Ask the Experts: What Will the Legal Industry Look Like in 2021?
Goodbye 2020 and hello to 2021! As we kick off a new year, we asked some of our Zola Suite partners to make predictions on what we can expect to see in 2021. They shared their thoughts on legal technology, remote work and the continuing evolution of the legal industry. (Note: some responses have been edited for length or clarity)
When it comes to legal practice management software, what features are necessary to help law firms navigate 2021?
Deborah Schaefer: Law firms will now consider solutions that will provide flexibility for all members of the firm. Tools that give firm members access to shared documents, calendars, client, and file information will continue to be required. Firms that may not have understood document management are now considering these products. Accessibility will continue to be a very important consideration. Lawyers have been slow to confirm automated payment mechanisms and off-premise solutions; however I think they will reevaluate these solutions moving forward.
Gail Ruopp: People need one point of contact in which they can schedule meetings, enter time, access data and communicate with one another and clients. The easier and more intuitive software is, the better for the firm.
Caren Schwartz: Integration with Office 365 continues to be important. Features that are important are assigning and tracking tasks, communicating securely with clients, tracking the calendar, and assembling documents. Firms are looking for productivity tools like workflows for tasks and communication and these are becoming more important.
Tom Caffrey: In 2021 firms need a digital option for every traditional process in their office (e.g. sign docs in office or online; complete a paper form or a webform).
Gerri Martin: Law firms need to add credit card options for payment. I know it costs more to accept a credit card; however, we need to consider why we continue to make it harder for our clients to pay us. Is this what you would call providing good service? You are financing your clients anyway when they don’t pay you in a timely manner.
Another obstacle we impose on our clients is signature requirements. Documents often have several signature locations. Trying to find all the places and ensuring you find them all is stressful. By providing electronic signatures for documents, we remove that barrier.
It is time to set aside the “file room” mentality. Learn the differences between Document Assembly, Document Storage and Document Management. Decide which ones are best for your firm.
Claire Barnes: Quick ability to search the body of existing documents and emails. Workflows are imperative to their success because life is moving fast and it is difficult to keep track of where they are within a case when there are so many new cases to deal with every day. Many of my clients are handling COVID-19 lawsuits and are slammed. Workflows will help them to stay on track when juggling so many projects at once.
Richard Marx: Client collaboration and the ability for prospects/clients to interact with the firm on mobile devices will be more important than ever. Capturing information directly from the client to the practice management software will be a new standard in the industry.
What do you think 2021 will look like for the legal industry?
Deborah Schaefer: I think the legal industry will continue to embrace technology as a means to improve efficiencies and grow during uncertain times. Lawyers that are struggling are those who are dependent on traditional work environments. Embracing technology is going to be required to survive. Learning to use remote meeting platforms and remote working tools will be necessary in order to expand or maintain current work loads and business.
Gail Ruopp: Remote work is not going anywhere. Lawyers will be competing with not just other lawyers, but alternative legal service providers. Support personnel will be outsourced through another company in which a law firm pays that company as any other business partner.
Tom Caffrey: I foresee…
More use of Teams, and less Zoom.
More value-based billing and less hourly billing.
More automated workflows and less people intensive processes.
More acceptance of flexible work from anywhere vs work from the office.
More all-in-one system adoption and less primary app with linked “zappetizers” (my term for referring to a linked 3rd party app using a Zap from Zapier.com). It’s a common method of stitching together functionality from separate applications that, in my opinion, creates an unnecessary level of complexity and administrative maintenance. If you eat too many appetizers (zappetizers) you can wreck the main meal.
More recurring flat fee relationship activity vs hourly transactional activity.
More text messaging which gets a response and more email (increasingly unread and deleted….).
More training for users for greater proficiency using technology.
Gerri Martin: We have discovered remote working is not the bogey man we once thought it was. For law firms to be competitive employers, they will want to offer at least some hybrid solution for their employees. Also, our clients have come to accept online meetings. This has made things much easier for law firms that cater to elder and young clients. Elder clients have difficulty leaving their homes while younger clients want on-demand service.
Krystal Champlin: The legal industry in 2021 will continue to evolve from a traditional industry to a more progressive, innovative one. This will include more remote employees, outsourced vendors for accounting, human resources, and operations as well as a more open dialogue between firms on best practices. We are all in this together and I believe 2021 will continue the trend of sharing what works and what doesn’t for law firm business operations.
Claire Barnes: I think the future is bright, but the biggest challenge will be the user’s availability to assist in the setup. No one seems to have adequate time to spend on in-house work required for a successful implementation. Buying a turnkey solution is what they really want. I offer project management services helping clients to transition smoothly from their old to new service. This seems to work as well as possible but still requires in-house user time to be the subject matter expert. The easier the software is to understand, configure and implement the greater the chances that clients will make the switch.
Harry Salavantis: The year of the pandemic will be transformative and a complete examination of law firm work processes and secure accessibility across every in-office capability. Reduced staff levels, and business impacts within the client base itself, means that legal professionals must adapt their technology and people in new ways to leverage firm resources at a lower operational cost.
Integration among every software application must be able to integrate at a high level, yet function independently if a firm loses access to one of their systems. Microsoft 365, NetDocuments and Zola Suite, are three systems that work seamlessly as one, or independently should circumstances warrant. Automating the docket, document automation, document management, and complete productivity and profitability in a few mouse clicks are no longer buzzwords, but the new reality.
In 2021, and moving forward, legal professionals must be able to function in all respects, regardless of location, using secure, reliable, and robust methods that are proven and safe without stepping foot in an office if necessary. Everything your firm does today to better understand its technology now, will improve your revenue, reduce operational costs, and vastly improve service to your clients at a far less cost than the solution to fix it.
Richard Marx: The legal industry will continue to see an accelerated movement to cloud based services. Online marketing through venues like Google for Business will become necessary for many firms to bring in new business. Value billing will be a competitive advantage for many firms along with meaningful websites. Often neglected means of communication such as texting will become an expected practice. Hold out firms that are slow to adopt will see reduced revenue while forward looking firms will grow as legal services are made more accessible to the public.
Read part one of our “Ask the Experts” and find out how our partners thought the legal industry changed in 2020.
Claire Barnes is a Legal Technology Consultant with Integrated Visions in California.
Tom Caffrey is a Legal Technology Consultant with Premier Software in New Jersey.
Krystal Champlin is a Legal Technology Consultant with RJH Consulting in Louisiana.
Gerri Martin is a Legal Technology Consultant at Software Analysis Corp. in Illinois. She is also affiliated with Crosspointe Consulting Group.
Richard B. Marx is a Legal Technology Consultant with MME Consulting Services in Arizona.
Gail Ruopp is a Legal Technology Consultant in New Jersey.
Harry Salavantis is an Implementation Consultant at Resource Advisors in New York.
Deborah J. Schaefer is an Accountant + LPM Consultant in Connecticut.
Caren Schwartz is a Legal Technology Consultant with Time and Cents Consultants in Connecticut. She is also an associate with 3545 Consulting.