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Probate & Property

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There Be Dinosaurs in the Room: Introducing Modern Workflow into the Law Office

Seth G. Rowland


  • Workflow automation should be done to either save money or to make money.
  • Start by defining which workflows you want to automate before you choose your workflow platform.
  • Workflow projects require a lot of teamwork and cooperation and not all workflow projects are successful.
There Be Dinosaurs in the Room: Introducing Modern Workflow into the Law Office
Oli Scarff via Getty Images

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Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Have you ever entered a law office and felt you were back in Jurassic times when dinosaurs roamed the earth? In this office, there are computer monitors covered with Post-It® reminders; accordion binders filled with papers in sections labeled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; and Polycom® telephones with lots of flashing lights and buttons. Lawyers sit in large offices with upholstered Georgian period chairs and big mahogany desks. The walls are decorated with Federal Reporter casebooks from before the turn of the century. Phone messages are recorded on pink “While You Were Out” message pads. Clients are handed clipboards to fill out multi-page questionnaires before they meet with attorneys.

If this describes your office, you may be due for a makeover. Modern-day “workflow” can mean many things. At its root, it means the application of digital technology to tasks that were previously handled aurally or with pen and paper. For your office, it can mean that everyone knows what he needs to do and when he needs to do it. It can mean that lawyers are connected whether sitting at their desks, wandering the halls, or out in the wild; that clients can communicate their needs and their approvals asynchronously, without direct contact with lawyers and staff; and that staff and lawyers can get their work done in a timely and cost-effective fashion. It can mean greater profits for your firm and greater client satisfaction.

Choosing What Can Be Automated

Workflow automation should be done to either save money or to make money. Unless you can define a clear return on investment (ROI), don’t undertake the automation project.

Workflows Save Money

The initial reason most firms implement workflows is to save money. For example, efforts to address docket management can be driven by your malpractice liability carrier, which may require electronic calendaring or offer a discount if you implement a practice management system with electronic calendaring. In this case, you would save money by implementing a workflow process to make sure all court deadlines show up on the attorneys’ calendars.

Workflows Make Money

By contrast, efforts to automate the creation of lease and debt financing documents can make money if they are coupled with fixed-fee-for-service offerings. Document assembly systems, with their efficient rule-based logic engines, can deliver high-quality and highly-customized legal documents in just minutes.

Workflows Increase Referrals

Clients talk to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. If a law firm uses a workflow system to enhance communications with their prospects and clients, to keep clients informed of the progress of their transactions, and to deliver quality service, this will be noticed. It can lead to referrals. In fact, a post-engagement workflow can be used to solicit and reward referrals.

Workflows Reduce Anxiety

Lawyers are masterful multi-taskers and delegators. They hand out dozens of assignments a day and need to keep track of where each task is in the task pipeline. A good workflow engine can give lawyers a detailed timeline by project or a list view by lawyers and staff who are assigned to each task and the task priority. Being able to know which tasks are done and which are in progress can reduce workplace anxiety.

Workflows Increase Client Engagement

Workflows can increase your closure rate. Not all client walk-ins or referrals turn into new business. A workflow can remind a staff member to do a follow-up call. That extra call can be the deciding factor in whether a client signs the engagement letter. A survey workflow can elicit testimonials and provide information about what was done right and what was done wrong.

Before You Choose Your Platform

Start by defining which workflows you want to automate before you choose your workflow platform. This will help you choose which platform best meets your needs. Divide your team into workgroups by department and function. The workflow needs of paralegals are quite different from those of office administrators. The needs of estate planning attorneys are quite different from those of real estate attorneys. Workflows are best viewed as an extension of the work already being done. And each workflow process should have its own ROI.

Dispense with the fancy Visio diagrams. Just pull up Word or Excel. Layout the process. Start by stating the purpose of each process and articulate what you hope to accomplish. Don’t be too ambitious or be too detailed. Use plain English.

Break the process into discrete steps or phases. Each phase may have a checklist of tasks. Don’t try to figure out every detail. Workflows need to be flexible and able to evolve. The best workflows nudge people to get their work done at a particular time. Most people know what needs to be done—focus on giving them reminders. Consolidate steps into mini-checklists if they are all to be done by the same person at the same time. Too many steps can turn a simple process into a major chore. Think Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where a single mop and bucket multiply into an army of mops and buckets.

If you are interacting with clients via a questionnaire, be sure to review the questionnaire to make sure the questions are appropriate. Some workflow systems allow you to create rule-based questionnaires that respond to the user’s answers, asking only relevant questions. Questions need to be short and simple. If you are providing multiple-choice options, make sure the choices are clear. If there is an “other” option, be sure to provide a place for this information to be added.

If you are going to generate documents as part of the workflow, be sure to gather your model documents or templates, and get your team to approve the legal language. Decide what information will be used to generate the documents and where that information will be stored. Also, decide what will happen to the document once it is generated. Some workflow systems will auto-profile the document into your document management system. If your system generates an estate plan with 10 documents, auto-profiling can save five to ten minutes on each assembly. You might want a workflow to kick off internal approvals and then send the documents out for electronic signature.

Once you have defined what workflows you want to automate, you can then reach out to find the workflow platform that best meets your needs. It could be that your existing practice management software (PMS) already has the tools you need. Some programs like Zola Suite, Time Matters, Actionstep, and Centerbase have task-based workflows and client intakes. Document management systems (DMS), including NetDocuments, Worldox, and iManage, have document-based workflows. By assigning meta-data to documents and using saved queries, you can create approval workflows that allow you to see a document from a draft stage to the final version, to the executed document. The PMS and DMS generally focus on workflows for your internal team of attorneys, paralegals, and staff.

Dedicated workflow systems typically divide workflow licenses into internal and external licenses. The external users, such as clients of a law firm or employees of a corporation who are outside its legal department, can interact with the workflows, but they are not full peers of the workflow systems. External users can request a service that initiates a workflow, they can then check the status and participate in an ongoing workflow they initiated, and they can even add documents and approve actions. Workflow systems like WordTech’s DocMinder, NetDocument’s AfterPattern, Onit’s Legal Service Requests, and ThomsonReuters’s HighQ foster this level of client interaction.

Workflows can be enhanced by integrating cloud-based document assembly systems like XpressDox, AbacusNext’s HotDocs Advance, and ThomsonReuters’s Contract Express. These systems produce sophisticated client-facing interviews with complex branching decision trees. The information gathered in the interview can drive further workflows and produce finished legal documents. Once the legal documents are reviewed, they can join a document workflow that includes approvals, electronic signatures, and even court filings.

Let us look at some specific use cases.

Client Intake Workflows

Over the years I have been approached by several law firms with complex client intake procedures that wished to automate the process. They have included an estate planning firm that catered to the LGBTQ community, a real estate firm that generated complex leasing term sheets, a divorce firm that had a 20-page intake questionnaire, an elder law firm that did Medicaid planning, and a personal injury firm that specialized in “diminished value” auto insurance claims. Each of these firms needed to gather detailed information from its clients in advance of the first meeting. They all had printed forms that they would mail in advance to their clients. They were lucky if their clients filled out the forms in advance of the meetings. Most of the time the answers were incomplete. Paralegal and attorney time was required to help the clients complete the forms, all before any meaningful work was performed.

The workflow solution for these law firms started with re-writing the questionnaire, dividing it into topics, and assigning “relevance rules” to each topic. My tool of choice was HotDocs, but XpressDox, ContractExpress, or AfterPattern would have accomplished the same job. The first step was to get rid of the paper and bad handwriting and to be able to send the interview as a link to the client in advance of the first meeting. By removing the paper, the firm can get readable answers.

The second step was to rethink the questionnaire from the client’s perspective (not the lawyer’s). The intake should start with simple questions, which should lead to other questions in a decision tree. The online questionnaire should not contain questions that begin “If you answered yes, … then fill this out; if you answered no, skip to …” Rather, if you answered yes, then the dependent questions should just appear. If you answered no, then you would move on to the next predicate question. Where an explanation is required, help text can be provided in a sidebar. If there is a multiple-choice question, there should only be one clear choice that fits. Where possible, the text of the questions should be dynamic and personalized.

The third step was to take the information supplied by the client and incorporate it into data in a document generation system. The lawyer or paralegal, upon being informed that the questionnaire had been completed, could review the answers with the client, and then proceed to generate the required documents without having to key in the information again.

These workflows keep the client engaged and reduce the time spent by attorneys and staff as “scribes.” They allow the attorneys to have a more complete picture of the client’s needs starting from the first meeting and allow them to have more time with the client to render advice and to explain the implications of choices made by the client. Greater client satisfaction and fewer attorney and staff hours to accomplish the same work will improve the law firm’s bottom line.

Email to Task Workflows

Emails are a great way to request legal work, but a very poor way to communicate that the work is done. Email threads can be enormous. Unless great discipline is used in assigning the subject line of the email and writing the text of the email itself, their utility for workflow is limited and is almost counter-productive. In Outlook, you can flag an email as a task, but you can’t convert it into a multi-step project.

WordTech, with its DocMinder service, has an innovative workflow solution. In a few clicks, you can convert an email into a DocMinder project, assign internal staff and external clients to specific tasks on a checklist, and set deadlines. From thereon, all communications drive the user back to the DocMinder project where they can append documents from their DMS (NetDocuments, iManage, Sharepoint), comment on the status, mark items as complete, and even respond to survey questions.

DocMinder also supports complex, branching workflows with decision trees and multi-level approvals. It includes support for checklist templates and workflow templates to simplify the project creation process. Unlike other systems which are more pre-programmed, DocMinder empowers the owner to modify the workflow to suit the project. DocMinder also has integrations with document assembly programs like XpressDox and HotDocs. But it is the simple appearance of the email notification form in the DocMinder list that drives attorney adoption. With frequent notifications and advanced reporting, DocMinder alleviates much of the stress that goes with project management.

Simple Document Approval Workflows

Much of legal practice centers around the production of documents. Some document flows are top-down. A partner assigns a document creation task to an associate; the associate prepares a draft and sends it to the partner; the partner reviews and sends it back to the associate; the associate finalizes and sends it to a paralegal to serve or file. Other document flows are bottom-up. An associate, paralegal, or caseworker is responsible for the entire relationship. The partner shows up to meet with the client when most of the work is done. The partner reviews timelines to make sure the work is on-track. When time is of the essence, these document workflows can be problematic. There can be a bottleneck with a partner who is too busy to get a timely review of the documents back to the associate. Or there can be a reviewing partner who demands constant status reports on all work in progress.

You can work with your existing DMS if the focus is on a single document. By using custom profile attributes and searches in your DMS, the attorney can add a document to a basic workflow and assign a creator, a reviewer, and a status. As the profile values change, a document can appear on a partner’s list of documents assigned for review. Once the partner finishes the work, he can change the status and the document will drop off her list. NetDocuments has recently added dynamic profile attributes to their system so the workflow options can be hidden until the document is assigned to a workflow. For more complex workflows, NetDocument’s plan solution lets the user add Kanban-style task boards to a matter. These task boards can include pre-set tasks, which include checklists. Tasks can then be assigned to internal users and documents can be linked to tasks.

CRM and Client Engagement

In some offices, the work performed is more standardized. It is possible to map the entire client engagement process to a single workflow. When it comes to marketing and CRM software for attorneys, there is a plethora of options. Many practice management systems include a marketing and CRM component. Programs like ZolaSuite, Centerbase, MyCase, and ActionStep all have basic client intakes that automatically feed into the practice management system. The drawback of these programs falls in the area of list management. The contact list used by the PMS side of the software can get cluttered with thousands of dead leads, as there is no clear separation between the CRM side and the PMS side of the software.

Dedicated CRM programs like Clio Grow, Lawmatics, HubSpot, and Salesforce do a better job of list and campaign management. They may include pre-built workflows to engage with the prospective clients and convert them into paying customers. These services can help you build a pipeline of business, including automated engagement letters with electronic signatures.

Document Draft to Execution Workflows

Once the client is engaged, the real work begins. The client service requirements may be fully predictable, and the documents may be cookie-cutter. If a portion of your practice falls into this category, you might benefit from a full-on workflow. The goal would be to automate as many steps of the process as possible. Time savings from workflows at this point go straight to the bottom line.

The workflow might include a supplemental client intake interview to elicit specific details needed to generate the legal documents. The caseworker or associate could then review the data, make some strategic decisions, and then generate the legal documents from the workflow. The reviewing attorney could be notified when these drafts are ready for review with a direct link to the drafts. Upon approval, notifications can be sent back to the paralegal or caseworker to send out the documents for digital signature. The client would receive the invitation to sign the document and the internal team would be notified when all parties had digitally signed the documents. At any point, the supervising attorney could see if the process is on the right track.

To build such a comprehensive workflow, DocMinder might be the glue that binds together different processes. You might also look into Onit or Mot-r. If your firm has an internal programming department, you could try Zapier to build connectivity between products or try building something with PowerAutomate on the Office365 platform.

The Next Step Is Yours

Workflow projects require a lot of teamwork and cooperation. Not all workflow projects are successful. For a workflow project to be successful, it must be adaptable and flexible to different legal practices and different roles. Today’s workflow might need tweaks tomorrow to keep it relevant and usable.