Lawyers in firms of all sizes are under increasing pressure from all sides: from clients to boost efficiency while streamlining workflows, and from partners to find new ways to maximize billable hours. Firm IT leaders play an important role in their success on both fronts because automation is the key to doing more with less. Beyond improving efficiency, new advancements in Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, are helping lawyers do more billable work without hiring more people.

RPA: An Overview

Robotic Process Automation is a solution that uses technology to enable computer software (referred to as robots or bots) to perform routine tasks by interacting with your existing applications. The bots capture and interpret data, manipulate it, use it to perform a task, and convey the results to other digital systems.

RPA involves more than just automating processes. Essentially, RPA creates virtual workers to perform rule-based tasks. Currently, paralegals and attorneys are being paid to perform highly repetitive, time-consuming tasks that could easily be performed by bots, when those people could be better used to perform higher-value, billable work. Robots aren’t here to replace lawyers. Rather, RPA can make lawyers better and more efficient at their jobs by freeing them up to focus on the most valuable parts of the job.

Boosting Billables with RPA

RPA is your key to streamlining your workflows in order to do more billable work without adding more billers. Among the tasks typically performed as part of nearly every matter, many are routine, involving little high-level thought and are also quite time-consuming. A great deal of legal work is rule-based, which doesn’t mean the tasks aren’t necessary or even important. It just means that these tasks don’t need to be performed by staff who could otherwise be performing more valuable billable work for clients. By applying RPA to these routine tasks and freeing up attorneys to focus on billable tasks, firms can finally accomplish the ever-elusive goal of maximizing your billable hours.

The task of basic legal research, for example, is a prime candidate for RPA. While in certain instances legal research might require higher-level thought and analysis, a good portion of the research done on every case involves a paralegal or junior associate running regular keyword searches in research databases and compiling all the results in a handy file of PDFs for a more senior attorney to review. There’s no reason for billable workers to be performing that research. Bots can be programmed to run through the exact same steps and produce the same work product, only they can do the work overnight and have it ready for you in the morning. In the meantime, your paralegals and junior associates can focus on billable work that adds actual value to your case.

The same principle applies to any other case work that involves routine searches. Need to run public records searches on your opponent, witnesses, or even your own client? Program a bot to do it. Bots can also be used to compile the crucial data you need to make major strategy decisions in your case. Prior rulings by a judge, decisions in similar cases, or matters involving opposing counsel can all be researched and isolated by programming a bot with a defined set of rules. Once you have the information, you and your team can focus on the important billable work of devising the best case strategy.

RPA also has obvious uses in e-discovery. A large element of document review involves identifying files by keywords, and there’s no reason for valuable billable hours to be spent running those searches. The ability to use bots to isolate documents from massive databases has endless applications, including creating witness files and preparing for depositions. Outside of the litigation context, law firms are also using RPA to perform routine tasks such as generating contract templates and preparing other form documentation.

If you stop and think about the typical legal workflow, there are countless ways that automation can be used to boost billable hours. Every matter requires tasks that can be thought of as low-hanging fruit — the things that need to be done but don’t require high-level thought or analysis. All those tasks are possible candidates for RPA and currently represent unbilled billable hours.

Common Barriers to Entry

Despite the widespread potential use of RPA, many firms are failing to take advantage of it. This is primarily due to two of the largest barriers to entry for RPA at law firms: cost and not knowing what to automate.

Implementing RPA is an expensive proposition for law firms that attempt to do it on their own. Fortunately, they don’t have to. There are expert vendors in the marketplace who are now offering Automation-As-a-Service. By outsourcing to a vendor with expertise in RPA, law firms can obtain the desired automation without excessive upfront spending on software and licensing. With Automation-As-a-Service, law firms simply pay a monthly fee based on the number of bots used. That number can be adjusted up or down as needs change. The As-a-Service model offers a much easier entry to the world of RPA, as opposed to spending thousands or even millions of dollars to build the necessary infrastructure it would take to implement RPA without help.

The second common factor that keeps many law firms from pursuing RPA is the fact that they simply don’t know which processes to automate to best boost efficiency. Some firms opt to spend money to interview their staff in an attempt to map out a potential automation strategy, but these efforts ultimately don’t generate useful information. Instead, firms should be relying on an automation vendor that offers automated process discovery.

Automated process discovery is a sophisticated technological approach to determining what to automate. The vendor will install software that watches firm employees while they work and then creates a map showing what processes can be automated and what the corresponding savings will be. Automated process discovery is invaluable, because RPA is only useful if the right processes are being automated in a way that leads to increased efficiencies and real-world benefits.

The Takeaway

Continuing to use paralegals and associates to perform routine tasks is a waste of both time and money. Every minute spent by billers on tasks that could be automated is a minute of billable time lost.

The demands of today’s legal market are such that you can’t afford to be losing those minutes. Clients want to pay for high-value work, and they want it to be done as efficiently as possible. With RPA, the seemingly impossible task of maximizing billable hours is now becoming a reality.

Arup Das is CEO of Alphaserve Technologies. He is an expert in institutional level technology governance and operational risk management standards that are prevalent in hedge funds, private equity funds, venture capital funds and global law firms. Mr. Das regularly writes and speaks for legal and other audiences on topics related to digital transformation.

The above article was published in The American Lawyer’s June 2019 newsletter.