January 01, 2020

The Advantages of Automation

Experienced practitioners discuss their successful solutions for automating their practice.

Heidi Alexander

Automation can apply to nearly every aspect of your practice, saving time and expanding the scope of your services. In the July/August 2019 issue of Law Practice, I illustrated the benefits of automation through a fictional attorney named Joe Lawyer. Now I’ve brought together four lawyers who have experimented with automation in their practices for real world perspective about the advantages of automating your practice.

The lawyers.

Brooke Moore owns MyVirtual.Lawyer, a virtual law firm model providing flat fee and subscription-based limited scope legal services and MyVirtual.Lawyer for Attorneys, which assists other attorneys in implementing limited scope, virtual components into their firms, as well as providing coaching, consulting, and technology strategy and implementation assistance.

Dina Eisenberg owns OutsourceEasier.com and LawFirmOmbuds.com. Her mission is to help women lawyers become more intentional in how they build their law practice and improve their leadership and management skills. She consults with law firms on organizational development and conflict management and serves as an external ombudsman.

Erin Gerstenzang leads a boutique practice in Atlanta that serves hemp and medical marijuana businesses, as well as individuals facing criminal drug or alcohol-related charges. She also runs the EHG Law Firm Collective, where she leads a collaborative mentorship-focused criminal defense group that helps women develop legal, technology and business skills that accelerate solo law firm growth and success.

Kim Bennett owns a coaching practice in Atlanta. She empowers women entrepreneurs, especially women of color, to disrupt the legal industry by teaching them how to create a stable, sustainable and scalable stream of income through subscription services. Bennett’s vision is simple—it’s time for men to take a back seat and watch women, especially women of color, lead the law. 

What benefits do you think can be derived by automating a law practice?

Moore: Automating your law practice can drastically improve your firm (and life). We don’t take the human element out of our practices, but we spend less time on menial tasks and more time on things that require our skills and expertise.

Automation will help improve efficiency, increase attorney satisfaction and enhance the client experience. With increased efficiency you can meet clients where they need you and improve communication, transparency and offer pricing predictability.

Utilizing technology helps reduce human error and significantly decreases the overhead costs of staffing and other fees associated with a conventional law office. Automation levels the playing field and affords solo and small firm attorneys the ability to stay competitive on a smaller budget. But the best part of implementing automation is that automation allows me to spend my time on revenue-producing activities to grow my business, rather than working on the tedious tasks inside my law firm.

Eisenberg: One benefit lawyers may not fully appreciate is how automation organizes your law practice. The process of preparing to automate enables you to see any gaps or update as needed. You regain time due to automation, and your practice becomes more efficient.

Gerstenzang: The benefits I enjoy from automation are efficiency, consistency and reduced overhead. When I started my practice five years ago, I had no desire to incur the additional expense of hiring help. I was working at a law firm where I was supported by a small army of administrative staff, all very busy managing files and helping clients. To provide the same level of care to my clients, I needed to explore technology as an alternative. Initially, I was nervous that technology solutions would fall short of human-driven processes but quickly realized that my clients loved the convenience of online scheduling, electronic fee agreements and intake forms. I was surprised that these tools delivered a competitive advantage in addition to eliminating rote and tedious daily tasks.

Bennett: Automating your practice allows you to unlock the freedom and power of business ownership. Once you embrace automation, you can truly work in your zone of genius and create a larger impact for your clients, yourself and your community.

What law office processes and procedures are best suited for automation?

Moore: The top three processes that are best suited for automation are intake, document assembly and payment collection.

Automating intake saves the time of manually setting up each client, scanning or transferring documents, or going back and forth with clients to gather information. Plus, if you retrieve and store this information electronically, it will all be in one easily searchable place.

Document assembly not only saves time but helps to reduce human error. With technology you can easily pull the electronic intake information into template documents. It takes time up-front to format the documents and insert all the correct codes, but it will save you so much time later.

By automating payment collection, you can send automated invoices, email or text reminders, and even set up recurring payments. For clients on payment plans, we set the bills to auto-draft on the agreed-upon dates and never chase clients or wait for payment. Our clients have been receptive, and in the five years we have been automating our payments, we have had no outstanding accounts receivable.   

Eisenberg: Sending invoices and following up on past due invoices is my favorite thing to do, said no lawyer ever. Yet, every firm needs consistent cash flow to survive as a business. If your collection rate is under 90 percent,  it’s time to consider automating the process so you get paid on time more often.

Gerstenzang: Any redundant task that you or your staff does regularly. After taking the time to study the process that my then-current office had used for decades, I realized that there were plenty of opportunities to design for efficiency. I made a list of all the steps involved from start to finish of the case. I focused on automating the tasks I most disliked while protecting the parts of practice that I loved. This meant that I began by automating the client onboarding process.

Bennett: Every process and procedure (until the point a person must take over)! Mundane, repetitive tasks should not be work we continue to do when we have tools that do it better and faster for us. We want everyone in our organizations to function in their zone of excellence at their highest capacity. Automation takes us one step closer toward creating that work environment.

Walk us through how you set up a workflow automation.

Moore: We use cloud-based electronic calendaring. We don’t take incoming calls. We outsource to a 24/7/365 answering service that takes messages, schedules appointments and screens out solicitors. After initial consultations, all client communications are exchanged in our secure client portal. Our calendars are embedded into our website so clients can either sign up online or have our answering service schedule them. They complete our basic intake information, which is configured to create a pending client and matter in our practice management system, and then pay the consultation fee. Once the client is scheduled, they receive an email confirmation, and we receive an email notification for the appointment, which is also automatically added to our calendars. The client receives a text reminder the day before our consultation. If the client moves forward after our consultation, an email is sent and additional workflows are triggered.

Eisenberg: I use a workflow automation to onboard lawyers into my course, Unstoppable Lawyer Playbook, using tags and my MemberVault software.

New students are tagged after purchase. Automation adds them to the course and allows immediate access, and they are added to the proper email sequence in my email software so they get the welcome messages.

Gerstenzang: We designed a system of automation to respond and connect with potential new clients even when an attorney isn’t immediately available to take the call. Depending what the client is looking for when she calls, she will receive an introductory email with a calendaring link to schedule a call later that day. While an email or text response is not the same as speaking to a live human, automation is a better alternative to a delayed response from the lawyer.

When we are hired, we use automation to send the electronic fee agreement, collect new client information and generate an electronic invoice.

Once the client has completed the onboarding steps, she receives an email introducing her to the team of lawyers who will be working on her case along with a description of the next steps, and a series of automated communications throughout the case.

Bennett:

Step 1: Identify and write down the goal of the automation.

Step 2: Identify major steps that need to be accomplished to move one step closer toward reaching that goal.

Step 3: For each step, list, in sequential order, every task you need to do to complete that step. This is your process.

Step 4: Review the first draft of your process, remove duplicative steps and confirm the process is designed as you currently (or hope to) operate. There should be three to seven steps (with associated tasks) that you must perform to accomplish your identified goal.

Step 5: Assign responsibility for completing each step or task and identify what technology, if any, is used.

Step 6: For each manual activity, brainstorm ways to automate it.

Step 7: Determine if the tools you’re currently using can be used in any part of the process you just designed. If yes, add them. If not, find a tool that will perform that step or task.

Step 8: Connect the tools and test your automation. Adjust as needed until you have accomplished the goal.

Step 9: Assign one person on your team responsibility for maintaining this process.

Step 10: Make it live! Start using it and monitor for updates and improvements.

What is one action an attorney can take to begin to use automation in their practice?

Moore: If you don’t have a practice management or document assembly service, start there. The first step I took was to automate my client agreement. Most document assembly software has some preset merge fields or codes for basic information; you can copy and paste the preset merge fields into your client agreement. Then create your own custom fields to gather information without a preset field. Once you have built your template document, you can upload it to your document assembly service. Simply apply the template, and any specific, pertinent client information, inputted and mapped to the specific fields, will be auto populated into your document. Then review the document to make sure everything looks correct and share it with your client. 

Eisenberg: Start with the tools you have. Being familiar with the tool reduces your learning curve, increases the value you are getting from that tool and saves money. 

For example, Gmail has a feature called canned messages. Create a canned message to send to clients as a response to a frequently asked question. They’ll be delighted at the quick response and you’ll save time!

Gerstenzang: Start experimenting by learning to build online forms. There are plenty of tools available. Start learning on a free platform like Google Forms or Jot Form, but graduate to a paid and secure tool before you start collecting client data.

Simple tools like Calendly make it easy for clients to schedule their own appointments without engaging in a never-ending email chain discussing which dates you work.

Bennett: I would recommend writing down one process in your business that causes you stress—responding to emails, answering the phone, drafting a document. Start improving it by automating some of the tasks. Automation can be creating templates or adopting a tool that will perform that task or step for you. The point is to act by identifying your pain point and writing down your process!

Heidi Alexander

Heidi Alexander is the deputy director of Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps lawyers build healthy and sustainable law practices. She is the co-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2020. heidi@lclma.org