Lawyer as tech consumer: introducing user stories

The role of the lawyer is changing in response to digital technology. I think the case for this has been well made out. But at the same time, lawyers are themselves increasingly becoming consumers of new technologies and ways of working. There are an increasingly large range of technical solutions, particularly SaaS solutions, targeted specifically at lawyers. For a great overview of the landscape, Gene Turner has published a fantastic e-book that is freely available on his site (registration required but well worth it).

But in-house lawyers are often treated as the poor cousins of private practice lawyers when it comes to legal software and technology solutions. Personally, I think this is entirely due to the software market not really understanding what it is that in-house lawyers do, because there are lots of tools and technologies that are perfectly suited to in-house legal teams with only a little bit of thought and effort required.

That said, there are some significant differences between in-house and private practice lawyers when it comes to technologies. There might be some obvious differences. For example, the difference between sending bills and receiving bills. However, I think the single biggest factor to consider is the fact that private practice lawyers essentially make up the whole of their business. In-house lawyers have to adopt tools and technologies that are compatible with their wider corporate IT environment.

This is most clearly demonstrated when it comes to document management, and matter management. While I think everyone knows what I mean by document management, as a brief aside, I just want to explain what I mean by matter management because it does mean different things to different people. A good matter management system should enable you as a lawyer to manage your day-to-day work – what you are currently working on, what you currently have briefed out, your upcoming deadlines, and maybe time recording. It should also enable the managing or general counsel among you to get an overall snapshot of the legal position of your organisations. Who has too much and who has too little on? What legal risks are out there? How are we tracking on external legal spend? What is the status of this project that the CEO might ask me about? I'll talk about this more in a future blog post.

Given the importance of documents (and other information) to lawyers, most legal practice management solutions include a document management component. That is, to get the full benefit of the legal practice management system, you have to have your documents saved into it. This is probably a non-starter for most in-house legal teams where there will be a corporate policy of using the corporate document management system.

So is this a barrier to greater use of technology by in-house legal teams? If products don’t exist, you obviously can’t buy them. But I actually see it as an opportunity. Leveraging a wider corporate ICT environment often means that there are existing solutions available at no or lower cost to you, you just have to know what to ask for. In my experience, there are often existing systems used elsewhere in an organisation that the legal team may also gain benefits from. There may even be additional functionality in your existing tools and technologies that just need to be enabled or set up for you to use.

If you're an in-house ICT lawyer, your ICT department will likely be your client for many projects. But you can also be a “customer” of your ICT department when it comes to the supply of legal tools and technologies. Leveraging this wider corporate ICT environment can be a huge opportunity for in-house legal departments. But as I've already said, I’m constantly surprised at how mysterious people find legal practice. How do you communicate your business needs to your ICT guys?

While private practice lawyers may not have wider corporate ICT environments to leverage, you do have the advantage of nimbleness. If you (and your responsible partner) want something done, it can often happen in pretty short order. But again, even the most responsive private practice ICT support probably doesn't understand all the nuances of your practice to proactive recommend new systems or software to help resolve a particular business need.

Bridging the gap - the user story

Consider your own legal practice. There is every chance that you know the parts that are unnecessarily repetitive (for example, manually updating six different documents with the same bits of information), arise constantly (e.g. data licensing queries), could be done better (e.g. delegations), or are just plain annoying (e.g. having to click a dozen times to find a given document in your document management system). You know the areas that need improvement without having to hire a practice management consultant. But you will need to involve the ICT department to deploy the solutions to fix these issues.

What's the best way of communicating your needs to your ICT guys? One of most useful tools I’ve ever come across is the user story. User stories are a part of agile software development methodology. Rather than detailed technical specifications, user stories guide the design or choice of a technology solution by describing how the end user wants to do his or her job, facilitated by the technology solution.

In a traditional software development situation, there may be a detailed description or a list of detailed technical requirements for the software:

The project calls for a relational database management system to be integrated with the corporate document management solution. The specifications for the RDMS include: both read-only and read-write access privileges; capable of presenting results in a browser-based form and database table; fields capturing the following metadata...

In contrast, a user story does just that: tell a story about the user and what they do, or in some cases, what they’d like to do:

Matt fills out a browser form with some key details. The system captures these details and records them in a table that members of the legal team can consult later. The original form is also automatically saved in the document management system.

Both these statements relate to the same sort of system (a delegations database - something else I hope to return to in the future). But which one makes most sense to you. User stories can be used as a great way to bridge the gap between non-technical professionals (like lawyers) that know how they would like to run their practice most efficiently but may not be so aware of the technologies and systems available, and the technology experts that know all about the available options but don’t know which would be best to deal with the complexities of legal practice.

The aim of this type of user story is for non-technical people to set out what they do, and how they want to do it. In the idealised future world of the user story, all the technologies and procedures work exactly as the user in the story wants them to.

You might already have some possible solutions in mind from your own experiences or talking to other lawyers – this might be a great starting point! But this doesn’t have to be the case. With a solid idea about what you’re trying to achieve based on your user stories, business analysts, internal information technology teams, or external consultants should be able to provide you with a range of solutions and specialist advice.

User stories also don’t have to result in some fancy software or new computers. User stories can be used as a basis for re-engineering existing legal processes or workflows to focus on the outcomes that add most value to your business. Just automating an existing inefficient process may not make that much of a difference to your day-to-day legal practice . On the other hand, taking an end-to-end look at those same processes and deciding on the outcomes that really matter can be genuinely transformative (as to this point, see Michael Hammer “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate”). Figuring out the most effective way to deal with a particular issue could be as simple as a new flow chart. So while technology may provide a significant boost to your practice, but it may not be the only element.

Also remember that uplifting your legal practice is not just about working faster, or doing more with less. Working smarter, whether through digital technologies or just refined processes, can improve the quality of legal services provided, more effectively mitigate legal risk, and perhaps make the practice of law more enjoyable.

So I'd encourage all lawyers to take advantage of this incredibly powerful tool. Sit down and write a few examples about what you do day-to-day. More importantly, tell a story about how you want to work. Share your stories with others in your legal team and with your ICT department - I’ve yet to meet an ICT guy or business analyst whose jaw doesn’t drop when you tell them you’ve got some user stories to share. They then can’t wait to be helpful.

Next time: some example user stories.

Further reading