by Anthony Foy, CEO at Workshare, www.workshare.com/

Legal professionals are struggling to keep up with the productivity demands of their profession. That is the verdict of a recent industry ‘Smarter Working’ poll, which surveyed more than 200 legal professionals globally. Facing pressures from clients to cut billable hours and increase efficiency, firms need to reassess what tasks their teams are spending time on, and question how that time could be spent more productively.

The status quo of legal practice is being disrupted, with a greater focus on operational efficiency. The emergence of new power players in the sector, along with the mergers of industry stalwarts is disrupting and challenging the dominance of the leading law firms. They will no longer be able to rely on established and long-held customer loyalty, but will have to work harder at maintaining and developing it through improved efficiencies.

This continued over-supply of legal services in the market, combined with tough client demands, means firms face a difficult battle to remain competitive and profitable. PwC found that fee income per billable hour has fallen by 8.1% for top 10 firms, 2.8% for firms ranked 11-25, and 9.3% for those ranked 26-50.

With client retention evidently a primary concern, prioritising service delivery is key. As such, firms are increasingly turning to technology in a bid to allow their lawyers to spend their time providing value-added services by delivering their expertise.

Work overload

The recent ‘Smarter Working’ survey commissioned by Workshare found that a staggering 78% of legal professionals are struggling to keep up with the productivity demands of the industry. These demands are being fuelled by high client expectations in an increasingly competitive market. Transparency over how time is being spent is becoming a key client requirement. With a move towards fixed and contingency-based fee structures, time and materials now only constitute 75% of fee arrangements for top 50 firms, down from 83% in 2010. As such, it’s critical that legal firms budget accurately and use their resources effectively to maintain margins and remain competitive.

Half of the Smarter Working respondents cited slow document turnaround and consolidating feedback as the main reasons for holding up projects. Within the legal sector in particular, efficiency gains must be made to improve productivity when carrying out day to day tasks in order to make professionals’ time more cost-effective and useful.

Efficiency gains

The pressures on the legal sector are forcing an efficiency drive when executing client matters and delivering projects. 65% of legal professionals believe their firms could automate more processes to allow them to be more efficient. ILTA’s Legal Technology Future Horizon’s report also found that 73% of legal professionals agreed or strongly agreed that the capacity for rapid IT-enabled innovation will be a critical differentiator for law firms in the future.

Many organisations have adopted numerous applications for different needs and find that trying to integrate all these systems, not to mention training lawyers to use them, takes more time and energy than the problem they were initially deployed to fix. As Forrester asserts, often ‘technology intended to make them [the workforce] more effective actually distracts, drains, and demotivates them instead’. With an increasing reliance on technology to improve processes, firms must take this into account and take a more innovative approach to derive the most value from their technology and importantly, their resources.

Smarter Working

Technology is at the forefront of service-delivery innovation for law firms, offering efficiencies in accessing content, streamlining processes, and sharing knowledge. Almost half of firms surveyed have adopted technologies, both mobile and desktop, in order to achieve this. The biggest challenge facing law firms looking to implement and deploy technologies, is the current partner structure. Many firms find that change only moves as fast as the most senior partners are comfortable with. But with over 82% of legal professionals regarding IT as a source of competitive advantage according to the Royal Bank of Scotland, the business case for implementing technology to improve service delivery is undeniable.

In order to improve and promote technology adoption, applications must be easy to use, and fit the way lawyers are used to working. They must provide legal professionals with the ability to work from anywhere, with extended teams, and ensure the integrity of content is maintained throughout the collaborative process. Firms must reassess their working practices and ensure they are providing their employees with the applications they need to reach their potential. The cloud for example, creates possibilities for shifting routine workloads to dispersed, lower-cost locations and personnel, as well as enabling existing employees to work remotely.

Ultimately innovative technology and applications must provide three ‘A’s – accessibility, auditability and assimilation. Accessibility to content, expertise, and tools that automate many of the more admin-related tasks – such as quick comparison of document versions to highlight changes. Auditability to understand what has happened to a document throughout its lifecycle – who has accessed it, when, and what changes have been made to uphold document integrity and version control. Finally applications need to have easy-to-use interfaces, features and integrations into other applications for quick assimilation into lawyers’ working styles. Only by challenging traditional working styles, and introducing innovative and easy-to-use technology, will firms give their lawyers the breathing room to not only keep up with productivity demands, but to truly excel in their field.