COVID-19 and tech: no going back for small law firms?

Rachel Roche
Rachel RocheRoche Legal

Rachel Roche, owner of Roche Legal, explains how digital tools and legal tech have helped her small firm weather the storm of coronavirus, support her clients and focus her mind on the future of the business.

Using a laptop and mobile phone

Running a law firm, whatever the size, has changed a great deal over the past few decades. Almost all of these changes have been driven by advances in technology. No longer do law firms need to be built around cabinet after cabinet of stored legal documents; technology has given firms more options to innovate.

2020 has been a real test of how effectively firms are using digital tools. Though COVID-19 has undoubtedly been challenging for everyone, it’s been far less of a logistical roadblock for those firms which already had robust technological processes in place.

In this article, I look at some of the practical challenges my firm has faced, and how our use of tech has helped to support clients and weather the storm of the pandemic.

Office administration

At Roche Legal, we have a cloud-based document system which enabled staff to transition more or less seamlessly to working remotely. Our existing cloud system meant all staff could access the documents they needed from wherever they were, and that fee-earning tasks could carry on as usual.

However, there were obstacles in terms of managing office administration. When no one was in the office, our usual processes for answering the phone, printing documents, and managing the post no longer worked. We addressed this by hiring a remote receptionist, creating a new shared mailbox for documents that needed to be printed, and timetabling one member of staff to visit the office per week to manage printing and post.

Changes in personnel

Many people found that lockdown was an ideal time to take stock and make new plans. As a result, my firm said goodbye to a few members of staff and welcomed new ones.

This created the challenge of managing changes in personnel when everyone was working remotely. Our existing systems helped with this; we already had a thorough onboarding process in place which was almost exclusively cloud-based.

A cloud-based onboarding process allows new starters to:

  • access all handbooks, documentation and process guides in one place
  • understand all the tasks that need doing, by when, and who's responsible for them
  • make use of onboarding software to smooth the transition into their new role
  • work through the process independently

Circumstances meant that we needed to take further steps to make sure everyone felt part of a cohesive team, even when we weren’t able to work together in person. We managed this by:

  • introducing a weekly round-up video call with all members of the team, allowing us to make sure everyone is kept updated
  • ensuring we very carefully defined each person’s role in the business, and that everyone knew what was expected of them. We wanted to ensure we were putting each person’s skills to their best use and that there was limited crossover between roles

Online client intake 

We started using an online client intake process a few years ago, which has significantly sped up the process of onboarding new clients. It works by:

  • capturing all the data we need from clients when they instruct us, including proof of ID
  • completing an online anti-money laundering check
  • integrating with our Clio case management system to automatically create a client record (we use Zapier, a third-party integration and automation tool, for this)

In the past, many of our clients were happy to do this online, but a number of our less tech-savvy clients preferred to do it in person. The particular challenges of lockdown meant that managing the induction process remotely became a necessity. All our clients recognised this, which meant they expected processes to be managed digitally. 

We took this opportunity to:

  • acknowledge client feedback that people had generally become more comfortable with online systems
  • ensure that all our clients now sign up online, rather than using a more blended approach
  • streamline our client communications process and make it even more efficient. We’re now looking at how to use our online systems to provide updates to clients, take instructions at various stages of a matter, and handle our billing process

Taking stock, decision-making and pushing the firm forwards

Any period of great change is an opportunity to reflect on your business and recognise areas for growth.

While it's been a very difficult year at times, 2020 has also created some very exciting opportunities for Roche Legal. Our workload has certainly increased, which has necessitated new systems and processes, as well as new roles in the business.

We’ve also found that our clients have been more willing to adapt. This has enabled us to experiment with how we use technology to manage the client experience and move towards further innovation and greater efficiency.

On a more personal note, I’ve found that the unexpected nature of this year has improved my decision-making skills. The time of reflection has given me clarity about the role I want in the business and the impetus to plan towards it. Through lockdown, I became braver about making the right choices for pushing the firm forwards, even when those choices weren’t easy.

As a private client firm, our client demographic has not always been as keen to utilise technology as we have. This year, the majority of those clients have had to get used to using digital tools as the only way to stay in touch and engage with services. As a result of this, those clients are now more open-minded to digital change. We plan to make the absolute most of this opportunity.

In the future, we’re likely to look back on this period as a catalyst for change. The law firms which will continue to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world are likely to be those which have embraced this challenging time as a period to experiment with technology and innovation.

If you’re a small law firm or sole practitioner, you can discuss some of the issues raised by this article with our new small firms digital community, launching 19 October.

Law Society Connect is a place where you can meet fellow members, and share both challenges and accomplishments, learn from your peers, collaborate on common issues and innovate new approaches.

Find out more