Automation is a big buzzword in the legal technology world. There are many tools a law firm can use to streamline processes, reduce administrative hassles and improve efficiency. With so many ways to apply automation to your firm’s daily activities, it may seem a little overwhelming. While there are some very sophisticated products that can help a firm build impressive automations, there are also some simple ways to automate using technology already on your desktop.
What is automation?
Automation is defined by IBM as “a term for technology applications where human input is minimized.” In a law firm this could be as simple as an automated email response or as sophisticated as a trigger that results in a chain of actions, including taking information gathered from a form that generates a fee agreement and sends it to the client for e-signature, creating a new client record with the gathered data in a practice management application, and filing the finalized agreement. A process that involves a lot of moving parts and human effort can be streamlined with automation. To create complex automation a firm would need to have the right tools in place, have the know-how to create the automation, and then test it and watch carefully for any errors or glitches that would indicate that the automation failed. So, what tools are available for firms looking to automate?
The good news is that your law firm probably has many of the technologies necessary to start simple automations. Microsoft 365 and the Office suite have many features and tools that can let you build easy and useful automations. In the world of legal technology, it is likely that your practice management application has many automation tools including document assembly and task management. Applications that integrate with your practice management system, like rules-based calendaring, can automate deadlines and ticklers for court filing deadlines and due dates and add them to your calendar. Customer relationship management (CRM) integrations can help move prospects to clients and open the file in your practice management database. Text expanding tools let you run processes and add language anywhere on your computer. Document assembly and document automation tools can complete documents with data gathered via a form sent to the client, dropping in variable clauses, adjusting for personal pronouns and pluralization and more. Practicespecific document assembly tools can go further with calculations, filling out government and court forms, triggering tasks and even running reports.
Many automations can be accomplished within existing technologies. When it comes to getting disparate products to “talk” to each other and share information and trigger actions, there are tools that can help. In addition to integrations leveraging application programming interfaces that let the systems move data from one application to another, there are even more sophisticated tools that can further the automations. Tools like Zapier, Microsoft Power Automate, IFTTT and Autologyx let you set up strings of commands to create an automation process. Everything from matter management to marketing can be automated.
Simple automations to start
If you are new to the world of automation and it seems a little intimidating, start small. Once you begin to see the benefits of the technology you can explore more ways to reduce human input. Here are a few simple ideas to get you started:
Quick Steps in Microsoft Outlook
If you use Microsoft Outlook software to manage your email, calendar and contacts, you probably realize that it is a powerful application. Quick Steps is a built-in feature that has been in the software for many versions. What can you do with it?
In the ribbon on the Home tab find the Quick Steps group. Simple Quick Steps can include setting up an outbound email to a group of people with a single click, converting an email to an appointment on your calendar, or replying to a client and automatically moving the email into the client’s folder. However, you can build out steps by going to New and choosing Custom. You name your Quick Step and build out the actions. For instance, you can create a Quick Step that sends a copy of an email into a certain folder, forwards the email to someone else flagged for follow up with a message or instructions, categorizes the message, and creates a task with the text of the message. If you are using Microsoft 365 that task will also appear in your To Do application under Tasks.
Reply with a Template in Outlook
Microsoft Outlook lets you set up rules, which are much like Quick Steps, but they run automatically when you are on the Microsoft Exchange Server. You can set up sophisticated rules, but like all automation they can go awry if you are not careful. Be judicious in the number of rules you set up. One rule that is particularly useful is to set up an automatic response to an email using a template.
If you want to set up an auto-response to an email you can accomplish this by creating template emails and then setting up rules. For instance, when you receive emails from potential clients from your website contact form, would you like to remind them that they are not yet clients, thus information sent will not be held in confidence? First, set up a new email and provide the response you want to send, including the subject line. Click File, Save As and in the Save As Type select Outlook Template from the drop-down menu. Second, go into the Outlook Rules Wizard and in Step 1 select the action “Reply using a specific template.” Third, click on “A specific template” and choose the email template you saved.
Mail Merge in Microsoft Word
You can create some simple automations with Mail Merge in Microsoft Word. Any information that you can get into a spreadsheet can be added to a Word document with Mail Merge. For instance, if you have a client intake form using one of the many survey tools on the market (Jotform, Microsoft Forms, Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, etc.), you can export that information to a spreadsheet and drop it into a letter. Or if you maintain a spreadsheet with other information, such as billing information, that can be input into an email to send to a client.
Open a new Word document and click on the Mailings tab in the ribbon. The easiest way to make sure you create your merged document correctly is to use the Start Mail Merge Wizard. Then follow the prompts that appear on the right side of the screen. If you want to send an email to a client, choose Email, then use the current document, an existing template or an existing document. Select the recipients from an existing list (your spreadsheet) by browsing for it on your local or shared drive. It is important that your spreadsheet have headers. Click Next and under “Write your email message” choose “More items.” Anything in the spreadsheet that has headers will appear as an option to merge into your document. Choose your fields and click “Insert” where you want the merged data to appear. Then preview your merge and complete it.
What are use cases for this? How about sending out reminder letters for collections, new client engagement letters or closing letters? If you have a practice management application that does not have document assembly but can export reports to a spreadsheet, you can also gather the data for your merge that way. Mail Merge in Word is quite sophisticated; you can find all sorts of ways to make it work for you. Additionally, if you have Adobe Acrobat you can convert the document to a PDF as part of the merge process with the Acrobat button in the Mailings ribbon.
There are many ways and many tools to take advantage of automation. If you have not already delved into this realm, pick a few processes that require a manual process of copy and paste or select and copy. Think about the things in the firm that sit on the back burner or simply don’t happen because no one has time to do the data entry. These are all opportunities to explore automations. There is a time commitment to getting set up, but the time saved after will be well worth the effort.