What to Automate?

First published 14th December 2021 on Artificial Lawyer

As workflow and automation becomes more commonplace, it’s appropriate for all of us to assess where we might use it. Let’s examine basic, intermediate, and advanced versions of possibility.

Basic

As a starting point, email chains and attachments are still overwhelmingly the workhorse of legal delivery, and workflow automation often means moving beyond the limitations of our inbox. Our inboxes don’t care whether we’ve done the task before; or whether I have data or files I need to write the next email; or who needs to be involved beyond those in the ‘to’ and ‘cc’ fields. The starting goals of workflow automation can be straightforward – providing rigor around allocating tasks, eliminating repeated manual tasks such as data entry, and providing some visibility into the work being done across the team. Note this can supplement email driven workflows, not just replace them.

Start with the things which hurt the most yet are repetitive processes with predictable outcomes, where significant impact can be made quickly. Typical candidates might be sets of standard contracts such as NDAs or employment agreements, or centralizing guidance on FAQs from other business units for information commonly held by legal, such as corporate entity information. For those already tracking legal requests, common work types and FAQs are easier to identify. In fact, tracking legal requests is a great starting point as it builds a foundation of data you can use to decide where to automate in the future.

This data foundation can provide great insights into your current state of play: where things are held up in delivery or quality metrics showing how often deliverables require multiple ‘turns’. Often the data itself enables the next step in automation. For example, if you track basic contract terms in your legal request processes, you can drive further automated actions such as renewal notifications and tasks, or approval chains.

Intermediate

Building on the foundations, or for those whose situation warrants more dramatic change, intermediate level automation could include linking workflows and systems together through integrations, connecting related processes, and expanding automation across teams to increase efficiency in the overall process lifecycle. It is likely at this stage that you’re starting to touch more ‘business’ processes and systems and make everyone else’ lives easier. These kinds of ‘help me to help you’ workflows can be a fantastic way for legal to demonstrate value.

Integrating systems and workflows is rightly becoming a key focus across business functions. We can vastly reduce transactional friction (often exacerbated by email communications and organisational silos) by replacing the distinction between ‘legal’, ‘operations’, ‘sales’, or ‘HR’ processes with the concept of a single, integrated ‘business’ process using a common platform where tasks are managed and performed.

Moving beyond intake and triage of legal requests to automating tasks involved in the performance of the work can reap huge productivity benefits. For example, document automation is becoming more commonplace (once you have the templates and data). But there are many other types of repetitive tasks like simply checking that something is or is not true (is this document signed?) or ensuring data or documents are stored correctly (is this in a searchable place where my team can find it?).

Advanced

Workflow automation at an advanced level tackles complex workflows that are less linear, less predictable, and perhaps more ‘enterprise’ in size, with a robust platform handling many thousands of matters or tasks. These workflows span business units and reach out to third-party organisations, combining data from different systems and may include ‘human-in-the-loop’ steps for decisions that aren’t readily codified. If you’re assuming ‘AI/machine learning’ is compulsory at this point, think again: these technologies are fantastic for complex predictive search or data extraction, but swathes of advanced use cases don’t require this functionality.

Think within and beyond the business to clients, strategic partners, or suppliers embedded into your business processes. How might workflow and automation improve client satisfaction on service delivery? How might partners and suppliers engage more frequently and easily? For example, some use cases require checking a regulatory or third-party database (check a company incorporation or find an employee’s registration at a licencing body). Or perhaps a third party needs to do something with your information and feed back in – for example, information about an accident needs to be provided to insurers, who need a ‘human in the loop’ process at their end to validate a claim.

Those looking at advanced automation often target more fundamental business value besides efficiency. A nice example of this is consumer banks’ use of data from digital banking to alert for fraud – a hugely positive and helpful addition to the services a bank provides, made possible by automation: if we still banked by paper trail and cheque books this would not be possible at scale. There are many ripe areas for this sort of virtuous cycle of workflow automation and data, particularly around contracting processes. Many organisations still struggle with understanding the contents of contracts and performance against risks and obligations, which are the lifeblood of business.

Workflow automation is already becoming an integral part of how we deliver our work. Understanding some of the opportunities in front of us will help us to get started. Moving from basic to advanced automation is a multi-year journey (think 5 years plus), but the good news is that even at the basic level, we can provide great, tangible value to our teams and those around us.

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