Legal Workflow Automation: An Ultimate Guide for Law Offices
December 12, 2022
The legal industry is transforming before our eyes, bringing with it a host of new trends and technology. New legal automation tools and workplace models are reshaping how firms operate. In this series, we’ll analyze the top trends affecting the legal industry in 2022. First up: legal workflow automation.
Legal workflow automation is already big business. In fact, a 2020 study revealed that 48% of firms use automation-based legal technology. And that number has likely gone up in recent years as legal firms rely on technology in the post-COVID era.
So why all the fuss?
Let’s analyze what law office automation is, dig into the benefits that legal automation offers, and outline which aspects of a firm’s work can (and should) be automated. Finally, we’ll explain how Smokeball uses legal workflow automation to make law firms more efficient and accurate.
Why Some Law Firms Are Slow to Adopt Technology
Nearly 90% of firms in Smokeball’s Law + The Great Resignation survey told us they adopted at least one new piece of technology since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Video communication, e-signature and e-billing topped that list.
Even though these firms have automated technology, it doesn’t mean they’re feeling the full benefit. And what about firms that avoid automation entirely?
Many law firms have been slow to adopt automation and new technology because they just don’t recognize the need for it, or see the value in it. Law firms that stick to old-school methods often don’t realize the massive increase in productivity and profitability that comes with legal workflow automation.
And some lawyers and law firm managers don’t realize that automation isn’t just “going paperless” – although automating your legal workflow does eliminate paper forms. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s easy to get consumed by “analysis paralysis,” and put off adopting automation because you’re not sure which areas of your law firm operation to automate first. If you don’t know where to start, you’re not alone.
Meanwhile, some firms that invest in legal automation tools discover that automation takes more time and effort than they anticipated. They try to automate every process at once, and quickly become discouraged when they don’t see immediate value in their efforts.
What is legal automation?
Law firm automation is software that simplifies and streamlines repeatable daily legal processes. That means letting a machine take care of non-billable tasks that were previously done by a person.
It can be as simple as sending email reminders to clients and as complex as capturing all of your billable time. Legal automation goes beyond basic automation in that it’s focused on your specific area of law. For example, family law firms follow different processes than personal injury attorneys, and legal automation can address each of their unique needs.
Benefits of legal automation for law firms
1. Improved efficiency
Legal workflow automation is mind-bogglingly efficient. For example, it’s 21,131% quicker than attorneys when it comes to contract analysis, and can review five NDAs in 26 seconds (compared to 26-minutes on average for human attorneys).
Legal workflow automation could never replace attorneys when it comes to building client relationships or applying creative thinking to complex legal matters. However, when it comes to routine tasks with a set process, they’re undoubtedly more efficient.
2. Greater accuracy
We’ve all had one of those moments. Maybe you copy-pasted the wrong client information, re-used a form, or mistyped case details and been forced to re-file. (Cringe.) Legal document automation software eliminates these error-ridden moments. Smokeball makes those repeatable legal tasks simpler by pulling information directly from your client file into all of their related documents. You enter case details once, then trust your legal automation software to do the rest.
3. Increased profits
When you spend hours creating legal documents, you’re passing those costs to your clients. But with legal document software, what used to take hours can now be done in minutes.
Less time spent means fewer billable hours for your clients. And lower prices mean you can attract more new business, while also spending less time on each case. Some lawyers can even offer flat rates for certain legal matters because they have effectively leveraged the power of automation in their law firm.
4. Easier outsourcing
Some lawyers feel they need to do everything themselves because no one understands their processes. Unfortunately, those attorneys can never really scale up their law practice, because they’re chained to their day-to-day business. When law firms automate their processes from the ground up, they can outsource routine tasks for very little money.
For example, it’ll cost less to invest in legal automation software than to outsource repetitive data entry to an independent contractor. The more tasks a law firm can automate, the more time they have to complete billable work.
5. More accountability
The right automation tools will drive greater collaboration and accountability at your law firm. Time-tracking tools let you see who is doing what and for how long. Cloud-based document storage allows multiple people to edit documents in real time, showing you who made revisions and when. This type of access to information lets you easily take account of the activities of all team members at your law firm.
Which aspects of a law firm’s work can (and should) be automated?
A 2014 McKinsey analysis suggested 23% of an attorney’s work can be automated. In 2022, that number is likely much higher. Your firm should use legal automation for any repeatable tasks that don’t require creative thinking or involve complex calculations, including:
- Client onboarding
- Time tracking
- Document creation and analysis
- Certain aspects of client communications
- Due diligence
6 ways to implement automation in law firms
Ready to learn how to automate your law firm? Start by understanding where and how automation fits into your current client lifecycle, from lead generation to case completion and referrals. Map out your current processes, then use legal automation to replace time-consuming manual steps.
1. Client intake and onboarding
Legal automation can’t greet prospective clients at the door. But it can help you remain more organized and communicative throughout the onboarding process.
How can Smokeball help with client intake?
Law Firm Insights
In a sea of local law firms, stand out by sharing messages that resonate with potential clients. Smokeball’s Law Firm Insights show you which client types sign with your firm and why — and which cases are the most profitable. If you’re a family law firm and you learn that your most successful cases involve mothers seeking full custody, tailor your advertising and marketing to highlight your expertise in this area.
Smokeball’s Firm Insight reports include conflict check reporting that compares your existing client database against a prospect’s case details to ensure you’re in the clear. And Smokeball’s automatic time tracking software captures every hour your firm bills to inform Firm Insight profitability reports by client or matter type. When you’re drawing up a contract, use these details to easily project how much you’ll charge.
Smokeball’s advanced Leads Management lets you manage all leads and clients from a single source, streamlining your relationship management efforts. All client conversations and notes are automatically saved to the relevant matter.
This information stays with your lead as they move from prospect to client within the Smokeball platform, ensuring a seamless experience for both client and firm. Within a few clicks, Smokeball helps you turn leads into a client matter. Simply choose the area of law that matches your client and convert their file. Because Smokeball separates your leads from your clients, there’s no need to worry about confusion.
Automation can simplify the onboarding process if you’re opening a new matter without an existing contact. As you configure your firm’s Smokeball platform, set up matter type templates that match your most common client types, then add them to your favorites list for easy access. When it’s time to onboard a new client, select the right matter type, enter the client’s details and you’re ready to go.
2. Legal document automation
Remember the copy-paste example we mentioned earlier? That’s where legal document automation software steps in.
How can Smokeball help with legal document automation?
Smokeball bundled legal document automation with our with practice management software tool to keep your law teams lean and productive. Smokeball takes everything your legal department enters into the system and automatically populates your firm’s documents in seconds.
Smokeball’s growing library of 20,000+ forms seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Word, so creating and editing your legal documents is simple. Our forms are specific to various jurisdictions and areas of law, so you’ll always find what you need. Your firm can even create its own customized forms.
Once you’ve created an automated legal document, Smokeball’s integration with InfoTrack and DocuSign allows you to gather e-signatures and e-file court documents, further automating your workday.
3. Client communications
All the detailed case preparation in the world won’t benefit your firm unless it is organized and accessible. Smokeball’s client portal for legal documents makes disorganization a thing of the past.
How can Smokeball help with client communications?
Smokeball organizes your caseload like a virtual filing cabinet. Every piece of communication, billing, filing, research, or documentation related to each case is easily and efficiently kept together in one place. Here’s the difference: Anyone in your firm can access every matter, whether they’re the office, at home, in court or working in another location. Not only does this accessibility keep your staff organized and on track, but it also means anyone can step into any ongoing case and have the details at their fingertips.
It is impossible to professionally and skillfully represent your clients unless your staff can communicate with them smoothly. Smokeball Communicate provides a secure and convenient client portal (with an app) where staff and clients can interact directly and share files, all the while ensuring all time spent on communications is accurately billed.
4. Law firm billing
Accounting for all time spent working on a client matter is crucial, but so is accurate billing and quick collection. Automated billing and payments stop collections issues before they start. They increase your profitability. And they create peace of mind for every member of your firm.
How can Smokeball help with legal billing?
Smokeball legal billing software automatically populates invoices with accurate hours for your review, including notes on each time entry. Because Smokeball’s billing data is pulled directly from your AutoTime entries, you capture more billable hours without working more time. Firms using AutoTime bill an added $137,000 per fee earner per year, on average. That’s income you can’t afford to ignore.
Smokeball billing doesn’t automatically charge clients (unless they’ve set up a payment plan), but clients do automatically receive notices and reminders for payment and past-due invoices. Smokeball’s integration with LawPay means clients can pay the way they prefer, with a credit card or ACH online. You’re more likely to get paid — and more quickly.
And Smokeball works with your firm-wide accounting software. Our one-way integration automatically transfers your financial data, including payments to invoices, trust deposits and more, to QuickBooks Online.
5. Day-to-day legal workflow
While legal automation changes your law firm’s big-picture productivity and profitability, you’ll also notice a difference in your everyday work.
How can Smokeball help with day-to-day legal tasks?
- Automatically, accurately capture your time: Time tracking is a resource drain for your staff and can also be very inaccurate. Instead of stopping and starting various timers and invariably missing out on billable time, seamlessly track all the time your staff spends with Smokeball automatic legal time tracking software.
All your time spent in Smokeball, Outlook and Word are automatically tracked, with the flexibility to apply the time seamlessly to billing. Insights reports give you the perspective to identify any issues with time tracking that staff experiences or isolate where there is time for team members to take on new projects and matters.
- Manage your matters and workloads: Without a digital way to organize your cases, your firm juggled cabinets full of fat paper files, hit reply-all on dozens of emails and generally held onto its sanity by a thread. Smokeball practice management software offers the massive benefit of organizing every piece of work and communication related to a case in a single digital file. Because matters are stored in the cloud, every member of your firm can access the same information at the same time, no matter where they’re working.
- Keep everyone on task: Smokeball Workflows automatically choose tasks that apply to certain matter types, like a sale workflow for a Real Estate attorney or a response to discovery workflow for a civil dispute case. Name your Smokeball Workflow, add the related tasks, forms and dates, and save the Workflow for future use.
Smokeball’s integration with Microsoft Outlook syncs your events between both platforms; choose to calendar in the place that best fits your firm. The same Outlook integration means every email sent or received is tagged and related to its corresponding Smokeball matter.
6. Client reviews
While some legal professionals prefer to manage online lawyer reviews by engaging with clients one on one, as you expand your legal practice, you may find it helpful to automate the process.
How Smokeball helps automate your client reviews
Smokeball’s Legal Tasks and Workflows automatically remind your team to ask clients for positive reviews at a pre-set stage in the case. And thanks to Smokeball’s Communicate client portal, you can request client testimonials and securely share and review related documents all in one place. Because your clients can access every past interaction with your firm through Communicate, evidence of your value will be immediately at hand as they write their reviews.
Law office automation: The bottom line
Workflow automation is the future of law — without it, your firm will rapidly fall behind your peers in terms of productivity and profitability. Because implementation requires a serious investment of both time and money, it’s best to enlist an experienced software provider or consultant on your automation journey. They help you see where you’ll drive the most value from automation, build your firm’s processes into automation and serve as a gut check if you become overly ambitious or overwhelmed.
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