Making Sense of Automation in Legal
a buzzword free primer
As legal moves to expand adoption of technology, a critical component of success lies in the implementation and ongoing support of that technology. Technology continually becomes faster and easier to use. Implementation now takes weeks instead of years, and bespoke workflows don’t require large teams of developers.
No-code/low-code workflow automation platforms have emerged as powerful tools enabling more efficient product development by reducing the amount of coding necessary to build the end product. There may be no need to write code – or to know any code at all – to create something useful; visual programming allows a user to depict the workflow and actions being automated with a drag and drop interface.
As a consequence, the concept of ‘citizen developer’ has grown as a nirvana for technology adoption. It offers real freedom – what if we don’t need IT at all? What if our business analysts or end users can just ‘do it themselves’? And while this dream can come true, the role tends to be oversold as something anyone can do.
The reality is there are practical limits to this vision which will evolve over time as the technology matures. For example, the freedom to build on an extensive no code/low code platform comes with fewer security “guardrails” than a traditional packaged point solution. A well-intentioned citizen developer could build a workflow that inadvertently exposes sensitive information or distributes privileged and confidential data to the wrong hands.
The idea that anyone can be a citizen developer also tends to undersell the skillsets of those using these tools successfully. There are growing teams of professionals who have wide-ranging skills in product management and information security, who often have pockets of expertise in code, integrations – and, importantly, in legal. They use these skills to craft a more usable product, while considering data security and other technical aspects.
So where do you find citizen developers with the right range of skills? At the moment, there’s a shortage in legal. Within corporations, you might then turn to the broader enterprise. There are likely to be skilled cross-functional resources within IT departments or innovation teams who are familiar with corporate process and can take on projects like these.
For organisations that need but lack such resources in house, there is a growing number of service providers springing up to meet the market demand. Some are spinning out of law firms. Buyers can now engage resources from the likes of Gravity Stack (originating from Reed Smith) and Keesal Propulsion Labs (launched by Keesal, Young & Logan), to name a couple. These groups provide a solution for those leveraging no/low code platforms, who understand the challenge of finding the right skilled professionals, but that may not want or need full time fixed headcount. “We saw a growing number of requests from clients to help solve complex technology challenges,” explains Adam Knight, Client Business & Advisory Solutions Manager at Gravity Stack. “So, we built a team with the technical and legal expertise required to implement solutions from the simple to the complex. Some clients turn to us for all their needs, whilst others use us to augment their internal resources or to tap specialists not readily available in house.”
“We knew there was an unmet need in the market,” says Justin Hectus, CIO and Co-Founder of Keesal Propulsion Labs, “but once we launched a systematic approach to meet that need, the demand was remarkable. From our vantage point, automation and all of the expertise required to implement it will be areas of strong growth for years to come.”
And as the technology continues to evolve, so too will the citizen developer. While not just anyone inherently has the skills necessary to be successful in this role, the skills can be gained, and market demand will create incentive for more individuals to grow into these roles. The market is already demanding it, and savvy buyers will find ways to achieve better business results more quickly, including faster ROI on technology investments.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
After looking at workflow automation from basic to advanced levels, we might also consider how to approach implementation and rollout using the same framework. What follows are some hints, tips and considerations based on our experience implementing workflow automation across many different markets.
Basic. A comprehensive strategy is not always necessary if you’re just getting started. You might spend a few hours configuring a simple workflow with a tool you already have; or after watching some YouTube tutorials figure out how to do something small but meaningful to help you or your team in MS365.
At this level templated solutions are your friend – they’ll get most of the job done and allow you to get started quickly. Once your requirements evolve with experience (you won’t always understand them fully upfront), you can replace these early efforts with more bespoke or complex solutions if necessary.
There shouldn’t be too much ‘change management’ required if the user group is small, but if it is a broader initiative, find a willing test group of a few key users with a regular cadence to provide feedback, fine-hone requirements and later help foster adoption within the broader user group.
Measuring success can be challenging when starting out: there is little data available to quantify a baseline, and estimates form the backbone of your RoI until you build the data up over time. To some degree, users impacted by workflow and automation, however basic, should feel a significant improvement – so at this level calculable RoI is great, but a close second would be vocal support from those whose bugbear process has just been dramatically shortcutted.
Intermediate. The resources will start to extend to include business analysts, process specialists, and technical experts. Within all but the biggest corporates, such resources would need to be made available to the legal department. Fortunately, law firms are now also hiring more of these skillsets, and service providers focused on the delivery and technical aspects of workflow automation are springing up to meet such needs.
Such projects are often the next iteration of what’s already in place, rebuilt with a better understanding of requirements. They take more time and planning (months, not years), and require project management: scope, budget, resources, communications and stakeholder management. Prospect of failure becomes real: misunderstanding the requirements; underestimating the cost of delivery or RoI; or sometimes the business moves and requirements became redundant. Perhaps above all else, a key predictor of success is dedicated management or guidance by someone who has prior relevant expertise.
Integrations are typically required at this level. As a general rule, the more business-critical the system (finance systems, practice management etc.), the more complexity involved; such integrations can add months to your plan if the project is not a top priority for the business.
‘In-life’ requirements also become more important. Think about ongoing support and key documentation: if all the ownership, knowledge and support for your scaled automated processes can walk out of the door, this can represent significant operational risk!
The threshold rises on demonstrating a business case and RoI, and the emphasis on data becomes stronger: both what you have available today, and what will be produced once delivered. As workflows serve more internal business clients and other functions in the organisation, it is worth calculating the value of direct benefits to these groups too.
Advanced. A holistic strategy is essential. At this level, projects can range from many months to multi-year as you move into a continuous improvement cycle of workflow automation and expansion, and as such often have the attention of the C-suite. Such workflow and automation initiatives will often correlate to overall business objectives beyond cost savings: examples might be ‘improving the way we work in a remote-first environment’; or ‘building a new platform to change how we engage customers with new products’.
As part of your strategy, you will need a flexible, extensible workflow automation solution trusted to meet not just the requirements of today, but those in 3-5 years’ time. A team will be responsible for scoping and initiating projects, ongoing change management and communications, and in-life support. Scale of ambition and potential business value can (and should) justify ongoing investments in technical expertise to support these efforts; we are even starting to see hiring of data scientists who understand how to maximise value from combinations of legal and other data within and across your business functions. Data security can also become more important to the extent automated processes reach outside the organisation.
Ultimately, resources (people and tools), time scales, stakeholders, support and measurable value, as well as inherent risks, shift at each step of automation. A plan that accounts for each element will make the difference between having good ideas and delivering good ideas.