Technology Innovation in a Time of Remote Working – From Coping to Thriving
The challenges presented by the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have been unique, unprecedented, and wide-ranging, upheaving our personal and professional lives with a “new normal” that has changed the very fabric of society. Stay Home Notice (SHN), self-isolation, social distancing, and work from home (WFH) are now commonplace terms, while being virtually unknown even four months ago.
Social distancing has brought about a requirement for businesses to digitize, overnight. This has created an explosive demand for cloud-based practice management, document management, case management and video conference systems.
While the end of the pandemic remains an unknown factor, it has become evident that there will be lasting repercussions for the legal industry. Courts, law firms, corporate legal departments, and legal technology providers will be adapting to a transformed legal ecosystem with distributed staff, virtual offices, and a demand for integrated digital solutions.
Our Big WFH Experiment
As of this time, there have been 3.8 million confirmed cases1https://www.statista.com/page/covid-19-coronavirus of C0VID-19 worldwide. More than a third of the world’s population has been placed on lockdown,2https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3 implemented by public health officials to arrest the rapid spread of the coronavirus across the globe.
The Singapore lockdown, aka Circuit Breaker (CB), has been extended to 1 June 2020 and restricts non-essential businesses from operating from their business premises. Law firms who undertook certain services were deemed to be essential3 https://covid.gobusiness.gov.sg/essentialservices/legalservices/ and permitted to remain open, with minimal staff, during the CB.
Circuit Breaker Compliance Challenges
Many Singapore law firms have struggled to comply with CB regulations, including:
- Inadequate Remote Work Infrastructures – Inadequacy ranged from home computing equipment – PCs/Printers/Scanners to internet access to cyber-security. Late minute scrambling was required to engage infrastructure providers, implement virtual private networks (VPNs) and other remote connectivity tools.
- Paper-based Work Processes – Process intensive, deadline driven conveyancing practices have experienced the greatest challenge, as many of them still use traditional hard copy paper files. Digitizing these files required frantic activity of all-night scanning shifts and rotational attendance at the office, with daily submission of WFH staff names to the Ministry of Trade and Industry to meet CB requirements.
- Tech Competence – Partners at law firms were forced to become more tech-savvy overnight, having to acquire new tech skills to remain connected and productive.
- Inefficiency and Team Collaboration Challenges – Approvals, notifications, collaboration on documents and transactions, task allocation and completions, work monitoring and supervision, miscommunications, the loss of human interaction and bonding.
Embracing the Virtual Workplace
On the other hand, some Singapore law firms were very well prepared for the lockdown, with the IT infrastructure, institutional knowledge, and workplace culture in place to support remote WFH operations with minimal disruption. These firms were already moving towards a paper-less culture and had systems in place to enable flexible working arrangements for their lawyers.
For these firms, many of the COVID-19 WFH practices have now become part of law firm operating DNA and are likely to be retained after the requirements for social distancing are over.
Tech Acceleration and Innovation
As law firms settle into their new WFH rhythm, we at Bizibody and Litigation Edge are now getting more enquiries from senior lawyers than ever before. Leadership at law firms has become curious as to:
- What technology does the firm have in place?
- What other technology is available?
- What services can be digitized or automated?
- Is cloud computing the way to go?
- What cyber security safeguards do they need to implement?
Post COVID-19 Technology Innovation Tips
What Can/Should I Automate?
When considering what tech to adopt, law firms should start with the client’s perspective and journey. Be guided by your professional mission; your client engages you to provide quality and efficient legal services at affordable rates.
Most law firms in Singapore have only implemented practice management software. While a positive change to legal operations, this platform does very little to improve service delivery or provide a benefit to clients.
Law firms should automate tasks that clients do not value, such as document productions that clients believe are little more than copy and pasting from a template. Automation frees up lawyers’ time to provide services that clients value – negotiations, analysis, strategizing, communication and collaboration.
What Software Tools Would We Recommend to Law Firms?
If we had to call out just one technology platform it would be Microsoft 3654https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365 (formerly Office 365), an amazing suite of cloud-based tools that provides benefits to firms, businesses, and budgets of all sizes.
Many firms are already on some version of Microsoft 365:
- For USD$5 per month per user, the Microsoft 365 Business Basic package provides access to Exchange, Sharepoint, One Drive and Teams. These are best-of-breed world class WFH remote access tools, including enterprise grade document storage, e-mail storage, chat and video conference.
- For USD$12.50 per month, the Microsoft 365 Business Standard package provides access to all of the above and the MS Office Desktop Apps (Word, Outlook, Powerpoint etc).
Beyond offering well-known software as Word and Outlook, Microsoft 365 offers Teams for collaboration, Planner and To-Do for case management, SharePoint and OneNote for document management and note taking, Artificial intelligence and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) with no-code workflow for automation. The recently released Microsoft Office App for the mobile, simply called “Office”,5https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/02/19/new-office-app-android-ios-available/ provides features such as converting images into editable Word, Excel, PDF scanning, signing PDFs, has made it the go-to app for getting work done on a mobile device.
On top of these great tools, there are case and practice management systems (PageLightPrime)6https://bizibody.biz/legal-technology/pagelightprime/ and document management systems (Macroview)7https://bizibody.biz/legal-technology/macroview-document-management-system/ that utilize Microsoft 365 as a foundation, so that your law firm’s digital data and documents are hosted on the Microsoft cloud, alongside your e-mail.
In addition, Microsoft is offering six months complimentary8https://tinyurl.com/yc4puzfo with an annual commitment, and there are 80 per cent Singapore Productivity Solutions Grants (PSG) grants available for Office 365 from certain PSG approved vendors.9https://axiom-hub.com/psg-approved-pkg/ and https://d-connect.net/covid-19-support-packages/
Which Technologies Can Help Law Firms to WFH Better and Provide More Affordable and Accessible Legal Services?
It is trite to say that technology can make virtually every area of practice more affordable and accessible. The COVID-19 crisis has provided us with the canvas and the impetus to address existing legal affordability and accessibility issues in the context of rethinking and re-configuring how we work, and how we deliver legal services. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
Below is a list of technologies that facilitate WFH for lawyers and consumer access to justice:
|Technology||Impact on Delivery of Legal Services||Ease of Implementation|
|1||Virtual Web Conference / Meetings||
||Easy. This has become ubiquitous and indispensable during the Circuit Breaker
Software for virtual meetings:
|2||Cloud-based Case / Practice Management||
||Feature rich, best implemented in 2 stages – financial practice management and non-financial case management
Requires some advanced planning, and rethinking about workflows, and change management in relation to paper-lessing, supervision and task allocation.
Software for remote collaboration:
|3||Digital Signatures (by law firm)||Increases efficiency and enhanced productivity
Ability to affix an image of the lawyer’s electronic signature on a law firm letter eliminates multiple steps of having to:
|Easy. This is the common practice in paper-less offices
Software for digital signatures:
(by external parties)
|Eliminates time spent collecting and chasing up on signatures.
Saves clients the time, costs, and inconvenience of commuting to lawyer’s office at a pre-scheduled time.
|Easy. Software in this space is mature.
The Singapore Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) will soon be modified to expand the universe of documents that can be legitimately signed electronically, including wills, power of attorney and real property transfer documents
Software for electronic signatures:
|5||Remote Hearing Technology||Remote hearings show great potential in positively impacting the accessibility and affordability of access to justice on a long-term basis,12https://remotecourts.org/ and on a global basis.
Singapore courts have adjourned all non-essential matters during the Circuit Breaker period, and have permitted remote court hearings on a selective basis.
Given the very positive responses by the legal community on remote hearings and that social distancing restrictions will continue post Circuit Breaker, it is likely that court and arbitration hearings will continue to take place remotely post Circuit Breaker.13https://www.mom.gov.sg/covid-19/requirements-for-safe-management-measures
|Technology includes Video Conference platform, ebundle/document presentation platform (that enables the document to be called out by page number) and remote transcription service.
All are readily available and moderately easy to implement. VC software is provided by Court, eBundle presentation software and transcription software provided by legal service providers.
Cloud Software for Remote Hearings:
|6||Bespoke Automation of Legal Services||In-house legal departments and alternative legal providers have begun to use client-facing technology for self-help legal services.
Early examples of this are self-help generation of wills, NDAs, and commercial agreements as well as self-help regulatory compliance
A great way to productize legal services and generate new revenue streams.
|Moderately easy to implement with drag and drop no-code software.
Software for No Code Legal Automation
What Do We Need to Know About Cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity should be at the forefront of any discussion surrounding technology infrastructure, with remote work and virtual offices providing unique challenges. Cybercriminals will not stop their efforts to access valuable data during the outbreak and there will most likely be an increase in cyber attacks.
In a post21https://newmedialaw.proskauer.com/2020/03/11/protecting-against-cybersecurity-threats-when-working-from-home/ on their New Media and Technology Law Blog, Proskauer Rose LLP has outlined key data security concerns that should be addressed:
- Personal Devices – Staff working from home may take download or save sensitive files to their personal devices.
- COVID-19 Phishing Attempts – Phishing emails disguised as coronavirus updates or as updated company policies may deceive their staff.
- Off-Network Communications – Communicating on platforms outside of firm-wide security systems, such as coffee shop Wi-Fi, poses a far greater security risk.
- Incident Response – Staff should be reminded that they should contact the firm’s data breach response team if they become aware of a possible data security breach.
In addition, the Law Society of Singapore’s Cybersecurity and Data Protection Committee released the Guide to Cybersecurity for Law Practices22https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Guide-to-Cybersecurity.pdf on 30 March 2020. It provides recommended cybersecurity practices for law practices to consider.
It should be noted that many firms do not have in-house staff who specialise in cybersecurity. Fortunately, there are consultants who specialise in cybersecurity services and provide a valuable resource to law firms and corporations.
The WFH Consortium23https://bizibody.biz/consulting/work-from-home-services/ provides such cybersecurity experts as a service to law firms. These specialists provide critical analysis and advice that mitigates the risk of a data breach.
Is Cloud Computing Safe?
Simply put, cloud computing is often more secure than an internal data center.
As an example, industry-leading provider Amazon Web Services (AWS) notes that they have the “only commercial cloud that has had its service offerings and associated supply chain vetted and accepted as secure enough for top-secret workloads.”24https://aws.amazon.com/security/
Additional information about cloud computing is available in the Law Society’s Guidance Note on Cloud Computing25The Law Society of Singapore’s Guidance Note 3.4.1 on Cloud Computing dated 10 March 2017 and the Law Society of Singapore’s Guide to Cybersecurity for Law Practices, with section 14 providing an in-depth analysis on the topic.
The COVID-19 crisis has been a technology eye opener and accelerator for many in the legal profession. Digital transformation has been propelled forward by three to five years — in mere weeks. Tech saved the day for law firms, as it did for many other white-collared professions. Most importantly, technology enabled law firms of all sizes to WFH, albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The WFH experiment has shown lawyers that expensive office space and in-person meetings are not as essential as they had previously thought, with modern technology making collaboration possible without physical proximity.
In a recent COVID-19 survey conducted by Singapore Academy of Law (SAL), 83 per cent of lawyers have reported a slowdown in new work and a decrease in revenue. Moving forward, the majority of law firms fear that the worst is yet to come as the 75 per cent salary support for April and May drops to 25 per cent after May 2020.
Even before this inflection point, many firms were facing an increasingly competitive legal service landscape, resulting in constant pressure to lower rates and provide speedier turnaround times. Post COVID-19, your clients will be suffering and may be expecting fee cuts.
This is the perfect time to harness existing technology investments such as Microsoft 365 and capitalize on the available 80 per cent government grants26Grant Resources available at https://www.mom.gov.sg/-/media/mom/documents/covid-19/annex-b-resources-to-assist-companies.pdf or email [email protected] to find out more for more specialised legal technology to build new capabilities for your firm. There is a great business case to take full advantage of this opportunity to reinvent and innovate.
Challenging times often bring business disruptions and new problems that need to be solved, leading the way to new market opportunities. This certainly holds true for the current COVID-19 pandemic.