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The Hidden Benefit of Using Your Inbox for Legal Project Management.

The global experiment in working from home is in full swing.  No one particularly asked for this experiment, and certainly not on this scale, yet this experiment was thrust upon all of us regardless.  In short order, we are using technology that we have not used before ( here is a good list of technologies to get you up to speed with the rest of the pack if you are still considering your options) and we are all adjusting to new ways of workings.  There is one thing that this massive experiment has started to show across legal departments that has not been particularly acknowledged. In our rush to obtain new technology solutions, we have failed to appreciate how our old technology solutions has formed and enabled many of our behaviours as lawyers.

In particular, I am focused on the rapid transition that many in-house counsel have made toward the use of workflow management tools for their work.  For far too long, a lawyer’s email inbox was their primary project management tool.  Questions, requests, replies, markups, comments and more all came in over email and work was passed along to others right back again.  In general, this meant that requests were handled in LIFO (last-in, first-out) manner and there were at least three problems with this approach: (1) if the volume of emails was too high, things invariably got lost and then forgotten about, (2) if a request was sent out by a lawyer and was not replied to, the lawyer might forget to followup and chase for that information, leading to frantic scrambling to meet a deadline, and (3) inbox zero was an unattainable fantasy for lawyers leading to a perpetual state of stress and an unshakable feeling that they were forgetting something important.  Clever legal technology companies have rushed in to address this issue and there are now numerous legal workflow management solutions available on the market to better manage, visualize, and prioritize legal workflows.

But what about the poor old inbox? The problems with using it for project management were clear from the beginning (not the least of which is that it was never designed for workflow management in the first place).  But there is something about your inbox management which you may not have appreciated until you were thrust into a bold new world of legal workflow management technology tools, perhaps before you were really ready to take the leap.  And that is simply that your inbox offers you nearly infinite amount of flexibility to do whatever you want at any stage of a legal process you find yourself within.  When all of your documents are in your inbox, you can escalate anything, to anyone, at any time, or multiple times.  As lawyers, we are trained to know when to exercise our judgment, and when to seek out the judgment (or input, consent, ratification, etc.) of others.  What we are not trained to do is to map out a formalized process of when something needs to be escalated, when it needs to be shared, etc.  Rather, lawyers are trained from legal education through practice that our judgment dictates the process, and rather than following a process, we follow our informed discretion.  And that type of flexibility is exactly what in-box management enables in lawyers.  Every time we make a decision to reply, forward, include another person in cc, delete, or archive an email is a time when we are making a decision about process. Unfortunately, that is not how a business operates, nor is that approach scalable or efficient.

The question then becomes, how do you keep all of the benefits of inbox management (e.g. flexibility), while getting rid of the downsides (e.g. poor visibility and control)? The answer is twofold.  First, a basic understanding of the legal processes you are undertaking is crucial.  This also includes an understanding of which parts of the process are mandatory (e.g. executive review of certain agreements prior to signature) and when there may be a need for flexibility in the process (e.g. the ability to escalate certain questions both inside and outside the client organization).  Second, as a purchaser of legal technology, you need to critically evaluate what is on the market in light of your departments’ specific requirements to ensure you end up with a tool that has the flexibility required.  Thankfully, nearly all legal workflow technology tools on the market today do allow for at least some level of flexibility, even in a pre-defined and controlled process.  However, the level of flexibility, and the difficulty in incorporating that flexibility into a process, is highly variable.  Right-sizing the solution to the user needs is critical.  And unfortunately, it is impossible to create meaningful requirements around what a technology tool needs to do until you – as the purchaser and user of technology – really understands what your processes are that will be migrated to the new tool.

The sudden shift to working from home caused a massive rush to legal technology because of an abrupt realization that we did not have the tools we needed in order to do our jobs in this strange new working environment.  However, the quick rush to technology has also revealed the cracks in our understanding of processes and how we get things done.  This has caused many lawyers to be just as dissatisfied with their new tools as they were with their old tools.  Rather than rushing back to the old way of doing things, there is a better way.  Start with really understanding your needs from a process perspective, and then taking a more critical look at the legal technology marketplace to make sure the tool we have selected is the right one for the job.  The solution is out there, and KorumLegal can help you find it.

Bill Novomisle