Automation is bringing out the best in Australian legal teams
Many law professionals see opportunities to work smarter, freeing up valuable time that can be reinvested into providing more strategic business advice. Technology must support this vision, writes Rajith Haththotuwegama.
Meaningful work, as a concept, has been discussed in academic and people and culture circles for some time, but it really only burst into the collective consciousness of employees — and onto the radar of employers — over the past two years.
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For Australian law professionals, the topic is a familiar one. Research by Thomson Reuters this year found 81 per cent of private practice professionals “regard more efficient processes as their most valued way of working”. The same study also found that 58 per cent of legal departments are focused on “prioritising improving operations and workflows to free up resources for strategic business advice”.
When time is of the essence, it’s crucial that it can be spent on performing only the most meaningful work. Professionals need to feel that what they do ignites their passion, as Harvard Business Review suggested earlier this year, as well as harnesses their knowledge and/or challenges them to strive to be better.
Consider your own situation. If you were to step back and look objectively at your own role today, what percentage would you describe as “meaningful”, and what percentage might you categorise as “mundane”? More than likely, not everything you do keeps your internal fire burning brightly and consistently.
Whether it’s too much time spent searching for precedents or other information or on administrative tasks like document drafting or reporting, there may be things that cause you to question whether or not your work or overall contribution is meaningful.
It is easy for misalignment to form on this issue. Your employer may consider what you do to be “meaningful”, insofar as it actively and positively contributes to the company’s risk position. Whether or not that meets your own standard for, or definition of, meaningful work is another question entirely, but it’s one that all parties need to understand and address.
Employers are becoming much more cognisant of these issues. In a tight recruitment market, they, in some ways, have no choice. Case in point: the Thomson Reuters study found “almost one in three legal professionals (29 per cent) who indicated their law firm was not innovative were prepared to leave for a more innovative firm”.
Employers know they must do everything within their power to keep existing employees happy and productive. In the Australian legal sector, that increasingly means giving professionals access to technology tools that have “the greatest positive impact” on their ability to succeed.
Leaders of organisations that employ legal units or teams are working to develop new skills and specific initiatives to foster a meaningful work environment for law professionals. But as PwC notes, this may not come naturally.
“It’s rarely second nature for leaders to focus on making jobs fulfilling,” PwC said. “Doing so requires deep empathy on the part of managers and the ability to translate the company’s overall purpose into specific actions and behaviours, so that employees can see how their work contributes to that purpose. It also requires organisations to identify and eliminate gaps between their words and deeds.”
But PwC went on to say: “Managers can create the right work environment and leadership model, and they can remove the most burdensome aspects of employees’ lives — excessive bureaucracy, points of friction, administrative tasks that sap the joy from work.”
These are important dots that need to be joined. Managers themselves can only do so much by themselves; at some point, they must find ways to relieve legal teams of boring tasks so those teams, and the individuals in them, can focus on the things that excite them most.
Automation’s time to shine
The automation of repetitive, boring work is an increasingly valuable action that can cleanse roles of the mundane so that only meaningful aspects remain.
As noted by another Australian study of the legal profession, The Future Legal Workplace, by BVN and Cushman & Wakefield in conjunction with Worktech Academy, automation “has been threatening to transform the legal industry for the past 20 years, yet it is only now technology has shown its true capability. Lawyers, it added, “can work with the technology to develop systems that tackle the inefficiencies in the business”.
How much of a legal professional’s role can be automated will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, though some estimates indicate the automatable portion to be significant. McKinsey, for example, estimates “that 25 [to] 46 per cent of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030”.
These are not insignificant percentages. They offer a view on the significant time savings that are possible from automating uninteresting parts of current roles.
What happens to the time dividend that comes from using automation is the million-dollar question, but there are a lot of meaningful options. It could be reinvested in training and developing the careers and skills of law professionals, opening them to new opportunities. It could be time that gets given back to professionals in the form of better work/life balance. Or, it could solve what professionals want: more time to be providing strategic advice. All are outcomes that are worth striving for.
Rajith Haththotuwegama is the manager of data analytics and automation at Tecala.