The impact of using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in a law firm is explained and illustrated by an example of how RPA can help to automate working with beA (“besonderes elektronisches Anwaltsfach” or “special electronic lawyer mailbox”). You also will learn how to optimally prepare your law firm for RPA.
Digitization is not just digitization
The days of paper files are already history in many law firms. Law firm software for recording and managing files and correspondence has become standard and indispensable basic software equipment. Software helps lawyers and support staff as a matter of course to evaluate, process and archive daily correspondence. Especially the evaluation of documents and their assessment is a core competence of the legal profession, and for this you need expertise, analytics and intuition. But have all possibilities for automation been exhausted with standard software solutions? Certainly not.
Many tasks in the day-to-day running of a law firm are routine tasks. On the one hand, these routine tasks must be performed with accuracy and a consistently high quality, but on the other hand, they can lead to a monotonous workday with declining accuracy and motivation. When workloads are high, the performance of “tedious” routine tasks can lead to careless errors and delays, putting the firm at a competitive disadvantage. Typical examples of routine tasks in a law firm include scanning/retrieving and archiving incoming correspondence and then initially capturing relevant information from the correspondences.
This includes the creation of appointments and resolutions or the forwarding of correspondence to the colleague in charge of the proceedings. The latter tasks are all error-prone, time-critical and tedious for humans to perform. In this context, any slip of the pen can have far-reaching consequences, whether it is a missed change of the court date or a number error in the amount in dispute.
The first-mentioned core competencies of the legal profession will remain in the hands of humans for the foreseeable future — and they are in very good hands there. However, there are new and innovative solutions for handling routine tasks. One of these is RPA, whose potential applications we will highlight below using specific examples.
RPA – a brief introduction
RPA stands for a specialized type of software that relieves humans of repetitive and rule-based tasks. The “robots” can, for example, extract data from documents, software, and web pages, present the results to humans for review, and then transfer the results to the law firm’s software after approval. The robots work by the book: once programmed, they can repeat tedious and tiring tasks quickly, reliably and without error.
Robots are the Swiss army knife of all software applications: on the one hand, they can use a keyboard and mouse for data input just like we humans do, and on the other hand, they can use existing technical interfaces to software systems just like traditional IT. This eliminates the hurdles that make the use of traditional (automation) software difficult in many cases. This is because when robots are used, existing, law firm-specific work steps can be incorporated into the automation of routine activities without requiring extensive adjustments. In this way, robots enable both the automation of complex workflows and the automatic processing of individual work steps. They thus build bridges between processes or software systems that could previously only be linked by human labor (for example, “copy and paste”). This unique and high degree of flexibility allows for optimal adaptation to the general conditions and workflows of a law firm.
Robots support innovative and new business models
Now, many law firms and notary offices will surely ask themselves: is this kind of software suitable for us at all? It should be noted that large, internationally active commercial law firms in particular are pioneers when it comes to automation. Regardless of the size of a firm, however, there is great potential for automating manual routine tasks in the legal and notarial work environment, and in many places this potential has not even been tapped into. We will look at this potential below.
One of the major reasons for using robots to automate routine tasks arises from the currently emerging and likely, continuing shortage of skilled workers: the market for skilled workers in the legal and notarial profession in Germany is tight and many law firms are having problems filling their vacancies. This often means that new mandates cannot be accepted, which in turn inhibits growth, earnings opportunities and the ability of law firms to innovate. Robots can provide an effective remedy here. By taking over the time-consuming, “tedious” routine activities of secretaries and specialist lawyers, they make capacity available. This freed-up capacity makes it possible to accept new mandates or, in the case of staff shortages, at least to reliably process existing mandates. The robots take over the routine tasks, while humans do the thinking and decision-making.
Another simple reason for using robots is the cost-effectiveness of the technology. The automation of routine work steps by robots makes it possible to reduce process costs by up to 90%. This is particularly interesting for law firms whose client work has a transactional character and where the work is at least partially remunerated on a flat-rate basis. These constellations are particularly common in medium-sized and large commercial law firms, especially when handling mass proceedings. In this case, every minute saved optimizes the return per case and thus contributes to the financial success of the law firm. The costs saved in processing the mandates also make it possible to meet the sometimes high price sensitivity of clients, which ultimately strengthens the competitiveness of the law firms.
Use case: RPA facilitates the use of the beA (“besonderes elektronisches Anwaltsfach” or “special electronic lawyer mailbox”)
Since the beginning of 2022, the use of beA for correspondence with courts has been mandatory for law firms. At the end of 2022, the passive obligation to use a “law firm mailbox” (“Kanzleipostfach”) will be added. In practice, the following challenges arise when working with beA:
- The beA message is addressed to the wrong recipient and must be forwarded
A robot can easily deal with this challenge. By checking the file number, court or other features, the robot recognizes who the correct procedural addressee of the incoming mail is and forwards the incoming mail accordingly. At the same time, the original addressee receives an automatic notification that the message has been forwarded.
- The beA message contains an important change of date or location and does not reach the correct recipient in time
Even if a message is addressed to the correct recipient, it may be that it is highly time-critical (for example, last-minute appointment changes). A robot can retrieve and process messages at any time of the day and on any day of the week. In this way, robots ensure that the work steps or message chains resulting from time-critical incoming mail are immediately assigned and adhered to.
- Incoming mail must be processed and archived
Before the incoming correspondence can be transferred to the electronic file of the law firm, it usually still needs to be prepared. For this purpose, the (PDF) files must be renamed and, in many cases, merged or split. The work steps required for this process are very time-consuming and should therefore be automated as far as possible. The robot can reduce these work steps to a minimum: In a “validation station”, which can be accessed via a state-of-the-art and easy-to-use operator interface, the user can define the desired document structure with just a few clicks. The robot then takes care of the final renaming, splitting and moving of the documents. Finally, the robot automatically files the documents in the desired target systems (for example, iManage or HighQ) in a matter of seconds and informs them that their documents have been successfully created in the electronic file.
In short, by automatically processing beA correspondence, robots take over routine work that is time-consuming and nerve-wracking for humans, and significantly reduce both processing time and the risk of missed deadlines.
How to optimally prepare your law firm for RPA
With a systematic approach, the introduction of RPA in the law firm succeeds smoothly. The following approach has proven successful:
Step 1: Identify processes
Together with your colleagues and employees, create a list of regular tasks and estimate how much time they need per task and how much time they need in total for this task, for example, over the course of a month. Sort this list so that the tasks with the highest total effort are at the top. Then evaluate to what degree each task is rule-based (“whenever …, then always…”). The processing and distribution of correspondence or the repeated entry of similar data into software systems are particularly suitable.
Step 2: Prepare a pilot project
Appoint a project lead who knows their processes well and who, ideally, is tech-savvy. IT knowledge is helpful, but not a prerequisite. Also involve key decision-makers to ensure that the topic receives the necessary attention in the firm and that decisions can be made quickly. In parallel, look for a suitable implementation partner. In addition to your own IT specialists, it is advisable to involve an automation partner who has already successfully implemented automation projects for law firms or notary’s offices. The automation partner should also be able to support you in the selection and concretization of the pilot project.
Step 3: Implement the pilot project
Once the requirements have been defined, implementation can begin. Your automation partner will be able to present you with a functional robot prototype in a short time. Test the robot together with your team and improve it until it meets the defined requirements. This step is often completed after two to three weeks.
Step 4: Deploy the robot
Let your new “digital employees” work and confirm their work results in the first few weeks. In this way, you and your colleagues will gain confidence in the quality and reliability of the robot and can still eliminate any hidden errors or overlooked exceptions for special constellations.
Step 5: Learn from the project
Conduct a review workshop with all team members and stakeholders at the end of the pilot project to consolidate important lessons learned. In this way, you build up a valuable wealth of experience for the professional handling of your automation issues and can confidently tackle the next process.
Automation projects can start small and still deliver big benefits in a short time. In addition to reliability and speed, robots give humans what is most precious to us: time.