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The value of legal tech to smaller firms

Post-pandemic, smaller firms can use technology to their advantage by continuing to ask questions and be curious about legal tech, according to this legal software manager.

user iconLauren Croft 21 July 2022 Big Law
David Atherton-Cooper
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David Atherton-Cooper is a legal software solutions manager at LexisNexis. Speaking recently on an episode of LawTech Talks, produced in partnership with LexisNexis Pacific, Mr Atherton-Cooper spoke about the various symptoms of whether one is running their firm or if it’s running them and unpacked the state of affairs in legal tech.

According to Mr Atherton-Cooper, the state of affairs within legal tech has changed drastically since the pandemic.

“If we’d had this conversation a couple of years ago, I would’ve been talking about the age-old challenges that every law firm seems to face. How can I work more efficiently? How can I make sure everyone’s getting the job done without wasting a lot of time? How can I make sure that I’m profitable and still deliver excellent client service and results? COVID came along. The bushfires came along. We’ve had all sorts of weather events since. Really, to my way of thinking, it’s sharpened focus on a couple of areas. So, the fact that there was a huge business interruption globally, certainly, and across the nation, meant that there was a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

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“Some firms just ceased trading for a while and have come back, thankfully. Others struggled through and tried to keep the lights on and had to deal with a lot of technology challenges that previously had been a bit of a nice to have. A lot of firms did have some people working from home occasionally, but the majority was still office-based. So, having to adapt to a distributed workforce by putting in those terms, yeah. Staff and lawyers all over the place, unable to keep that collegiate atmosphere off, you pop your head around the door and have a chat. You can do it on a Zoom meeting or a Teams, but there’s a different sensation. So, trying to manage, keeping a workforce together, keeping everyone engaged and aligned and moving forward in this new environment, I think, has really taken a toll on quite a lot of firms, large and small.”

These events also had an impact on firm clients — family law activity and domestic violence cases increased, in addition to estate planning. However, even as we finally move into a post-pandemic environment, firms are still experiencing a number of disruptions.

“Whilst it does seem to be moving towards more manageable levels, and it’s getting towards what we all hoped it might be way back when COVID started, or it’ll be just like the common cold or the flu, we’re still getting business interruption. And it’s affecting firms, it’s affecting their clients, and it’s bred a degree of uncertainty, but I think it has also encouraged a renewed flexibility in everyone’s thinking and the approaches that they’re taking to managing their business,” Mr Atherton-Cooper explained.  

“I think that there’s opportunities for firms, but their fundamental challenges have moved from being how do I keep the lights on, to being how do I keep everyone engaged and working collaboratively, and then, get back to how do I drive efficiency, how do I keep things moving smoothly.”

In terms of how smaller firms can react to these disruptions, “technology plays a big part”, according to Mr Atherton-Cooper.

“A lot of firms, sadly, we are seeing, have downsized. Most are still trading and still doing a healthy amount of business, but they’re doing it with fewer staff, fewer premises, and therefore having to rely a lot more heavily on the technology.

“I suppose, really, we’ve been talking about the cloud for a decade or more now, and it’s more relevant, I guess, than ever to most of our clients. We estimated, earlier this year, that around about 50 per cent of our client base are already using some form of cloud-based system. Some are still staying, you know what, we’ve got remote access servers on our tech stack. We don’t need to make any changes. We’re happy. There are some of them out there, and they’ve got good reasons for being that way. But there’s a chunk in the middle who are yet to make the move and are looking for that flexible access, but they’re looking to do it without dramatically increasing their costs,” he added.

“A lot of firms, certainly, the smaller firms that we talked to, they don’t have the expertise. They know what they want, and they know what the solution is called, but the cloud can mean differently to different people. So, we are increasingly spending time talking to firms about how to take advantage of the improved security and flexible access without having to bring in expensive IT consultants to do all the work for.”

In terms of utilising these cloud technologies, Mr Atherton-Cooper said firms need to ask themselves what will work best for them before implementing anything.

“There’s a tendency for people to talk about a true cloud as a term. It’s fairly meaningless because anything that you do where the computing, the processing happens outside of your premises, is some variant of working in the cloud. So, there’s degrees to which you can have a variety of processes, applications, and systems on premise, off premise, hybrid, linking to each other. All of it comes under the banner of cloud.

“So, when it comes to taking the decision, what’s best for my firm, how am I going to do this as a practitioner, the questions really do have to come down to, what do I need? When do I need it? What are my clients looking for? And then, how can I guarantee that we can have access to all of that wherever and whenever? And even as recently as this week, there’s been a lot of discussion about, maybe one day, we move to a four-day working week and how that might look; we’re still in a real world where people need or want access to systems 24/7. So, the question comes back for me to this idea of ownership and control,” he explained.

“If I go to any of the technology vendors in the market and use their cloud service, I’m giving them a degree of control over what I do and what happens to my data and documents at the end of the term. If I go to an independent cloud provider, I’m creating some level of distancing between the people who are running my systems and the people providing me with my software. Hopefully, you find that they’ve already established strong partnerships in the background so that the recommended private cloud takes your data away from the control of the vendor, leaves it with you, but still gives you access to the best of both worlds. And then, finally, yes, you can do it all yourself if you’ve got people in your organisation who have the smarts and the experience to do it.”

And to find the best of both worlds, Mr Atherton-Cooper advised firm owners to ask questions — and keep asking them — of their software providers, organisations and various other groups.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to trusted partnerships. The people that you are doing business with consistently, talk to them, ask their advice. The various industry organisations look for their publications. They will typically not recommend a particular vendor over one another, but they’ll often have good ideas or the sort of questions to ask. Law is a peer-influenced profession, let’s put it in those terms,” he said.

“Talk to colleagues. The guys you went to law school with, ask them what their experiences are. There are all sorts of ways to find out. But certainly, approach your vendor and just ask the question. What have you got? What would you recommend? Ask them what their other clients are doing. That would give you a much clearer picture in your overall decision making.”

 The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with David Atherton-Cooper, click below:

 

 

Lauren Croft

Lauren Croft

Lauren is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism from Macleay College. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, she worked as a trade journalist for media and travel industry publications and Travel Weekly. Originally born in England, Lauren enjoys trying new bars and restaurants, attending music festivals and travelling. She is also a keen snowboarder and pre-pandemic, spent a season living in a French ski resort.

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