Are You Automating the Wrong Thing?

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Trying to get lawyers to automate or outsource work is so painful that it makes me ache.

I pitch the idea of automating workflows and I get blank stares. I push the creation of document automations and I’m told how most of what’s produced is customized, so automation is a waste of time. I advocate shifting the paralegal projects and tasks to the Philippines or India and I get eyerolls and excuses.

The standard refrain is It can’t be done.

The resistance I get from lawyers when I push these approaches is forceful, disappointing, and disturbing.

I get a flat-out no much more often than even a vague I’ll think about that.

I’ve been there and done that

It’s puzzling to me when these ideas are rejected out of hand. I’m not talking about dreams or theories. I’m talking about reality. This stuff works.

I’ve done it all myself. I know it works. I’ve automated most of my practice. I’ve systematized the manual processes. I’ve outsourced huge amounts of work to developing countries when we couldn’t find technology to handle the work automatically.

Oddly, the same lawyers who are stressed about having too much work and generating too little revenue resist the automation and outsourcing of much of the work that’s causing their stress. The lawyers who complain of being overwhelmed will explain away the idea of having their responsibilities handled by technology. They resist and hold on tightly to the work they’re complaining about. They aren’t open to hearing ideas about how to improve the situation.

And then it gets even weirder.

We hold on to some tasks and get excited to “dump” others

Those same lawyers, resistant to the idea of dumping “legal work,” suddenly jump on the automation of what they think of as “non-legal work.”

How can they be so resistant to giving up the “legal work” while so easily embracing the idea of letting go of the “non-legal work”? Many lawyers get really excited when they realize that outsourcing this “non-legal work” is possible.

Automation is automation. Outsourcing is outsourcing. Whether it’s legal work, or other work, doesn’t change the underlying idea. But many lawyers react very differently when it’s the non-legal work we’re discussing.

When I mention outsourcing and automating intake, website chat, collections, or seeking client reviews–suddenly, I’m a genius. They love my ideas.

Lawyers rush to automate–

  • Intake: The process of using online forms, AI tools, and calendaring gadgets to gather prospective client information, automate email interaction, and schedule appointments is a hot area for outsourcing and automation.
  • Web chat: It takes about ten seconds to sell a lawyer on the idea of using an outsourced vendor to handle website chat with prospective clients.
  • Collections and payments: If we don’t get paid, we starve–it’s that critical. And yet, some of the first things on our list to automate are new payments and the dunning of past-due clients.
  • Client Reviews: These are the clients who like us most of all, and we can’t wait to give them a faceless widget to fill out instead of speaking to them ourselves.
  • Marketing: Getting a lawyer to outsource marketing is as easy as getting a lawyer to outsource the preparation of their tax return. Most don’t want to do this work, and welcome anyone else to do it for them. We desperately want to be able to spend lots of money on marketing, while simultaneously wanting to give as little input on the message as possible.

The same lawyers who can’t be bothered to implement document assembly systems, document management or practice management technology will happily automate or outsource the processes mentioned above.

If these lawyers got this excited about handing off the legal work, I’m confident that their practices would grow much faster and that their profits would be even greater.

What should you keep? What should you let go?

It’s worth examining the work you’re willing to let go of and the work you insist on keeping. There’s something going on with our thinking.

Sometimes we hold onto work because it fulfills our identity–it makes us feel like lawyers. Sometimes we hold onto work because it’s comfortable–getting it done makes us feel accomplished. Sometimes we hold onto work because we need to believe that what we do matters–it makes us feel significant.

And, sometimes we let work go to others–to vendors, or to software, or we even let it go undone–when it scares us, makes us feel vulnerable, raises the risk of rejection, or takes us out of our comfort zone.

We often make our decisions about holding on to or letting go of work based less on what’s good for our businesses and more on our emotional responses to the work. That’s not always smart, efficient, or profitable.

It makes sense to do the work which only you can do well. It makes sense to hang on to the work which legitimately requires your attention. But if the work can be effectively outsourced or automated, then let it go. Look beyond your emotional reaction to the task at hand–look at the impact the task has on the performance of the business.

You add great value outside of your comfort zone

I know one lawyer who can persuade a judge to do something completely nonsensical. But that same lawyer is hesitant to follow up after an initial consultation. He lets an automated email sequence handle it for him, when he’d be 1,000% more effective.

I know a lawyer who explains complicated ideas so well that she influences boards and commissions to change the way they implement regulations, like it’s child’s play. But she’s hesitant to ask for testimonials from her clients. I can only imagine how many inspiring testimonials she’d have if she’d ask her clients to produce them.

I know a lawyer who connects with her clients like magic. She guides them through tricky emotional issues and helps them find resolution. But she won’t put her special people skills to work when it comes time to collect her fee. She hands it off to someone else, because she has decided it’s unpleasant to discuss the money folks owe her.

Can you imagine if these skillful lawyers applied their special skills to persuading clients to hire the firm, obtaining testimonials and online reviews, and collecting fees? The results would be amazing.

The legal work may be the least valuable work

In fact, sometimes the results are so amazing, the value added so great, that the net result of investing time in these activities is greater than the value added by spending the same amount of time on the legal work.

Sometimes it makes more economic sense to outsource the legal work and retain the work that takes us outside of our comfort zone. Oftentimes there’s more value in the work that pushes us out of our comfort zone–where there’s the potential for failure, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, and loss–than there is in doing the legal work itself.

Sometimes the work that is best automated or outsourced is the work that lives squarely in our comfort zone. It’s the work we hold on to most tightly. That’s the work which should be left to the software, or outsourced. Figuring out whether to keep that work for ourselves requires a careful look at the work, and more importantly, a careful look at ourselves.

Are you holding on too tightly to some of the work? Should you hold on to something different? Are you ready to let something go?

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