Better Mobile Tech Can Help Lawyers Earn More and Do Less

Of all the process improvements that need to be made, our mobile lawyering processes should be at the front of that line. It takes 1.8 hours of work for lawyers to create 1 billable hour. This ratio, simply put, is bad. In corporate consulting entities, that ratio is better: 1.3 hours of work for consultants to create 1 billable hour of work. The goal, of course, is perfect parity: 1 hour of work to create 1 billable hour, 1:1.

Why is the current ratio bad? Profitability. Recent research from the 2018 Thomson Reuters Dynamic Law Firms Study shows what separates the most profitable firms from their less profitable peers is not their rates, but the number of billable hours they charge for. Firms that are closer to approaching the utopian 1:1 parity are consistently the strongest financial performers. This ratio also illustrates that law firms are behind other industries in terms of process improvement. Two things are key factors: the first is technology. The second is technology adoption because, as we know, these are separate issues.

Of all the process improvements that need to be made, our mobile lawyering processes should be at the front of that line. Here’s more as to why and what to do about it.

Mobility Did Not Solve the Productivity Problem

Spoiler alert: The increased access to email and documents introduced by smartphones and tablets and the subsequent result of mobility did not make attorneys more productive.

By the end of 2017, according to the American Bar Association Legal Technology Survey Report, 94 percent of attorneys said they “regularly or occasionally use a mobile device for law-related tasks at home.” Perhaps even more significantly, in the office smartphones outranked all other computing devices as the most-used, with 70 percent of attorneys reporting that they use smartphones at work. This means, even when attorneys are at their desktops, they are still choosing to work on their phones.

Mobility is evidently viable, and it provides the flexibility to work across a wider range of times and places. It’s what attorneys desire. It gave rise to BYOD—bring your own device—or “IT consumerization,” wherein firms tried to enable mobile working, but hated it simultaneously because of security concerns.

The security issue has now been resolved by cloud computing. Firms now understand that it’s okay to let their cloud provider take the strain and given that Microsoft, for instance, is spending $1 billion a year on securing Azure, they’re right to do so.

Notwithstanding all this mobility and its incumbent cloud computing, attorney productivity has gone in reverse in the past decade, not forward. We know this because the average lawyer is billing 156 fewer hours than 11 years ago or approximately 1.6 hours per day. We aren’t closing the work to bill productivity gap. If we want to close the gap between hours worked and hours billed and improve profitability, improving our approach to mobile technology use is going to be pivotal.

Given this massive increase in mobile device usage, legal tech developers recognized that attorneys needed a mobile capability and set about creating applications for the full gamut of legal service processes.

Fortunately or unfortunately, at the same time a couple of other market shifts occurred: Information governance needs increased dramatically—ranking now number three out of the top five concerns keeping chief legal officers awake at night, according to the 2018 ACC CLO Survey—and email management (think: reading and responding) emerged as the number one activity for all employees across all industries, consuming 28 percent of the average worker’s workday, according to The McKinsey Global Institute. Just think for a moment how much this number might increase for the content-driven communications of legal professionals.

Firms have stepped up to the client demand for better information governance by pushing hard for DMS adoption in their firms. But all industry reports evidence DMS adoption as an industry-wide challenge, and even in the best cases, only about 40 percent of all emails are being properly filed. This number only gets smaller when we are talking about filing emails from a mobile device.

We simply have to do better because the next generation of talent is already here and only knows consumer grade mobile tech. Deloitte predicted a profound transformation to the profession based on this shifting demographic and that there would be a tipping point in 2020 (two years from now) in the competitive landscape, predicting that those firms who prepared now for a very different talent landscape would be the ultimate beneficiaries, or be left behind.

Three Steps to Better Mobile Tech

1. Consumer Grade: As mentioned, there’s a new generation of lawyer and business professionals, and consumer-grade technology is what they expect. Like the war of BYOD, the war of the cloud, and all the wars of tradition versus innovation that precede this one, we will soon see the full consumerization of legal tech that is designed from the ground up just for mobile devices and built using the lessons that consumer apps have taught us. We can try to coin the phrase now that it will be one-touch lawyering and it won’t come with a training deck.

2. Embrace Artificial Intelligence: We are officially on the other side of the fear vs. hype circle regarding artificial intelligence and valuable applications of it are already providing real value to firms in the areas of legal research, e-discovery, DD and contract review. Each instance literally makes the attorney’s work more profitable by reducing lower level work and increasing the output of higher value work. This same logic can be applied to mobile lawyering: that it can be used to reduce the administrative drag associated with information governance requirements and time capture and allow the lawyer to focus on the higher value outputs of lawyering.

3. Attack Email Inefficiency: Email is clearly one of the biggest process improvements that all businesses need to make and this does not end at law firms and it does not end at the desktop. Lawyers in particular have additional drags on this overwhelming business activity and can be the source of explanation as to why, rather than mobile lawyering making us more productive, we have actually become less productive.

Mobile lawyering should be making lawyers more productive and helping them earn more—but a concomitance of market forces are actually making lawyers do more but earn less. It’s a nasty trend that deserves the aid of technological reversal. We can’t keep putting more and more of the onus on lawyers—IG requirements, profitability requirements, dashboards, business development, pipeline management—without helping them actually capture more of their billable time—which, as it turns out, is the secret sauce for the most profitable law firms overall. Now, that’s a win-win.

This article was originally published in Legal Tech News.


  • Bernie Toledano

    As ZERØ’s Head of Marketing, Bernie is responsible for overall marketing strategy, brand management, and lead generation initiatives. Prior to joining ZERØ, Bernie was the AVP of Marketing and Communications at a global real asset investment firm, where she led and operationalized the marketing strategy across several subsidiaries and built the company’s marketing technology infrastructure from the ground up.