Triage - the most underestimated word in Legal Operations (part 1)

Dave Jones
Dave Jones
Sales Manager

Part 1 of a 2 part blog highlighting how legal operations can achieve best-in-class triage using a digital operations platform.

Triage is a very common activity within hospitals where the fast and accurate prioritisation of incoming patients can have life or death consequences. In a business environment the outcomes are not generally as dramatic, but the whole triage process is still very relevant and can deliver huge benefits in cost and quality of service.

It’s a common misconception that ‘triage’ means splitting into groups of three, but the word actually derives from the French word for ‘to sort’. So, at its core, a properly working triage process will sort the incoming work to ensure that the right people are doing the right thing at the right time, and therefore at the right cost. But it also helps manage resources, enables better management reporting and helps control the interfaces with third parties.

With all these benefits, you would think that all law firms, legal departments and legal services firms would have best-in-class triage functions. But that is rarely the case - triage is often seen as an overhead, an unnecessary delay in getting at the matter-in-hand, or simply too complicated to implement.

So, let’s try and break it down into what a good triage process looks like, what information it needs, and what role a digital operations platform can have in making it as effective as possible.


1. Receive Work Instructions

The first stage of any triage process is the receiving of an instruction for work to be done (usually a matter). If you are an in-house legal department these will have come from ‘the business’  e.g. Sales, Procurement or HR. If you are a law firm or a legal services provider then they will have come from your clients.

This initial step is probably the most crucial as it can have the biggest impact as to what happens further downstream. The more consistent, standardised and structured this data is, the easier it will be to process, manage and analyse it. At one end of the spectrum we could have a very structured form with specific fields to be completed, very little narrative and accompanied by all the relevant associated documents. At the other end we could have an email written by someone with some general free-form notes about how to deal with the matter. Now, some matters will be more complex than others, and won’t fit nicely into a rigid form, but the closer we can get to the former approach the better it will be for everyone.

How the instruction is received is also important for efficiency. We want the sender to be able to submit the instruction easily, but we want to make it as efficient and structured as possible for the triage team. Deploying a portal provides an accessible and simple route for the client to fill in the work instruction information, whilst providing the necessary controls and structure to the data that is entered (e.g. the format of the fields, which are mandatory, etc). Not only does this lead to higher compliance, but, the more structured and complete the data is, the more opportunities there are for automation, and therefore even greater efficiencies.

2. Review Work Instructions

Once the instruction has been received, it is usually the job of a paralegal or client exec to read the details, analyse what the matter is all about and validate anything that is unclear or missing.

As well as checking for completeness and compliance, typically this stage will need to know who the instruction came from, their business unit, what type of work it is, when it was received and when it needs to be completed by. Some of this data is self-evident, but some requires a level of intelligence beyond simple logic. To determine the type of work, for example, can require some experience of the different types of work that are usually received. An experienced paralegal can handle this, but, by deploying a Digital Operations Platform with machine learning (ML), the categorisation can be done automatically.

Identifying missing data should be straight forward if the data is structured well enough. Identifying invalid data (text is entered when it should be a number, for example) is trickier, but a well-designed system will stop that sort of thing happening in the first place. Filling in the gaps can be done through automation, integrating with appropriate third party systems to retrieve the data, or to send a message back to the originator requesting the data.

The last part of this stage is to enter all of the data into whatever the system-of-record is, usually a case management system. The most efficient and automated triage processes will have the data automatically entered into the core system as part of the origination process, for example by the originator entering the data into a portal which is connected directly to the case management system. Otherwise, if the instruction has been received on a Word document, for example, then RPA robots can make simple work of copy and pasting that data into the case management system.

3. Prioritise Work Instructions

The originator may have the authority and experience to prioritise the work, but there is usually the need to provide some sort of prioritisation to the work instruction once it has been received and reviewed. This can be based on a number of factors including work type, risk, value, and client. A good triage process should have clear rules for how this is done, ideally described in a playbook. The better, and simpler, this can be described, the easier it will be to automate it. If there are non-linear relationships between the different priority features, then you can use some simple AI to calculate the priorities.

The final three stages of the triage process will be covered in the second part of this blog which can be found here. We will also recap the role that the digital operation platform can have in a best-of-class, highly efficient triage process. Don't forget to subscribe to the blog and receive instant notifications on new content,  just add your email address into the box to the left.

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