Making Law Firms Better Prepared for the Future

Like any other type of enterprise, law firms face specific business challenges that often require improving workflow strategies and implementing new automation systems. To expand on this scenario, I will spotlight a case history about a law firm that needed to solve challenges connected with a pending nationwide renovation and relocation project for its U.S.-based offices and how we assisted them.

Additionally, I will end by briefly highlighting a new hybrid mailroom and document scanning solution (i.e., a digital intake center) that I believe offers many firms a strong opportunity to improve their document management workflow.

Let’s begin with the case history. Originally the law firm outsourced a variety of document process management services that spanned mail, print and records management as well as document imaging. The initial relationship evolved when the firm requested guidance on the planned renovation and relocation of all of its domestic offices.

Objectives Driving the Initiative 

There were several objectives driving the initiative. One was to consolidate space and relocate the offices. The firm also saw an opportunity to contain costs, streamline operations and better prepare itself for future growth by reducing paper usage in favor of a more digitally based document management system. The plan was to review current document management processes in order to determine the volume, business value and age of materials stored onsite. This would help clarify the amount of future storage space required and who within the firm was working digitally. The key to success was working closely with our client to leverage our expertise in assessing current records management practices and then designing and implementing more efficient and cost-effective approaches including digital workflows.

The immediate document management challenge for any law firm facing a renovation or relocation project is determining what space is necessary in the new, ideally less paper-intensive environment. The overall goal in many cases is to reduce physical file storage space while increasing the workspace devoted to supporting the firm’s core mission: practicing law. To accomplish this, firms often need to determine the scope of their paper-based file system, including the location, importance and relevance of critical documents.

Another requirement is for a firm to evaluate whether its current information management workflow and organizational practices need improvement before renovating existing locations or moving to new offices. This is important because without first reviewing internal business processes to eliminate inefficiencies, a firm has a much greater chance of incurring unnecessary moving charges or designating an excessive amount of space to file storage in the new offices.

The project team uses a defined procedure and consultative offering that we call a Business Process Assessment (BPA). It is designed to gauge the current state of a law firm’s information management practices as well as the efficiency and cost effectiveness of business process workflows. Team specialists interview end users, vendors, management and information technology personnel, and also review policies, procedures, network data maps, systems and work processes as part of a BPA. The goal is to help clarify how to improve operational efficiency across the enterprise. This includes providing an unbiased review with supporting data that can help senior management choose the best path for managing change and sustaining a dedicated focus on efficient records management.

The Collaboration Begins 

The team began by collaborating with the law firm to assess the workflows and daily activities that support its information management practices. This included measuring all paper storage located throughout two of the firm’s main offices and assessing which paper documents were relevant (supporting active matters and current business activities) and which files should be archived offsite, digitally converted or destroyed. The analysis was framed around the firm’s goal of digitizing its operations and limiting physical storage space in the new locations. Another priority for the analysis was to help identify what areas within the firm would benefit most from a digitization initiative. The project team’s extensive assessment encompassed approximately 135 hours of interviews with external vendors and 30 staff members in three of the firm’s offices. It also included evaluating documents stored in over 1,000 cabinets and 6,000 drawers.

The resulting document was a findings report that detailed the observations and information received from the end users. A number of issues were identified. These included improper file storage practices such as leaving files scattered on floors, maintaining outdated files and storing documents with personally identifiable information in unsecured locations. Additionally, no standardized workflow processes were in place for creating, maintaining and closing files. The report also found that a number of legal practice groups were already working digitally to some degree, although the staff lacked the appropriate direction and tools that would enable them to be as efficient as possible.

This kind of data helped the firm build a business case that recommended, among other things, storing a number of files offsite. This would enable moving to new locations with roughly 60 percent less space devoted to paper storage, improve records management practices, and provide a roadmap for digitization.

Challenges and Opportunities 

Using the BPA methodology enabled the project team to uncover challenges that were due to end users not knowing the proper workflow procedures for processing a variety of records management-related activities. These include, for example, not knowing how to request help for managing documents for storage. The BPA findings report provided the firm with three major recommendations:

1. Improve the current records management program through greater executive oversight and building best practices across the firm.

2. Establish a digital intake center with the capability to digitize paper documents and integrate them faster and more efficiently into the firm’s business process workflows. (We define a digital intake center as a hybrid mailroom and scanning service that uses specialized mail scanning technology and workflow techniques to convert physical mail into digital information immediately upon receipt.)

3. Support the relocation of the firm’s largest office by establishing a unified records repository and, aligned with the second recommendation, create a digital intake capability integrated with automated workflows.

Benefits of a Digital Intake Center 

The joint project team leveraged the power of the BPA approach to help the firm craft a plan for not only enhancing efficiency and containing costs, but also being better prepared overall for the road ahead. I’d like to close by briefly expanding on one element of the BPA Findings Report, which is to consider establishing a digital intake center, an approach I’ve written about in more depth previously in Workflow magazine. Here are two benefits of establishing a digital intake center, which I believe offers many law firms a solid opportunity to improve their document management workflow:

Enhance Operational Efficiency and Process Throughput. What does it take to ensure that each piece of mail your firm receives is sorted, classified, repackaged, tracked and shipped to the intended recipient?  Particularly for large firms, this process can involve a significant number of staff, duplicative work and unnecessary workflow stops. A digital intake center, however, eliminates these inefficiencies by scanning inbound mail immediately upon receipt while simultaneously indexing and classifying each mail piece. This digitization and straight-through processing removes inefficiencies and enables instant delivery of business information to the intended recipient or business workflow.

Improve Client Response Times. When your clients need something, they expect fast response times. And with a digital intake center, your legal staff can respond to current and prospective clients faster than ever. Regardless of whether a client inquiry is received in paper or digital form, a digital intake center processes inbound mail and routes it to the appropriate recipient or workflow instantly, ensuring client response times are as short as possible. This helps ensure that your clients perceive they are receiving the best service possible.

Major business tasks are understandably daunting. To meet these challenges, legal organizations can initiate such strategies as implementing a BPA, a digital intake center and other approaches. The potential gain is that streamlining document management activities and business workflows can provide lasting dividends on the road to success in the days ahead.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Workflow.

is a certified enterprise content management practitioner (ecmp) and director of corporate communications for Canon Business Process Services, a leader in managed services and technology.