Legal automation is already big business—a 2020 study revealed 48% of firms use automation-based legal technology. With the global market growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39% — and the booming need for legal tech in the COVID-19 era — this figure has likely only increased in the years since.

So why all the fuss?

Let’s analyze what law office automation is, dig into the benefits it offers and outline which aspects of a firm’s work can (and should) be automated. Finally, we’ll explain how Smokeball uses legal automation to make firms more efficient and accurate.

Legal industry challenges slowing down technology adoption

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. And one 2020 study revealed 48% of firms already used automation-based legal technology.

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?

Plenty of firm leaders are still wary of automation in the 2020s. They’re intimidated by technology they don’t understand, overwhelmed by the process of getting automated or afraid their firms’ data will be compromised.

Meanwhile, firm leaders who purchased legal automation tools quickly discover that automation takes more time and effort than they anticipate. They try to automate every process at once, and quickly become discouraged when they don’t see immediate value from their efforts.

What is legal automation?

Simply, law firm automation means letting a machine take care of nonbillable tasks previously done by a person. That can be as simple as sending email reminders to clients, and as complex as capturing all your billable time. Legal automation goes beyond basic automation in that it’s focused on your specific area of law. Family law firms follow different processes than personal injury attorneys, for example, and therefore need legal automation built to their specific work tasks.

Benefits of legal automation for law firms

1. Increased efficiency

Attorneys complete myriad tasks daily. However, many of these tasks can be automated, especially those involving manual data-entry. This is where legal workflow automation — software that streamlines repeatable daily processes — comes in. By implementing legal workflow automation, attorneys can focus their time and energy on matters that require their creativity and experience rather than low-value administrative tasks.

2. Increased accuracy

You probably cringe to think about how many times you’ve copy-pasted the wrong client information, re-used a form or mistyped case details and been forced to re-file. Legal document automation software effectively eliminates these error-ridden processes from your firm. Automated document assembly software like Smokeball pulls information directly from your client file into all matter-related documents. You enter case details once, then trust your legal automation software to do the rest.

3. Increased profits

When lawyers spend hours creating legal documents, they must pass on the cost to clients. Because automation allows law firms to improve their document creation, the time spent is greatly reduced. Documents that may have required hours to manually complete can be done in minutes if the process has been adequately automated.

There’s a huge difference between creating an entire document every time you need it for a case and simply importing already entered client data into an existing document template — that’s effective automation. Some lawyers can offer flat rates for certain legal matters because they have effectively leveraged the power of automation in their law firm. Lower prices mean you can attract more clients while also spending less time on each matter with the help of an automated work process.

4. Easier to outsource

It’s unfortunate, but many lawyers feel they need to do everything because no one understands their process. Those attorneys can never really scale up their law practice—they become chained to their day-to-day business. When law firms automate their process from the ground up, they can outsource routine tasks for very little money.

For example, if an independent contractor only needs to enter data and merge it into a preexisting form, it will cost less for the law firm to outsource those tasks that lend themselves to this type of automation. The more tasks a law firm can outsource, the more time they have to complete billable work.

5. Improved Accountability

Using the right automation tools, your law firm can allow for better collaboration and accountability. Time-tracking tools let you see instantly who is doing what and for how long on any matter. Cloud-based document storage allows multiple parties in various locations to edit documents in real-time, allowing all involved to view who made revisions and when. This type of open but controlled 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 tasks that are highly repeatable, don’t require creative thinking or involve complex calculations, including:

  • Client onboarding
  • Billing/invoicing
  • Time tracking
  • Document creation and analysis
  • Calendaring
  • Certain aspects of client communications
  • Due diligence

6 ways to implement law office automation

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 Smokeball helps with prospect nurture and client intake

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 advanced Leads Management lets you manage all leads and clients from a single source, streamlining your relationship-management efforts. All conversations and notes about clients’ preferences are automatically saved to the relevant matter: what they need help with, their personal context, how they like to communicate and more.

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. If you used Smokeball to manage a lead, turning that lead into a client matter couldn’t be easier. Choose the area of law that matches your client, and with a few clicks their file is converted. Because Smokeball separates your leads from your clients, there’s no need to worry about confusion.

If you’re opening a new matter without an existing contact, automation can still simplify the onboarding process. 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.

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.

2. Legal Document automation

Remember the copy-paste example we mentioned earlier? That’s where legal document automation software steps in.

How Smokeball can help with legal document automation

Smokeball bundled legal document automation with our with practice management software tool to keep your law firm lean and efficiently productive. Smokeball takes everything your law firm enters into the system — contacts, parties, every other detail — and makes it available to automatically populate your firm’s legal documents in just seconds.

Smokeball’s growing library of 20,000+ forms seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Word, so it’s simple to create and edit your legal documents. 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 allow 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 Smokeball can 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 Smokeball can 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 Smokeball helps with day-to-day legal tasks:

  • Automatically, accurately capturing 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.
  • Managing 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.
  • Keeping 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 automations and serve as a gut check if you become overly ambitious or overwhelmed.

Smokeball leads the legal automation industry because we don’t just provide the best software — every Smokeball relationship comes with the support of our expert team. We work with you through onboarding, troubleshooting and training to help you Run Your Best Firm.

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