Why is there so much talk about automation in the practice of law these days? Almost every legal technology source extols the benefits of automation. There must be a reason, right? Yes. Automation of routine tasks can benefit your practice in multiple ways. So, what is automation and how can it help your practice? Read on.
What is it?
Basically, automation is an automatic process that produces a consistent result or product. Have you used an Out of Office message on your email? Someone emails you during a certain time and receives an automatic response that you are not available. Do you have a programmable thermostat in your home? That’s automation. You decide what the temperature should be at specific times, and the thermostat does the rest.
Home automation is a growing trend. Investigate the options available to automate your home (e.g., turn on/off the lights at a certain time), as this may give you ideas for automating your practice. At the very least, be aware of automation, because there’s a good chance your clients will be and will eventually expect automation to be part of your practice.
How do I start?
Automation starts with a good checklist. Anytime you use a repeatable series of steps to complete a project, that process is a good candidate for automation. Then, you can use a computer to automatically create and/or complete those tasks, or at least get you well on your way.
In Microsoft Word, for example, you may find yourself opening or creating a series of forms for each new case in your office. You might have an intake form, a new client letter and a fee agreement. These forms are largely similar in each new case. Typically, you would open each file and change the relevant information, creating a “set” of documents for that new client.
With a little creativity (and trial and error) you could create a macro in Microsoft Word and have Word perform the steps for you automatically. Because the steps are the same each time, the macro simply repeats the process for you without you needing to touch the keys again and again.
What’s exciting is that automation is now becoming mainstream in cloud-provided tools and our smartphones. Many cloud-based law practice management platforms now have built-in checklists or workflow tools. Users can program a series of tasks that need to be completed and assign that list to the appropriate user with a few clicks. Combined with document automation tools, which grab data from the system and plug it into a template file, this makes for a powerful tool set. It’s simple automation but saves hours of time over the life of a practice.
There are also web-based automation tools such as IFTTT (If This Then That — IFTTT.com) or Zapier.com. These tools allow you to connect web-based services together and perform automation. As an example, if you get an email from Gmail that has an attachment, the web-based automation tool can automatically save the attachment to a Dropbox folder.
Or, you can create web forms to collect contact information. That contact information can be read by a tool such as Zapier and put into a tool such as Clio as a new contact and create actions based on that when a new contact is created in Clio’s database. If you hand your client a tablet, the client can enter that information without you, yet the information shows up where it needs to be. That’s the beauty of automation.
If you have an Apple device, the most recent update to the software provides an app called Shortcuts (formerly Workflow). This app uses machine learning with Siri to suggest actions that can be automated based on your use of your device. It is a little strange that your device is tracking your habits and asking if you want to perform the same actions that you’ve done over the past several days, but it is what it is.
One example of a Siri shortcut is the ability to put your phone on Do Not Disturb until you leave the current location. Press the shortcut button (or tell Siri) and the phone is put in Do Not Disturb mode until your location changes. Simple, but saves you from having to remember to turn your phone’s notifications back on after a meeting or court appearance.
We are fast approaching a point where automation is only limited by your imagination. Look at the processes you do over and over, make a good checklist and then automate the checklist. Remember: you are a lawyer, not a data entry clerk. Let the tool do the work for you, not the other way around. That’s for an article on artificial intelligence.•