In simple terms, collaboration involves people working together to achieve a shared goal. It is rare for a lawyer to complete a case from start to finish without input from other lawyers and legal staff such as secretaries and paralegals. Equally, law firms can often become siloed – with poor communication between different departments leading to missed opportunities and unhappy clients.
Given the importance of working together at law firms, it is understandable that partners can be eager to sign up to new technology claiming to improve collaboration.
However, unless you make meaningful changes to your processes as well as your technology, people will go back to their old communication habits. The same old frustrations and inefficiencies quickly resurface. So how can law firms ensure that their investment in case management, document management or other technology results in improved collaboration throughout their firm?
1. Understand how your organisation currently operates
If you are like most law firms, there will be official and unofficial ways that people have found to work together. For example, one partner may only respond to emailed requests, whilst another partner only sporadically responds to internal emails and so team members have learned to ask in person when they need something. One team may have daily update meetings, whilst another team has them weekly.
It is important that you understand how people really communication, not how they are supposed to communicate. Once you understand the current issues, you can better decide where the technology you are purchasing will be able to help you.
2. Give specific guidance on how you would like your organisation to communicate once the technology is implemented
All of us are creatures of habit and lawyers are no exception to this rule. To change these habits you need to be explicit about how your company plans on using the system to communicate – not just leave employees to decide for themselves or not bother at all.
For example, many case management systems come with task systems. If you want employees to use it rather than emailing tasks to other team members, you need to make this clear. You also need to state when you want tasks set up (e.g. beginning of case, during weekly update meetings), how employees should give updates on tasks and what should happen if an employee fails to meet a task deadline.
Otherwise employees will use the functionality inconsistently and most likely end up duplicating work as they use both the old and new methods to ensure that tasks allocated have been received. This makes the workforce less rather than more efficient.
3. Proactively enforce the rules that you have set up
Enforcement does not need to be negative or disciplinary focussed – verbal redirections will generally be enough in most cases. However, managers and senior team leaders need to ensure that they are alert for instances where redirection is needed.
For example, a manager hears one team member ask another for information. The manager suggests that this information should be on the technology system and the three individuals check together. Either the first team member is then asked to check the system first in future, or the second team member is asked to add this information to the system. Following these steps in the future will save time for both employees and make your business more effective.
These verbal redirects should be sufficient for most employees, but if you have repeat or unapologetic offenders then disciplinary action may be required.
4. Be fanatics about ensuring that your system is kept up to date
If your system is not generating the efficiencies you thought it would, it is very likely that this is the root of your problem. In order to work together effectively via a legal technology system, users need to trust it completely. They need to know that the case documents on there are the latest versions, that the most recent correspondence is tagged to the case, that the contact details are present and accurate.
Otherwise they will return to more manual and time-intensive collaboration methods. They will back up system updates with emails, meetings and ad-hoc discussions that are well-meaning but that cancel out any time savings you could have made through your legal technology investment.
Investing in legal technology is one of the best things that you can do to improve collaboration, work more effectively and save time within your firm.
However, unless you define clear expectations for how people should be communicating information, working together and using the software you will generally struggle to see tangible improvements.
When you combine an investment in technology solutions with an investment in your firm’s processes and behaviours then you will maximise your return on investment, reduce frustrations and work together more effectively as an organisation.