The digitisation agenda
Over the last ten years, law firms globally have been steadily embracing new working practices to enhance the ‘Business of Law’, from restructuring support teams to leveraging digital technologies to achieve a more efficient, equitable and flexible approach.
These digitisation efforts have been vastly accelerated in the last 18 months, with the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating drastic changes to working patterns, including flexible and hybrid working for both fee earners and support staff, and support team reorganisation and centralisation. Moreover, these changes have highlighted the importance of firm access to workflow data and systems, as BigHand’s Legal Workflow Management Report found.
East Anglian law firm, Ashtons Legal, was one firm already well established on their digitisation and centralisation journey prior to the pandemic. With the implementation of BigHand Workflow Management, however, they have been able to adopt a data-driven approach to optimise the way in which tasks are delegated, managed and reported upon. In doing so, Ashtons has been able to gain significant operational efficiencies - decreasing task turnaround and processing time and optimising the use of its centralised secretarial service, whilst engaging and empowering staff in its new, hybrid and flexible working model.
Tom Chevous, Digital Transformation Manager at Ashtons explains:
“As a firm, we have always been quite forward-thinking in our technology adoption as a way of ensuring we are providing the best service possible to our clients, in the most efficient way for staff and the business. This drive for operational excellence is championed right from the top, by our CEO Ed O’Rourke and COO, Ben Hallatt, who spearheads our centralisation initiative”.
He adds: “Prior to COVID, we had already introduced some centralised support functions across our five offices and were well geared up with flexible working policies and systems. However, it became apparent very quickly that we had little – if any – visibility of support workflows across the firm. Moreover, the traditional way in which fee earners would typically delegate tasks to specific support staff or secretaries was unsustainable. We took the opportunity to centralise our entire legal PA and support staff function, and I was put in charge of the IT that would underpin that new structure”.
Introducing legal workflow management
When Ashtons’ leadership team saw a demo of the full workflow management solution, they were suitably impressed by its functionality and configurability – particularly the reporting capabilities that would provide the granular level of insight and a baseline for workflow improvement. The firm had worked with BigHand’s digital dictation technology for many years, reducing training requirements for lawyers, who were already familiar with the look and feel of the technology.
As Tom explains: “On the one hand, digital transformation is all about data, but it also needs to be very human-centric. We wanted to think about how our users – my internal clients – should, and need to work, and put things in place that improve their lives, in a very efficient and effective way”.
In close collaboration with the HR team, Tom spoke with individual support staff to discuss the different roles they might move in to, from a centralised secretarial service / typing pool, to more legal support. “Alongside that,” he adds, “I was talking to every team to find out what they felt they would need from these centralised functions – specifically the work types and forms they would need within BigHand”.
This early engagement of staff was key. As Tom says:
“We built up a degree of excitement as staff could see how the technology was going to benefit them in their day-to-day work. Additionally, having the different teams engaged from the outset gave them a chance to input, to influence and refine the workflows, so they truly felt they were getting a system that was built for them, around their needs”.
Firm-wide, Ashtons went live with BigHand Workflow Management in January 2021, following a pilot conducted during late 2020, and has seen a steady uptake in the solution and a change in previous working practice since.
“It’s been an interesting undertaking,” Tom explains. “Prior to BigHand, we simply had no metrics on our legal support workflow at all. We had no idea how many tasks were being passed around. So when we started getting the initial data from BigHand, and we could see how many tasks a particular team was putting through and how long those tasks were taking, we didn’t have a reference point or benchmark”.
That said, the data from BigHand Workflow Management between January and September 2021 has shown a significant improvement in task management across the board. From February to September 2021, the average number of Workflow Management tasks completed had risen from 83 per day to 124 per day, while the average number of voice or dictation tasks completed has fallen from 104 to 81 per day. “This shows that a large percentage of voice tasks were not actually for transcribing, but “can you do” type tasks,” Tom explains.
In addition, the average processing time for Workflow Management tasks has fallen from 23 minutes to 14 minutes, showing the increased efficiencies achieved through centralisation of the legal support team, and having the ability to move work around easily to those with capacity and the best-suited skillsets.
Comparing the four-month period up to January 2021 with September 2021, the average turnaround time for the transcription of dictated letters and attendance notes has fallen from 44 hours to eight hours, while the average processing time for transcription of dictated letters and attendance notes has fallen from 30 minutes to 19 minutes.
“Our highly important Central Secretarial Service function has been unshackled by extracting non-transcription tasks into Workflow Management tasks, creating a far more efficient service,” Tom adds.
The heads of legal support for the firm’s four practice groups, as well as the heads of other centralised support functions, now also have access to the reports within BigHand Workflow Management, to help identify specific areas for improvement to further optimise workflows, enhance billing accuracy and client matter performance metrics, and help make informed staffing decisions.
Optimising hybrid working
With offices opening up again, Ashtons is keen to maintain its hybrid and flexible working model and sees BigHand Workflow Management as key to this.
“Our offices are now completely open, but they’re very much being used as hot-desking hubs,” Tom says. “The beauty of the operational model we now have, powered by BigHand, is that staff – be that fee earners or support staff – are no longer disadvantaged by not being in the office. It’s helping our staff to work better, easier, and in a way that better fits with their individual lifestyles, while helping us be more efficient as a business. It’s a win-win situation”.
Ed O’Rourke, CEO at Ashtons Legal concludes:
“Digitisation is absolutely the future of legal practice. Staff need a more flexible, kinder way of working, while a data-driven approach is key to unlocking much needed operational efficiency. The drive towards workflow technology and better information and reporting will play a key role in enabling the sector to build on the progress of the past year and successfully adopt a hybrid working model, with all the benefits it offers staff and clients alike”.