The legal debate

Editorial Type: Interview Date: 2021-06-15 Views: 654 Tags: Document, Legal, Strategy, Workflow, Collaboration, Covid-19, Repstor, Microsoft PDF Version:
The senior directors of two mid-sized UK law firms come together with legal market advisor Derek Southall and Sheila Gormley of Repstor to debate rising trends among law firms - including IT consolidation; the rise of Microsoft 365; dispersed operating models; and the appetite to increase knowledge re-use, operational intelligence and process automation

Derek Southall (DS): There are a number of trends which are influencing the way law firms think about and plan for their IT now, which have been compounded by more than a year in lockdown: first is IT consolidation. Big businesses have already questioned the sense of running 200 discrete applications, when they could consolidate and simplify operations across fewer, core platforms. They're now saying, "We've got to be SAP for finance; Microsoft 365 for everything operational; and Salesforce for sales and marketing." I think this consolidation is coming to law firms now too.

Then there are the cost/value paradigms - many firms are renewing the quest for value from existing IT investments. Designated 'legal technology' tends to be more expensive than more generic solutions, which often isn't justified. The 'best of breed' approach also means dealing with multiple vendors which can be costly and complex.

And the meteoric rise of Microsoft 365 has come right in the midst of all this. As firms standardise on the online/cloud-based versions of the Microsoft suite, they're seeing potential to work more flexibly using familiar, interlinked applications. Added to this is the realisation that Microsoft 365 offers everything from digital dictation to smart process automation and reporting, Teams to intranet templates, and much more. Microsoft is investing everything in the latest functionality too, including AI - important for automating processes, and delivering new insights. So betting on the platform feels very futureproof.

Digital collaboration has become widespread during the pandemic, boosted by the intuitive ease and ready availability of facilities like Teams for keeping everyone in contact. It's been so effortless to maintain relationships remotely over the last year that people are questioning whether things will ever revert to how they were, especially when virtual meetings save clients time and money.

Together, all of these factors are driving law firms to reassess their legacy IT setups. I'll let Tom and Ed tell their own stories about how the pandemic has intensified their transformation ambitions.

Tom Hall (TH): Brachers has offices in Maidstone and Canterbury, but our work is international. When I joined in 2018 the firm had traditional legacy legal applications, but an appetite to be different. Before the pandemic, we'd already addressed the business continuity implications of people not being able to go to the office - not just to support home-working but also for lawyers at court needing access to financial data or legal documents. We ripped out legacy legal systems in favour of cloud and SaaS applications, and implemented a mobile-first strategy, giving every lawyer a tablet. When Covid hit, people simply took their devices home and picked up where they left off.


"We favour Microsoft because its products are already so integral to lawyers' work - so our view was why not leverage the licences we're already paying for. And Microsoft is pouring money into development at a rate that other most tech providers couldn't even contemplate. Microsoft Power BI gives us the ability to interpret data in ways we've never thought about before - data that's refreshed every two hours, and Repstor gives us the legal layer on top - allowing our lawyers to interact with their DMS from Outlook and from Microsoft Teams, which is revolutionary." - Tom Hall, Brachers
Ed Cooke (EC): Conexus Law works internationally and our operations are quite distributed: we've got a central office in London but have a team that works all over the place. This put us in a great position when we when the pandemic hit because we were already set up for working remotely.

In building Conexus Law from scratch, we chose a cloud-first strategy. As a distributed firm we needed everyone to have instant access to the most up-to-date versions of everything, and felt that this route would enable us to do more with data. We have a Microsoft 365 stack primarily, with a SharePoint Online repository so there's just one system to manage and secure.

We chose Repstor as our document management system, on top of Microsoft 365, because in its native form SharePoint didn't really offer us the kind of experience we needed. We also have a practice management system which integrates readily with Microsoft 365. Otherwise we use the Microsoft Office suite including Teams and Power Automate.

By joining all of our systems together, we're honing our knowledge management. We work with clients who are pushing the boundaries so we have to do the same. As well as our chosen systems for this, we find Microsoft OneNote very useful and we have a very flexible SharePoint knowledge hub: essentially a SharePoint wiki and internet site.

TH: Brachers is a multidisciplinary, full-service firm with lots of diverse needs. We favour Microsoft because its products are already so integral to lawyers' work - so our view was why not leverage the licences we're already paying for. And Microsoft is pouring money into development at a rate that other most tech providers couldn't even contemplate.

Microsoft Power BI gives us the ability to interpret data in ways we've never thought about before - data that's refreshed every two hours, and Repstor gives us the legal layer on top - allowing our lawyers to interact with their DMS from Outlook and from Microsoft Teams, which is revolutionary. The fact that Repstor can give us client portals in all different forms - something clients are beginning to ask for - is transformational too.


"During the pandemic, many firms have opened up Microsoft Teams to keep colleagues connected. Then people started collaborating using chat windows, uploading content to it and so on. But this brings a risk that activity could deviate from the core DMS, with implications for content governance and safeguards. Restoring these controls is part of the solution that we bring - making the firm's preferred system of record the default place to keep everything." - Sheila Gormley, Repstor
We started our transition last summer, gradually moving our 'ecosystem' to one that will revolve around Microsoft as our operational platform. Now that working from home has been robustly tried and tested, there's no reason why our people, our client base couldn't be more widespread. The Internet is now the place where they interact with us in the main - especially with digital signatures.

DS: What is Repstor hearing from other law firm clients about how they want to leverage Microsoft 365? Sheila Gormley (SG): A lot of it is about achieving that legal DMS scenario. The biggest thing for us is surfacing the power of the SharePoint DMS through the Outlook or Teams user experience. In fact, the number one thing that law firms are asking us for today is functionality around Microsoft Teams. During the pandemic, many firms have opened up Microsoft Teams to keep colleagues connected. Then people started collaborating using chat windows, uploading content to it and so on. But this brings a risk that activity could deviate from the core DMS, with implications for content governance and safeguards. Restoring these controls is part of the solution that we bring - making the firm's preferred system of record the default place to keep everything.

Collaboration with clients is another common requirement. Microsoft will continue to improve Teams functionality so that it becomes the gold standard for client collaboration. But there's also the possibility to do more traditional and client portal-like collaboration in Microsoft 365 and we bring additional capability around that for legal use.

The IT consolidation trend generally is raising questions about how to get the most out of the Microsoft 365 platform. Power Automate offers fantastic potential, for example, but firms want to understand how to pull it all together. I sense an appetite for more turnkey solutions that leverage M365, so that smaller or mid-tier law firms don't have to build the capabilities themselves.

DS: Are there any activities law firms wouldn't want to attempt in Microsoft 365, and what's next? EC: As things currently stand we wouldn't use it for our central practice management system (PMS); we're always going to need that interface between that and M365.

As to what's next, we're looking at how we might deploy AI or at least machine learning within some of our systems. We undertook an exercise looking at force majeure clauses, for example, which primarily we have had to manage manually. The challenge is around having sufficient volumes of information ingested into the system for it to learn from. That's tricky for law firms. Certainly we'll be looking very closely at Microsoft's Project Cortex and SharePoint Syntax activities and hoping that some kind of legally-focused, AI-based product might emerge fairly quickly.

TH: We also accept that Microsoft can't be everything to everyone: we've already got a top PMS which is ideal for what we need; nor do we need to look to Microsoft for risk, compliance, nor CRM. For us, it's the integration between preferred systems that's key: that's what Microsoft and Repstor make so easy.

DS: What's the latest news from Microsoft in terms of specific legal capabilities? SG: There's a new initiative that Microsoft has launched in collaboration with ILTA. It's an acknowledgement that perhaps it hasn't given enough attention to the legal sector up to now, and it recognises some of the particular requirements of legal teams - especially around security. One of the first things they've been doing is to release a 'blueprint' for the deployment of Teams within law firms, addressing security, data labelling and data loss prevention.

DS: Finally, it's accepted you should never buy technology based on price, but for long-term capability. To what extent will Microsoft 365 alter what law firms spend on technology? And will it help reset the pricing of some other products, freeing up budget for other things?

EC: I don't know what it will do in terms of the final price, but in terms of cash flow it turns everything into a subscription model.

TH: The SaaS model is meant to make it easier to predict costs, and flex what you use and pay for. During the peak of the pandemic we were able to reduce licences for individuals who were furloughed.

I actually think our bill for tech is going up, but we are realising savings in other ways. If I can save a lawyer five minutes so that they can finish on time which is good for their mental wellbeing, that's really important to us right now. Or, if they can do something themselves that saves them dictating and asking a secretary to do it, there's a resource saving there, or there's a beneficial effect on chargeable time. That's really where our investment into technology is focused - on driving efficiencies, making life simple, having a single pane of glass, and so on, achieved by integrating everything back into our Microsoft platform.

More info: www.repstor.com