By Emma-Jane Gray
Just before the lockdown began, Karen (name changed) drove to her office at a small firm in Auckland, filled her Suzuki Swift with stacks of client files and took them home. Those paper files were integral to the continuation of her business; without them Karen and her colleagues wouldn’t be able to continue working.
She called me five weeks later, exasperated with how little work she’d been able to get done from home. She had spent the majority of lockdown helping co-workers navigate systems that weren’t supporting remote working well, and sorting manually through paper files to find essential information.
“We need a solution,” she said.
She’s not the only one.
Lockdown has forced many of us to question: How do we future-proof, in light of our firms’ inefficiencies illuminated by COVID-19?
Suddenly, five-year plans to go paperless aren’t enough. Our collaboration tools have been tested. We’re dealing with sketchy internet connections, interruptions from children, and bosses who accidentally turn themselves into potatoes during Zoom meetings.
We’ve identified five key areas to look at, including some solutions worth considering:
1. Is your team agile and ready for change?
There’s no such thing as future-proofing anymore, White Fox & Jones Manager Pam Brian says: “You have to be able to react quickly and adapt to whatever comes your way – as an individual and as a firm.”
The Christchurch-based firm uses OneLaw practice management software, hosted in the cloud, and had no issues with getting their systems up and running in a surprisingly short space of time.
Ms Brian adds that while some team members have grasped the opportunity to look at how they work and change some of their established practices, others have merely replicated how they have always worked: “This is a personality thing and I’m not expecting too much to change for those people.”
She says that while the recent move back to the office by some people has been seamless, it’s good to know the whole firm can now also work remotely if required: “I think you will find most law firms feel that way.”
Progressive firms, like hers, were already working on flexible workplaces and hours prior to the lockdown.
OneLaw Chief Architect Doug Thomson says firms who have gone through the likes of the Canterbury earthquakes were more likely to be prepared too: “They were already poised to work well… to many others, these sudden changes came as a bit of a shock.”
Lockdown has clearly highlighted how important it is to stay agile and open to change. For many of us, it’s been the difference in keeping our jobs or businesses.
2. Can your firm become paperless/paper-light?
One of the biggest hurdles firms are facing in the shift to working remotely has been a reliance on paper files. Everything that previously required a piece of paper to move around an office suddenly stopped working – including manually requesting trust transactions, signing documents, even sending physical bills.
Anything that would usually be done with a physical file needs to be reproduced electronically, Mr Thomson says: “It’s also very important that all aspects of work can be internal to the system so a full workflow/audit process can be seen.”
Electronic signatures, letterheads and templates were in high demand when lockdown hit, OneAuthor (OneLaw’s template module) Manager Sally Rossiter says: “Some firms hadn’t fully prepared – they were a bit dazed, looking at everything they needed to get done. Now it’s shifted, they’re asking me to work on things for their future work too.”
OneLaw’s templates bring client and matter information across with the click of a button, and future development will allow bi-directional data flow, so new information can be saved back to the system. This kind of innovation is designed for efficiency – so you can spend less time on admin, and more on serving your clients.
Going paper-light was a key to the success of Tauranga-based Harris Tate’s working from home strategy. Practice Manager Robyn Smillie says that digital signatures, electronic billing and the like all had to be embraced to allow her team to continue working from home.
Then came the next challenge: Some of their clients had no computers, fax machines, or any way to receive documents without them being posted. “You had Grandma at home, checking the letterbox every day waiting for her mail,” Ms Smillie says. In some cases, it was about finding a team member with a printer and going from there.
Ask yourself: What unnecessary paper does our firm rely on, and how can it be replaced with an electronic solution?
3. Do you have effective remote collaboration tools?
How do you verify a new client remotely, especially under AML compliance regulations? You need a digital onboarding system, like APLYiD.
APLYiD allows new clients to be onboarded remotely in minutes, via a digital process they are walked through after clicking on a link. OneLaw integrated with APLY earlier this year, responding to client demand that has become even more prevalent.
There was a massive influx of signups the week lockdown started, APLYiD Senior Business Development Manager Toby Taylor says.
“Firms were genuinely concerned that they weren’t going to be able to bring on new clients without meeting them face to face, so there was a huge sense of relief when they realised our solution enabled them to do so remotely.”
With the right tools, remote working can save time and money, Mr Taylor says: “Our software allows working from home to be less of a barrier and more of an enabler.”
Xero integration in OneLaw has also proved popular, along with inbuilt workflows and team tasks for increased visibility and collaboration.
The key to successfully working remotely has been communication, says Pam Brian.
“This has meant more phone calls and more video conferencing. I think this will be the biggest change for us [in the future] – we will have less face to face meetings with clients to save travel time, etc.”
4. What level of support is available to your team?
In the age of being able to Google almost anything, waiting for someone to answer your support question in 3-5 business days just isn’t good enough. It’s highly likely that lockdown has shown you which of your software/hardware providers provide adequate support when you need it most.
Last year we released our online client portal, which allows users to access free help videos, articles, development voting and updates with the click of a button. Our clients can also call or email our support team, and they will usually be able to help straight away. This has been vital to keep them working (and reasonably stress-free).
Ask yourself: What barriers are there between my team and the support they need?
5. Can you trust that your software will serve you well into the future?
If you’re dealing with software that isn’t being supported and developed into the future, now is the time to change. A good system will continue to grow with your needs, allowing you to focus on one thing: Your job.
Good communication and change management are key to a smooth transition, says Doug Thomson.
“Changing from the bottom up is always easier than the top down, even if it takes more time. It’s important to involve all stakeholders in the decision, letting them have input so they are on board when it comes time to change,” he says.
He adds that no system will have 100% of what you want, but that’s not what’s important.
“As long as they have a view of being a master of their trade, instead of a jack of all, it will work well. That openness to integrate with other best-of-breed systems will give you the best solution.”
Software and systems have well and truly been put to the test over lockdown. There is no time like the present to discuss this with your team: What do they think of their software? How could these systems be improved on?
What has lockdown taught us?
Working from home has been a massive lesson in patience and communication, says Robyn Smillie.
“A few of our team live rurally, myself included, and don’t have Fibre internet. That means we’ve been kicked off our systems almost every day – and you just learn to deal with it.”
She adds that the experience has shown her how productive working from home can be.
“I had the misconceived idea that I’d struggle working from home, but now I’ve found myself doing extra instead. I could see the benefit of people working from home on a regular basis, especially to get a project done.”
Firms that have put the systems and processes in place to continue working well during the lockdown will be in a great position to offer more flexible workplaces to their staff moving forward. This is likely to become increasingly important for firms in attracting talent and addressing the work/life balance issues historically common in the legal industry.
If all else fails – you could always invest in a Suzuki Swift.
Emma-Jane Gray firstname.lastname@example.org is Sales and Marketing Manager of OneLaw.
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