Optimising your law firm with Microsoft 365

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Technology,Uncategorized] July 15, 2021

As law firms seek to solve workflow issues through the use of legal technology, it makes sense for them to better use tools with which they are already familiar, but which they probably haven’t been using to their full advantage, writes Graeme Grovum.

Selecting legal technology for law firms can sometimes seem like dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean.

Often, there is a simple problem to address, and you are swimming in products that, at first glance, seem to provide a solution.  But (and there is always a but) as you begin unpacking the problem, you often find that it’s not the problem itself that’s the, erm, problem.

Instead, internal dependencies of unrelated processes might enforce the continued use of legacy applications. Or perhaps security shortcomings preclude the use of an otherwise perfect solution to your problem. Or maybe the solution solves your problem, but it is not adopted by your team for usability reasons. For smaller firms, these issues can be compounded by enterprise pricing hurdles that put certain solutions out of reach.

So where to turn if you are coming up short in a search for that one product which will solve your problem? One way that seems to have gained popularity in the past year is to consider whether the answer you are looking for needs to have the word legal in front of it at all.  The reach of digital transformation has landed on many other larger industries’ doorsteps in advance of the legal industry, and incredible gains have been made by industry-agnostic global tech vendors such as Microsoft, Atlassian and Salesforce.

The focus on internal processes that accompanied our collective overnight implementation of work-from-home protocols[1] and remote collaboration technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pointed many to this path already.

In a lot of cases the uncertainty of circumstance at this time last year precluded the acquisition of additional products, meaning that many of us were going to have to make do with the application suite already in use by our companies, and an obvious place to start was with Microsoft 365.

This aligns with some interesting findings from a 2020 report that drew on responses from Legal Technology vendors. The Global Legal Technology Report[2] (GLTR) found that legal technology vendors, globally, were feeling the pinch of lessened interest from customers as companies tightened budgets to weather the pandemic.  Legal technology purchasers, it seems, have become more focused on the problems that they are trying to solve, and more judicious in selecting the right solution for a problem, including by addressing workflow issues first and by making better use of technologies that they already have.

This accords with our experience at Alpha Creates. In the past year we have spent a lot of time working with clients in MS Teams and the broader MS 365 platform to solve workflow pain points using available resources. Here are MS 365 tips you can apply at your firm today:

1. Automate email generation with MS 365

2. Precedent and clause bank automation with MS 365

3. Matter management with MS 365

4. Manage your legal team with MS 365

5. Automate your workflow with MS 365.

1. Automate email generation with MS 365

Microsoft Outlook is a stalwart of most lawyers’ workday. Outlook has had templates and ‘quick parts’ available for years but, frankly, these have always been cumbersome to set up and have not been broadly adopted. Microsoft has more recently introduced My Templates, an Outlook Add-in that puts frequently used content right in your email composition pane.  My Templates is a great place to store standard-form emails, but it is equally well suited to storing blocks of text that you routinely make use of.  Think of it as a precedent library and clause bank for your emails, all rolled into one!

 

2. Precedent and clause bank automation with MS 365

Speaking of precedents and clause banks, another Add-in, this time by third-party vendor officeatwork, can very quickly set you up to run your own precedents library and clause bank from within MS 365.

The precedent library makes your precedent documents available through a Microsoft Word Add-in.  You can browse multiple template libraries to find the right precedent and, when a precedent is chosen, a new document based on that precedent is created for you.

The clause bank works in the same way. However, instead of creating a completely new document, the content you choose is inserted into the document that you are drafting:

Both the precedent library and the clause bank above are designed to be shared across an entire team. (NB: officeatwork charges a small amount for its Template (precedent) and Contents (clause bank) Add-ins.)

3. Matter management with MS 365

So far, we haven’t really scratched the surface of MS 365; while most people use Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and, more recently, Teams, they don’t really dig into the rest of the subscription. You might be surprised to find that the full MS 365 application suite can play a part across many of your legal team’s day-to-day activities. For example, we have mapped MS 365 applications to some typical areas of work:

  • Intake and triage: Power Virtual Agents, Forms
  • Matter management: Teams, OneNote, Planner, To Do
  • Contract management: Power Automate
  • Workflow management: SharePoint, To Do, Power Automate, Planner
  • Knowledge management: Power Virtual Agents, OneNote
  • Vendor management: SharePoint
  • Reporting: Power BI, Planner.

Let’s look at a few examples that pull in more of these applications. First up, Teams is a great place to bring all of your day-to-day work together. Microsoft has been very deliberate in ensuring that, regardless of the systems you use, you will be able to interact with them in Teams.

For legal teams, this means that Teams is a great matter management application.  At the matter level, using Teams and Channels to structure your work will bring order to your group’s interactions with each other.

In the example below, a new Team is used for each project. Within each Team, Channels are used to separate out individual workstreams that colleagues are working together on for the project.

Because Teams is part of the MS 365 family, all the interoperability that you are familiar with in Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel also exists here; everything just works together! This also extends to other MS 365 applications, all of which can be added right into Teams as well.  There are a few ways of achieving this, but, in the example above, we have added a new MS Tasks board (a Kanban board that is similar to Trello) to our Channel. The entire MS 365 suite can be added to Teams in this way and, because you can also add websites, any other application your team uses can be added to Teams as well, as long as you can access it through a web browser.

Before we move on, I need to point out one additional aspect of Tasks that really shines: Reporting!

Switch your view to ‘Charts’ within the Tasks tab to see high-level information about how your team is managing from an individual workload perspective, which work is past due, and what volume of your work is urgent through to low importance.

4. Manage your team’s work with MS 365

A real powerhouse in the MS 365 family that most people don’t realise they have access to is Tasks. (The product is called MS Planner, but within Teams it is known as Tasks).  Tasks is an excellent application for managing tasks that relate to shared work.  Within the app you can assign work to yourself and to colleagues (i.e., more than one assignee), add due dates (and be reminded as those dates approach or are missed), attach documents, add checklists within each task and make notes and comments directly within each task.  You can also create Kanban board-style buckets to move your tasks through as they work their way through your internal processes.  Tasks can also be set up to display a cross-board view of all work assigned to you across the Teams and Channels you belong to; a real lifesaver as your use of Tasks increases!

5. Automate your workflow with MS 365

The level of interoperability within Teams and between the various MS 365 applications makes work continuity much easier to maintain. Every company, however, has workflows that are unique, meaning that there may not be an off-the-shelf solution ready to go. In these cases, MS 365’s Power Automate provides the tools to design your own workflows incorporating any of the suite’s applications, as well as other Microsoft technologies and a host of third-party applications.

For example, let’s say that we want to create a client-facing complaints triage workflow with the following requirements:

  • a self-serve complaint submission process;
  • submissions added to a complaints database for compliance purposes;
  • complaints are allocated as new tasks to staff;
  • a precedent is populated using provided data to create a draft letter of referral; and
  • the draft letter of referral is emailed to the client for preliminary review.

We can do each of the above using stand-alone applications (MS Forms, MS Lists, MS Tasks, MS Word, MS Outlook), but how do we string them all together in one automated process?

This is where Microsoft’s Power Automate comes in. Using Power Automate we can create one or more flows that achieve each of the outcomes above, and that do so in a connected and automated process.

In the image below:

1. A form captures data from a client;

2. The form data is collected by Power Automate;

3. Power Automate uses the data to create an automated email to the client;

4. Power Automate uses a precedent to create a personalised, automated letter of referral and attaches that letter to the client email;

5. Power Automate sends the same data to different MS 365 applications that are displayed in Teams;

6. Power Automate adds the form submission data to a Microsoft List (the complaint register); and

7. Power Automate adds the complaint itself to Tasks as a new task that is ready for allocation (allocation can be automated as well).

The example above may not line up directly with your requirements; That’s okay!  It is meant to illustrate that you can model and automate almost any manual process in your day-to-day workflow using Power Automate, plus the tools that you already rely on to complete your work.

A generic workflow that can be modelled to numerous different legal processes looks like this:

Start with a trigger like a form submission or a received email.  Next, create a flow in Power Automate that uses the information you’ve received to connect the steps of your process in Teams.  Finally, report on the progress of both your work in progress and the improved efficiency of your team in completing that work.

Start small. Start now.

MS 365 delivers much more than most of us are aware of in terms of functionality. Using Teams and Tasks to organise your firm’s interactions with your clients can bring order to an otherwise reactive relationship.  If you are ready to dig a bit further into process automation, Power Automate’s low-code/no-code platform will help you connect and automate the components of business as usual workflows that you already rely on.

Graeme Grovum is a principal at Alpha Creates, a strategy, innovation and technology consultancy for the legal industry.  Alpha Creates’ services include MS Teams training and MS 365-based process optimisation and automation consulting for legal teams.

 

Footnotes

[1] Dazychain. 2020. What’s Next? The impact of COVID-19 on Australian corporate legal departments. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.dazychain.com/whats-next-the-impact-of-covid19-on-australian-corporate-legal-departments [Accessed 10 May 2021].

[2] Global Legal Tech Report. 2020. Launching the Global Legal Tech Report, a world’s first initiative. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.globallegaltechreport.com/news/launching-the-global-legal-tech-report/ [Accessed 10 May 2021].