Workflow is a buzz word you’ll hear thrown around by attorneys and legal technology professionals. It’s become such a hot topic that the definition of workflow has evolved as people try to get in on the buzz.
I find that when people ask me about workflow on demos or at trade shows, there is a vast difference in the features they’re looking for. Since people have so many different ideas of what it means, let’s go ahead and define it:
What is legal workflow automation?
The sequence of administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.
Below, I’ll discuss the three types of legal workflow automation that you’ll find in law firm practice management software so you can be equipped the next time you talk to your sales rep or begin shopping for your next legal software product.
Three Types of Legal Workflow Automation
1. Activity Workflow
The first type of legal workflow automation I am going to discuss is activity workflow. This type of automation is for task management and calendar appointments.
If you work with a team, there is a good chance that you assign tasks to different staff members at different stages of a case.
Think about when you open a new case. If you don’t have activity workflow, you either:
- Manually assign tasks to collect the engagement agreement, retainer and schedule the kickoff meeting.
- You let your staff know a new client has retained you and you hope everyone remembers their tasks.
- You do everything yourself.
I don’t know about you, but none of the above sounds particularly ideal or efficient.
Some legal practice management programs will let you create a prebuilt list of tasks and then quickly assign them out. Some will assign the tasks to different staff members you’ve designed on a case, where other programs will give you a list of tasks and let you fill in the staff you want to complete the task. Once a task is completed, the software will notify the creator of the task list.
This is helpful for any firm but especially helpful for firms with a high volume of cases coming in the door or firms with a high staff-to-attorney ratio.
Similar to tasks, many firms have a set of internal deadlines or meetings they want to schedule once a new case is opened or reaches a certain stage. For many firms, this requires a paralegal or assistant to manually calculate relative dates based on a certain deadline. This is time-consuming and leaves too much room for error.
Many legal practice management software programs have a feature built in to solve this problem. The technical term for this is ‘chain calendar events’. These are appointments with relative dates based on a trigger date such as ‘date of trial.’ This isn’t to be confused with a scheduling order designed by the courts but rather, a list of internal deadlines.
2. Automated Workflow
Automated workflow expands beyond activities and allows you to flowchart your processes into software automation. This type of workflow will keep your case status up to date and offer your staff different options based on your best practices for that stage of a case.
I know that what I just said is “big idea”, so let's discuss this in terms of opening a new matter.
Your process might look like:
- Receive the engagement letter from the client.
- Open the matter and send out the retainer bill.
- Collect the retainer from the client.
- Set up initial meeting with the client.
Throughout this workflow, your system could take some of the administrative burden off your staff by automatically merging the engagement letter, sending out an emailed retainer bill to the client and even opening the matter file in your system.
With automated workflow, the software will bring you down the path you set up, but your staff will still be required to prompt the software to take its next action by marking tasks as complete or clicking on the next step.
3. Advanced Automated Workflow
Advanced automated workflow is truly like having a robot assistant.
The difference between automated workflow and advanced automated workflow is in advanced automated workflow, your staff doesn’t have to click a button to make something happen.
Advanced automated workflow can be triggered by queries or updates to your records.
For instance, if a bill was sent out to the client 30 days ago and still has a balance, the workflow could automatically send a follow-up email to the client reminding them they have an outstanding bill.
Your possibilities become endless with advanced automated workflow, but it does require the most set up. If you decide to go down this route, I recommend starting small and building onto the workflow. Don’t try to do too much at once because once you begin using your workflow, you could very easily decide your workflow design sounded good in theory but isn’t practical.
Legal workflow automation can be a huge time-saver for your firm. It can reduce the amount of time spent on administrative tasks and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. If you have questions about how workflow could work for your firm, feel free to reach out to me - I would love to chat.