Client collaboration: The evolution in law firms
A law firm and its client once had a very transactional relationship: the client met with their lawyers to develop a plan of action and after that, contact was often minimal. In fact, a lot of time could pass with cursory amounts of information exchanged. Paperwork could take weeks or months to assemble and review. If the case hit a snag, it could require multiple in-person meetings to hash things out, further delaying the process.
That relationship now seems like a tale from the days of steam trains. Law firm-client relationships have dramatically changed over the past decade. Today, clients expect substantial and constant communication with their lawyers. They want to feel like they’re part of the process, not someone in the audience watching the show. They want the legal process to be transparent — to see how a case is progressing, where and how the workload is distributed, and how costs are racking up in real time.
The catalyst for this? A wave of transformative developments in technology. Virtual deal rooms and client portals are making information exchange swift and more secure. Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered software and document automation are revolutionizing due diligence.
Think about how many clients now do tax preparation. Officials once compiled stacks of documents and hauled them or mailed them to their accounting department, then everything in the stack got photocopied and manually reviewed. There could be subsequent in-person meetings to determine tax exposures and the process could take months.
By contrast, imagine this scenario: all relevant tax documents are uploaded into a portal. The accounting department downloads, scans, and automatically reviews the documents; makes queries via secure online communications; and files the company’s taxes electronically. There may not be a single piece of paper involved.
This process isn’t the realm of imagination — it’s the reality for a growing number of clients. It’s also how law firms conduct much of their legal work today: fast, efficient, and frictionless. It’s a trend that will only further accelerate.
Yet many law firms still fall short when it comes to delivering on this potential; it is becoming a crisis for them. Having a tech deficiency will cost these firms more business with each passing year.
Law firms can vastly improve the speed and efficiency with which they communicate and deliver legal solutions by leveraging technology solutions that include client portals, document automation, and AI. These solutions will be essential for maintaining and strengthening the firm’s relationship with its clients.
Clients demand more communication and collaboration from their lawyers, but many firms are falling short.
The tech takeover
Never before have clients had such great expectations of their law firms. Many want their lawyer to be on “virtual call” 24/7. They want their lawyer to anticipate their questions and answer them thoroughly and quickly. They want the option of completing simple tasks on their own via tools tailored to their specific needs. Most importantly, they want their legal issues resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible — and at a lower cost.
That’s a lot for a law firm to live up to. What’s made these requests feasible and not wildly extravagant lies in how technology is creating a sea of change within the legal sector. In every segment of client-law firm relations — communication, case management, document analysis, and advisory solutions — the use of technology is more dominant than it was even five years ago.
The rise of remote work in the COVID-19 era, which pushed even the tech-averse crowd into embracing virtual meetings and deal rooms, is one part of it. Another critical factor is the growth of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs). These smaller, low-cost firms were among the first to fully leverage technology, using it to win business from traditional law firms by offering faster services, including document review, at a lower price.
ALSPs have become a $20.6-billion segment of the legal market, according to the “Alternative legal services providers 2023 report,” which also notes that ALSPs had a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20% from 2019 to 2021, up from the 15% CAGR posted from 2017 to 2019.
As per the “2023 report on the state of the legal market,” low-cost firms have begun outpacing high-cost firms in all areas of demand growth, most notably in transactional practices: “As demand fell and corporate law departments came under tighter financial pressure, lower-cost providers began outperforming higher-cost competition.” This is a core reason why law firms need to make a substantial investment in technology. It’s not that a high-cost firm will underbid an ALSP or even desire to. But firms must assure clients that their lawyers work at the same pace and with the same comprehensiveness as their ALSP rivals.
Technology isn’t just a means to complete tasks faster. It’s also how your firm will give its lawyers the ability to devote more time to value-added advisory services — at a level that ALSPs can’t match.
Technology has no limits as to how it can improve your overall workflow, but it has shown clear improvements in the areas of:
- Case management
- Document automation
Communications: No more phone tag
Start with the foundational block of the client and law firm relationship: how the two parties engage with each other and convey information during a case or assignment.
Communication was once as time consuming as it was frustrating. Say that a client had a query about an ongoing case and called their lawyer for an answer, having to leave a message. Their message might not get a reply until a day or two later. If an issue was too complex to resolve over the phone, the client had to schedule a face-to-face meeting with their lawyer. Even when email significantly replaced voice mail, the essential nature of client and lawyer playing a perpetual “phone tag” game remained in place.
No longer. Communication between client and lawyer is becoming less structured and hierarchical and much more fluid. Lawyers and clients can maintain an ongoing chat via internal Slack channels. They can leave messages or documents for each other in a shared portal. If a quick meeting is needed to clarify a point, it’s just a matter of finding a free 15 minutes for a Zoom or Microsoft Teams catchup.
The advent of near-instantaneous communication also helps to reduce potential friction between clients and their lawyers. With so many avenues of communication available, the client feels more heard and more engaged with their legal process. Meanwhile, lawyers can get the vital information they need when they need it and won’t have to spend half a day trading voicemails.
Case management: Fewer hurdles, faster speeds
Case management is another lengthy, often complex process for law firms and clients to manage. Before embarking on a case, both parties must assemble a list of contacts, draw up a schedule, enter all necessary data, supply all relevant documents, and conduct other time-consuming tasks that add extra complexities to the overall relationship.
Digital business management platforms now automate much of that process, from preliminary scheduling to final billing. This automation can substantially reduce costs. For example, it streamlines the process of onboarding a new client or renegotiating with a current one. Bills get paid faster and documents are processed at a fraction of the former time.
More importantly, automating case management creates more flexibility and adaptability in how clients and lawyers collaborate. Say that a lawyer on a client’s case is seriously overscheduled and will need to be replaced by someone else in the firm. In the past, such a “changing of the guards” often caused a temporary slowdown until the new lawyer got up to speed. If the client felt like they were starting back from square one with their new lawyer, that bred even more frustration.
With all relevant information now stored digitally and being updated in real time, an easily accessible and detailed record of all client-lawyer communications, and the client available for a video chat to fill in any outstanding points, a lawyer’s replacement can seamlessly pick up where their predecessor left off without causing any notable delay to the overall process.
Document automation: The end of drudgery
An essential subset of improving case management is the automation of document retrieval, processing, and analysis. Handing these functions over to automated systems, particularly those powered by artificial intelligence software, is another way for law firms to improve their standing with clients.
Document processing, after all, typically has been a long road full of potential chokepoints. For example, a partner who needs to sign off on a document could be hard to reach, or an overburdened paralegal can’t finish a draft by the initial deadline.
Automation clears such obstacles. Now the partner can e-sign a batch of documents while on a plane and a document generator can produce a first-draft agreement in seconds — all the paralegal has to do is tweak it and distribute it.
How does this strengthen client-lawyer relationships? There are a number of ways.
- Custom tailoring. If a client has specific needs or requests for their contracts or wants pertinent case information summarized in a preferred format — bar charts, tables, lists, etc. — it no longer entails an associate having to customize each document. Now it’s a matter of inputting a client’s parameters and letting the system do the rest of the work. If the client changes their mind and wants to alter the template, that’s no problem — the junior lawyer simply puts in the new parameters and generates a fully drafted and branded document, ready to sign.
- Forensic searches. Advanced analytics programs enable lawyers to drill into a set of virtual documents, retrieving specific phrases, keywords, data points, or other vital information from a vast pile of information. So, if clients ask how many non-compete agreements are currently operative in their business, their lawyers can answer the question precisely and within minutes.
- No more duplication. Automated uploads of a client’s document holdings also serve as a first-wave editor. If any duplicates get uploaded, the system will flag them and, if programmed to, will eliminate them. It also can automatically alert users if there are any incomplete pages or poorly scanned documents that aren’t legible. Something that a junior lawyer might have discovered after a week’s research now gets detected within seconds of uploading.
Technology has become essential for law firms to provide near-instantaneous communication, automated case management, and document processing.
Technology as relationship cement
All of these technological improvements lead to a superior client experience. Paperwork becomes easier to produce and manage, cases are easier to document and monitor, and the whole process takes less time and expense. Communication is faster, with lawyers able to answer client questions more conclusively.
If your firm can reduce the headaches typically associated with the legal process and make your client feel that they have a role to play within this process — that they’re not just signing a check and hoping for the best — you will have a more loyal client. With hope, one that’s likely to give your firm more of their business.
Self-service as a benefit
While it may seem paradoxical, many clients are eager to do more of the work. By offering them a greater degree of legal self-service, your client gets much of the way there — in terms of their basic queries and “ground clearing” — before they have to talk to their lawyer at billable hours.
When a law firm enables a client to handle the basics, such as filling out entry-level forms, doing preliminary research on their case, and investigating various potential options, the client’s attitude towards its firm will likely change. They once might have regarded their law firm as a necessary but costly obligation, an opaque means they used to settle their legal issues. Now the law firm is a trusted collaborator.
This collaboration elevates the conversations that clients and lawyers have. Meetings become far more about discussing and making vital strategic decisions than asking questions such as, “Did everyone sign off on that document?”
Artificial intelligence as a strategic tool
The expansion of artificial intelligence technology in the workplace is revolutionizing the way we work, as we speak. This technology is transforming how businesses operate, making them more efficient and productive. AI provides businesses with valuable insights into customer behavior and preferences, allowing companies to tailor their services better to meet the needs of their customers. In addition, AI technology can help identify potential improvement areas, allowing businesses to quickly and effectively address any issues. Its swift, continued expansion is sure to have a significant impact on businesses around the world.
Specifically, law firms can use AI technology to bolster their arguments and suggestions to clients. Strategic planning becomes more concrete and more actionable. For example, by running analyses of a client’s financials and leadership structures, lawyers can gain deeper insights into workflows, structures, compensation levels, and other factors.
The result: more data-driven decisions. Say that a client is wavering on whether to make an acquisition. Your firm’s preliminary due diligence analysis shows that the potential seller is fundamentally sound and could greatly benefit your client’s operations. Rather than have your firm’s legal talent spend time on document processing, you can put them to work on making a clear, concise, and data-backed presentation that details all of the acquisition’s benefits and games out all the potential scenarios should the client decide to make an offer.
One of AI’s strongest and most intriguing attributes is its ability to “learn.” Thus, the more data AI technologies gather, the more accurate their actionable insights become. This is a great selling point for a law firm — that your advice to clients will continue to improve with each passing day. The more work you do for them, the more insight you will gain.
In March of 2023, the Thomson Reuters Institute conducted a survey to gather results from more than 400 lawyers at large and midsize lawyers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada and found that:
- 82% believe generative AI can be applied to legal work
- 51% believe generative AI should be applied to legal work
- Attitudes are currently evolving around this type of technology
Want to learn more about AI? Browse our latest resources about how artificial intelligence is disrupting the legal marketplace and its effect on legal practice.
Client portals: Hubs of the new client experience
Another transformative legal tech tool is the client portal. These virtual communication hubs could upgrade the client-lawyer relationship even more than document automation already has.
Making the portal the primary method by which clients and lawyers communicate and collaborate makes legal work even faster and more intuitive. Cases can move at a faster clip. Accuracy improves further and mistakes are fewer.
Portals are private, secured extensions of a law firm’s website. Consider client portals as a set of steps, each of which has a specific function. One of the many benefits of using portals is how easily a firm can adapt them to suit the requirements of each step.
Internal portals: The new filing cabinet
First, portals can serve as a firm’s private, internal hub of communication and document storage. Thus, all lawyers involved in a particular court case or working with a specific client on a merger now have a centralized place to store relevant data and keep track of workflow.
Second, a firm’s internal portal can be a means for verified third parties to send and review documents. For example, say that an ongoing acquisition will require getting permits and contracts from a building located far from the law firm’s office. Not long ago, this would have entailed a lawyer getting on a plane, meeting with all respective parties, and returning with a briefcase full of signed documents. Now all of this can be done virtually. Instead of booking a flight, the lawyer goes to work one morning, opens the portal, and sees that every document they need is signed and waiting for them.
General relationship hubs: The new lobby
Not long ago, law firms devoted a good deal of attention and expense to their office lobbies. The color, the ambiance, the lighting, the logo — all of it conveyed to clients how the law firm saw itself. The lobby was a physical extension of the firm’s branding: it was the law firm’s public face.
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed all of that. Clients no longer went to their firm’s physical office but instead interacted with lawyers online. This situation led to a fundamental shift for many clients. While the pandemic is waning, a growing number of clients no longer see the value of having to drive to their lawyer’s office to transact business. For them, the virtual world has supplanted the “real” one.
Enter the client portal. Consider it the law firm’s new virtual lobby, which is open 24 hours a day and stocked with vital information. Each client gets a secure login to a standard portal that could have, for example, lists of relevant contacts, a means to communicate with their lawyers, and a way to upload and download documents. Clients could also use the portal to monitor case statuses and obtain cost summaries.
Bespoke relationship hubs: The new private conference room
The function of a lobby is to be a space open to all clients. So, a standard client portal needs a minimum of generic presentation. The portals tend to have similar layouts, branding, and available resources. The next step is to personalize a client’s portal to make it the equivalent of their private conference room with your firm.
If the client requests it, a firm can create a bespoke portal designed specifically for that client’s needs. If the client wants their relationship with their lawyers to be primarily virtual going forward, it’s important they feel they have a measure of ownership of their portal. Work with the client to determine what information they want to see, the means of communication they prefer, and how they want the portal to look and function.
What’s appealing about all types of client portals is that they typically won’t require a law firm to make any massive tech upgrade to employ them. Instead, portals take advantage of technology the firm likely already uses — they’re an ever-adaptable means to unite functions such as automated document review, client-lawyer communications, electronic signatures, and AI-driven diligence and analyses. All of these features get linked into one easy-to-use primary hub, turning the ability to shift between various technologies into a simple, intuitive matter.
The power of technology to strengthen client-lawyer relationships
The world has changed in many ways, but the core foundation of the client-lawyer relationship hasn’t. Your client desires personalized, quality legal service at an acceptable price and achieved with minimal disruptions. The law firm wants to get more of the client’s spend by engaging them in higher-end, value-added strategic insights rather than spending too much time battling with low-cost providers to handle basic, custodial legal functions.
What unites — and potentially fulfills — all of these needs is the promise of legal technology. On every front, from speed to accuracy to insights, tech innovations stand to be vastly transformative for both client and lawyer. The more your firm devotes to strengthening its technology position, the stronger your client relationships can become.