect into a client. This requires a system to collect, store and organize information about prospective clients, such as a customer relationship management or law practice management system. For example, the recent purchase of Lexicata, a customer relationship management product, by Clio, represents a merging of the customer relationship management and law practice management products. With Lexicata and Clio, you can track the status of potential clients, where they are in the conversion process and review information about people who have not yet retained your services. You can also store and report on referral and marketing sources by potential and converted client (i.e., advertisement, email or referral source).
To the prospect, the process by which they are converted into a client must be easy and painless. Take Amazon, for example, a business conglomerate that has mastered the sales process. With one or two clicks of a button, you can purchase a product and have it delivered to your doorstep within hours. By aggregating sellers, Amazon also allows you to shop for the best price. This is precisely what consumers want: a good price and simple, efficient service.
The same is true for legal consumers. Price is important, but so is the efficiency of the process. If a prospective client must jump through hoops before receiving legal services from you, they will quickly move on to another qualified attorney. However, lawyers are bound by ethical obligations and must take certain steps before engaging a client. But this need not be an onerous process, on either side of the equation.
Here’s what an automated process might look like:
- The prospective client (PC) visits your website. Your website must include contact information on every page, each with a clickable phone number. You will also want to find multiple ways to collect prospective client contact information, such as a pop-up that allows the PC to input his or her email address in exchange for information from you (i.e., an e-book, newsletter, etc.).
- The PC completes a form on your website using a form tool such as Typeform, Wufoo or Intake123, or a system of prompts in response to a chatbot, such as LawDroid, that can even screen out inappropriate potential clients.
- Upon submitting the completed form, the information is automatically input into your customer relationship management or law practice management program, and a notification is sent to you to conduct a conflict check.
- The PC receives an automated response with a link for the PC to schedule an initial consultation.
- Once the initial consultation is conducted and both parties agree to engagement, a fee agreement is generated via a template from your customer relationship management or law practice management program, and specific information you collected from your intake is input into the agreement.
- The intake form is received and signed electronically by the PC using an electronic signature product such as DocuSign, Adobe Sign, HelloSign, RightSignature, DocHub, SignNow or Signaturit.
Throughout the life cycle, there will be a long list of tasks and deadlines required when handling the case. Similar types of matters often have similar sets of requirements; that is, for several cases you might send out a fee agreement, set up an initial client meeting, have the client complete a questionnaire, complete a case time line, etc. Rather than manually write or type out this set of tasks for each new client, create a workflow that can be applied repeatedly. Automating these workflows will help save you time and mistakes (say, forgetting to calendar a statute of limitations). Many of the law practice management programs include workflow automation tools to predefine a set of tasks and deadlines that apply to certain types of matters. Each time you are presented with a certain matter, you need only to select that workflow, and it will then apply automatically to the new matter, creating tasks and calculating deadlines based on your workflow.
Poor client communication nearly always makes the top of the list for the most popular bar complaints. It’s important. Yet it can be time-intensive. Internal office communication can also add to your load. Automating communication makes sense for many law practices.
Attorneys often let email monopolize their time and dictate the course of their day. Help break free from that cycle with some automation tricks. First, use email rules to handle organization. Rules can help you to keep your inbox more manageable by sifting out clutter that isn’t essential daily. You can build your own rules in Outlook either by going to your toolbar and selecting Tools and then Rules to set up a rule from scratch or by right-clicking on a single email message and then creating a rule based on that message. Rules can be simple or sophisticated. A simple rule might move e-newsletters or listservs from your inbox to another folder or location to view later. You can do this by creating a rule to move emails received from the sender of the e-newsletter immediately from the inbox to another folder or forwarded to a read-later tool such as Instapaper or Pocket. You’ll never see or have to process those emails in your inbox.
You can also use rules to help alert you to important information. For example, use a rule for e-filing notices. Set up the rule to flag the email for importance or to pin it to the top of your inbox and copy the email to a case-specific folder. Or you can even forward it directly to your assistant.
While rules run automatically, Microsoft Outlook also has a Quick Steps feature that, with the click of a button, runs a set of workflows. For example, you could set up Quick Steps to (1) mark an email as read and then move it to a certain folder; (2) forward an email to your assistant, mark it as read and move to a certain folder; or (3) reply and then delete the message from the inbox. To run one of these, you simply click the Quick Step to apply, and it will run the workflow on that message.
Clients like to be “in the know” with their matters. A good rule of thumb is to not let six weeks go by without communicating with your client. Outlook’s Delay Delivery feature could schedule a regular update email for a certain date or could send an email reminder to a client of an important upcoming date (i.e., a due in court date, documents needed date, etc.). You can also use reminders on your calendar to schedule follow-ups with clients on certain dates. A law practice management client portal can also automate case activity and updates by triggering notifications to clients when you upload documents to their matter or for payment purposes, thus reducing email correspondence and avoiding unnecessary phone calls but at the same time ensuring a constant stream of communication with your client.
There are other tools to automate internal and external communication. For example, Slack is a messaging and collaboration tool that creates channels for certain communications with certain people. This might be used with a more sophisticated client that has several legal needs. Rather than having to rehash the context and status of a project (e.g., an employee handbook) each time you email, you can post to a certain Slack channel and pick up precisely where you left off. This also ensures that all parties have access to project communications and updates, again avoiding repetitive emails. Slack is popular tool for internal communications among team members, making it easy to communicate and collaborate with multiple teams on multiple projects simultaneously.
In its most recent major iOS upgrade, Apple added a new feature that provides proof that automation is not just for the geeks of the world but also for the masses. Apple Shortcuts allows you to piece together multiple functions on your iOS device.
You can download the Shortcuts app from the App Store. The app works in drag-and-drop fashion and allows for many types and combinations of actions or steps. For example, you could create a shortcut to remind you to call a client when you get to the office. The shortcut will take information from your reminder program and then trigger the reminder when you arrive at your office by using location-based services.
Another example for those often on the road: You can create a shortcut to give you directions to your next event. When you run the shortcut, the app will pull information from your calendar and then enter it into a map program of your choice reducing the number of manual steps you must take to make this happen. Taking this a step further, you can assign a Siri Shortcut to activate these shortcuts you have built. For example, you could program the voice command “Get me directions to my next meeting,” which will trigger your shortcut via Siri. Fortunately, Apple provides extensive sample shortcuts in its Gallery within the app.
What’s Next for Joe Lawyer
If Joe Lawyer implemented even a few of the above automation ideas, it would benefit his practice. Fear not, Joe has a long way before making a complete transformation from human to machine. With incremental adaptation of automation tools, he can reduce the time he spends on administrative tasks so he can spend more time doing the bespoke legal work of true value to his clients. He might even reduce stress, take a vacation and build his practice all simultaneously. What a thought!