15 May 2017

We Found the Bots We Were Looking For

The potential impact of artificial intelligence, automation, and related technologies has been the subject of enormous discussion within the legal industry over the last few years. Meanwhile, the actual, systematic application of these technologies within law firms has been spotty at best.

Against this backdrop, we at Seyfarth were delighted to announce our relationship with Blue Prism, a software company that provides a digital workforce for rules-based business processes and is one of the leaders in the field of robotic process automation (“RPA”).

These aren’t the robots you’ve seen in movies.

The concept is simple: businesses need to move data through a variety of computer software systems, often between multiple systems. Blue Prism’s software robots interact with systems in the same way everyday users do. Think about any repeatable rules-based process that requires the use of a computer to complete a task, such as processing forms or invoices. Blue Prism’s software robots can complete these tasks, seamlessly scaling up or down as demand fluctuates.

The technology has been deployed in a variety of industries, but to our knowledge, this is the first application of RPA in a broad sense in our industry.

I have written before about the role of non-humans in the performance of tasks in a variety of industries. The application of this technology to our business may seem like a leap. For Seyfarth, though, it is a logical next step. For over ten years, we have reimagined the structure of legal services delivery to deliver higher value to clients. We started by applying core concepts of Lean Six Sigma to legal services to drive more efficiency into the industry.

That evolved into broader design thinking that, while continuing to focus on efficiency, began to look at the roles of people, the importance of process, and the potential of technology. By looking at those components holistically, and from the perspective of the client, we are better equipped to redesign and rethink the way legal services are delivered.

RPA is an additional tool that allows us to continue to find different ways to deliver value to our clients.

RPA and the two spheres of law firm operations

Every operation of a law firm has some implication for client service. Within that construct, however, there are two overlapping spheres of operations. One sphere is the core operations of the firm as a business. The nature of a law firm may make it appear as if the core operations differ from other businesses. They do not. They include financial systems, client intake, IT process, and human resources, among others. Other industries have shown the ability to automate parts of those operations. Law firms should too.

The second sphere is direct client service delivery and collaboration. This means both the tools that allow the lawyers to perform services more effectively as well as the tools that enhance communication and data flow between the firm and the client. In our judgment, this sphere is also amenable to the use of automation technologies.

So what does it mean to say that we are deploying RPA on a systematic basis? Simply, as part of our technology toolset, we have chosen to use RPA technologies proven in other industries, such as health care, financial services, and insurance. Working with Blue Prism and their business partner RPAi, we have created a robotic center of excellence within SeyfarthLean Consulting, our technology R&D business, that is already applying robotic automation to several business processes within the firm. Our goal is to methodically move through the firm and automate all applicable processes in both spheres: core operations and client service delivery.

For us, this is not just about software robots — although they are pretty cool. We have always had the belief that technology, standing alone, adds only marginal value. Rather, it is technology coupled with a deep understanding of the underlying process and the human side of the equation that creates meaningful value. Our foray into the world of process automation has simply deepened that conviction.

Bots let humans do what humans do best

It seems obvious, of course, but if the goal is to automate a process, we must first understand the process. This means not just understanding it as it currently operates, but being willing to redesign it as a first step. Is that process designed as efficiently as possible? Putting technology aside, what is the optimal process design?

The goal is to use technology to add efficiency that cannot otherwise be achieved by people, not simply to make an inefficient process slightly better.

The human side is equally important. Understanding the role of people in delivering the service and the impact on their roles is a critical part of the change process. The goal of RPA is not to replace people. The goal is to automate tasks within a process that people should not be performing. This, in turn, will free up the people to perform higher-level tasks. This is not always self-evident, however. Finding ways to help people understand their role in an process that utilizes automation techniques is essential.

These foundational steps — too often ignored — create the basis for effective implementation of automation technology. We found that, when done properly, RPA holds enormous potential. For example, in our first deployment, a task that took 34 minutes from a paralegal was reduced to under 5. This, in turn, freed the paralegal to perform higher value work. In an industry under pressure from rising costs on one side and pricing pressures on the other, using technology to enhance client service and control costs is critical.

Two final notes: First, this has not been a technical piece about different types of automation. If you want more information, check out the Blue Prism website or this report from McKinsey. As we continually rethink the design of our business, we recognize that our clients need us to continue to become more agile, more innovative and more cost-effective. Technology is a part of the toolset available to allow a firm to accomplish that result.

Lastly, for us, RPA is a part of our technological toolbox but it is neither the only tool nor the final tool. The willingness to look at legal service design from the client perspective and the willingness to continually challenge ourselves to find better, faster ways of delivering services will continue to lead us to experiment with and implement various technology solutions as part of our overall business plan.