I think workflow automation is a nice legal tech gateway drug. Although workflow and process automation is not “legal technology” per se and can be used in any industry, it is a good way for lawyers and legal teams to dip their toes into legal tech waters.
So often when people start thinking about implementing legal tech solutions, they try to “boil the ocean” and solve too many problems at once. The best place to start with legal technology is often with mundane, repetitive tasks that take up time better spent doing more valuable things. Boring, common tasks are often perfect candidates for automation.
We love automation at Percipient and not only use it in legal projects for clients and customers, but for everyday, repeatable tasks including new project intake, employee onboarding, and certain customer support requests.
Good candidates for automated legal workflows are opening up new legal matters, “low touch”, high volume contracts like non-disclosure agreements, and common business transactions that require approval but are low risk and can be made self-service. (And no, none of this automation will will replace lawyers).
When making the jump into legal workflow automation, there is no need to solve every problem at once. Implementing legal automation may (and probably should) be done in steps. In fact, I recently talked to Scott Kelly, President and co-founder of legal workflow automation software company Afterpattern (formerly Community.Lawyer), and his advice about implementing workflow automation is not to start with tech at all.
“The best place to start, if you’re looking into workflow automation is with a pen and paper. The really hard part of automation is making sure that automation is geared towards delivering a clear value–that the amount of time you’d have to spend to actually build that automation (is worth it). We recommend not using any technology when you’re plotting out sort of your automations or if you are, use something like a spreadsheet, or (an app) that helps you draw some charts. So you can map out the basic business logic of what you’re trying to build.”
So where does one start to build automation?
Tools to build your first workflow automation can be found in the applications and software you already use. Many of the apps we use every day are underutilized and have features that can streamline workflows.
For instance, if you are a Google office, you can use Google Forms to collect information from employees, clients, and customers.
If you are a Microsoft shop, there is also a Forms app for you.
Collecting data via online forms prevents the back and forth of email, cuts down on manual processes and, as explained later, can also be used to generate documents.
Another “easy automation win” is automating the contract execution process with electronic signature (esignature) software like HelloSign, Docusign, and Adobe Sign. These applications collect signatures electronically (generally by email) and templates may be created within the apps so commonly used forms can be easily reused. They also connect to other apps via built-in integrations and APIs (application programming interface) which is a way for different pieces of software to communicate and work with each other–a feature woefully underutilized in legal tech, but that is a discussion for another day.
For instance, Hello Sign integrates with apps like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Salesforce allowing documents to be sent for signature straight from those applications.
Going beyond features found in common productivity suites is what I call “intermediate” automation tools. That is, apps that are built with data collection and automation in mind.
The cool thing about these apps is that they have many integrations with other apps based on the APIs mentioned above.
As an example, results from Typeform entries can automatically be sent to an Excel spreadsheet or documents uploaded from clients may be automatically saved in Google Drive or OneDrive.
Zapier is another platform to consider when building automations (and is hands down one of my favorite apps). Zapier connects software applications even when they do not have an “official” integration.
Zapier’s “Zaps” are based on triggers and actions. A trigger in Application A starts an action in Application B. For instance, a new entry in an online form can trigger an action in a database program or add an entry into a spreadsheet.
Using integrations and apps like Zapier, other tools can be connected to forms that will automatically generate documents based on form input. Like a simple Non Disclosure (NDA) generator for an in-house legal team or an engagement agreement for a new law firm client based on the client filling out an online intake questionnaire.
If the automation you have in mind is a little more complicated, or you need a little more customization, there is the next level: “no code” or “low code” workflow automation software built for legal. Apps like the aforementioned Afterpattern and others, like Josef, Neota Logic, Checkbox, and Documate. Law practice management software like Clio, Practice Panther, and Smokeball also have automation features geared toward legal work.
You can do some pretty cool stuff with “no code” and “low code” automation platforms.
For instance, the Memphis immigration firm of Siskind and Susser counts sophisticated commercial operations as clients such as hospital and healthcare companies. Because many doctors are hired from other countries, they often need limited work visas issued only when very stringent requirements are met.
To cut down on costs, time and to make it easier on clients, the firm created an automated analysis that hospitals can use to determine whether a prospective hire qualifies for a visa. (To learn more, check out this episode of the Technically Legal Podcast where Greg Siskind discusses how his law firm uses automation).
A detailed “deep dive” into these applications is beyond the scope of this post, but if your legal team is getting serious about workflow and task automation, a close look into these platforms is worth it.
The next stop on the legal workflow automation journey is ELM software, or Enterprise Legal Management software. It is sophisticated practice management software for in-house legal teams that helps keep track of projects, matters, metrics, billing, and the like. Many ELM solutions have automation features geared toward legal work.
Law firm users may want to check out Intapp.
NOTE: There are many great contract automation software applications including Ironclad, LawGeex, Kira Systems and Evisort, but contract automation warrants its own article, and will not be addressed in detail here.
Moving beyond no-code workflow automation and “off the shelf” applications are custom-built workflow and process automation applications.
Maybe your processes involve industry-specific software or the applications involved may not have a robust API library or integrations. Or maybe there are too many moving parts to easily connect requiring custom workflow automation.
This is obviously a sophisticated endeavor and not for every task, but is something we help customers with.
For instance, one of our customers is a marketing analytics technology company. To onboard customers, the company must create and have customers sign an authorization form to share telecommunications marketing information (among other documents).
Creating the onboarding authorization document not only involved several emails between the company and the customer, but it also touched four departments (Sales, Customer Support, Customer Success, and Legal). The creation of the form also involved five manual steps using Google Forms, Google Docs, Salesforce, and Docusign and often took several people hours to complete.
We created a custom automated workflow process that now takes minutes to complete rather than hours. To create the necessary authorization, Customer Success enters relevant information into a single form accessed via the company’s CRM. The form is pre-populated with relevant customer information from the CRM and once complete, the form is automatically sent to the customer via e-signature software for execution.
Getting started with workflow and process automation need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor. Starting with day to day, high volume, low risk tasks is a great place to start…but begin by mapping out the process rather than figuring out what technology to use.