Any attorney interested in climbing the corporate ranks
would do well to keep up on the latest legal management
technologies, because tomorrow's law firm leaders will have to
think, act and manage like a chief executive officer.
Berry/Special to The National Law Journal|September 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM|The original version of this story was published on National Law Journal
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The United Kingdom-based law firm Clifford Chance grabbed headlines recently when it broke the �1 billion barrier in terms of revenue. The firm’s gross of �1.03 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 was the equivalent of nearly $2 billion. Frances Gibb, “Law firms rake in �10.8bn in fees,” The Times of London, Aug. 25, 2006. www.timesonline.co.uk/ article/0,,29390-2327751.html. This not only gave Clifford Chance the distinction of being the world’s biggest law firm; it also vaulted it into the rarified company of Fortune 1,000 companies, where the bottom company on this year’s list grossed a mere $1.4 billion. Fortune, April 17, 2006. With revenues like these on the line, a firm’s technology assets become critical to its continued growth. In this context, “legal technology” does not refer to the ubiquitous lawyers’ tools like BlackBerries or wi-fi, nor to litigation support software such as e-discovery and docketing. At this level, the most critical technology assets are the back-office workhorses that manage and even drive revenue growth. Any attorney interested in climbing the corporate ranks would do well to keep up on the latest legal management technologies, because tomorrow’s law firm leaders will have to think, act and manage like a chief executive officer. One of the fastest-growing trends in legal technology is business-process management. Known in wider technology circles as BPM, this approach is more commonly called “workflow” in the legal market. The idea behind workflow is, quite simply, to keep the work flowing, eliminating bottlenecks and making processes faster and more efficient. But the advantages of an automated workflow solution go beyond mere efficiency, potentially saving a firm millions of dollars. Take new matter intake, for example. When a new matter is taken on board, the firm must check for conflicts of interest, validate the business value of the new matter, search the account history, perform credit checks and update all of the various back-end systems that handle each step of the process (e.g. time and billing and case management). The whole process is time-consuming, largely manual and prone to human error. Perhaps of most concern to managers is that the work is performed without an audit trail, exposing the firm to liability risks and possibly higher insurance premiums. An automated workflow system addresses these drawbacks by mapping out each step of the process, then tying together the firm’s disparate back-end systems so that they can easily communicate with each other. Instead of information being manually re-entered into various applications, it flows automatically between the different pieces of software that need to track it. The entire process is faster-meaning timekeepers can bill the time sooner. Perhaps the greatest advantages of automated workflow is that it lessens the chance of human error and generates an audit trail at each step of the process. Automated workflow systems provide proof that conflict-of-interest searches have been performed on every new matter. This reduces the firm’s liability exposure and potentially can save millions in insurance premiums. One large West Coast firm is implementing automated workflow with the expectation that it will reduce malpractice premiums by seven figures. This is only one example of ways in which law firms are taking advantage of workflow systems. There are many important business issues that workflow can address, including check requests, expense processing, approvals processing and accounts collection. Any technology that gets or keeps money in the bank is going to help improve the bottom line. Knocking down walls The trend everywhere is to get data flowing from one application to the next, knocking down walls between data silos and sharing information across every line of business. BPM, as discussed above, is one way to accomplish this; service-oriented architecture (SOA) is another. Regardless of the approach taken, the goal is to make better use of a firm’s data, letting timekeepers spend less time on administrative tasks and more on billable hours. One way to share and integrate data is to make it available to everyone via a Web portal. A portal can be either internal (such as a corporate intranet) or external (a secure Web page that clients can access via a user name and password). The benefit of portals is that they allow for collaboration between many users-including, in the case of external portals, the client. When properly integrated with a firm’s back-end systems, a portal lets users see all their data in one view. Users with the proper permission levels can view or change docket appointments, customer relationship management data, and time and billing information. Until recently, the challenge has been getting all of these back-end systems connected to a front-end Web portal and making them work seamlessly together. Integrating all of these data with a Web portal or extranet, and setting the appropriate permission levels, traditionally has been a lengthy and costly process. But the proliferation of BPM, SOA and other integration methods has significantly reduced the time and effort required to build such portals. More firms are taking advantage of these approaches to build effective collaboration tools. The sharing of appropriate information makes it easier for timekeepers to keep track of their tasks, deadlines, missing time, overdue accounts and client information, meaning they can spend more time on billable work.
THE BUSINESS OF LAW
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