In our latest 60 second interview, TLT’s client services transformation partner Siân Ashton talks to The Lawyer about the need to challenge the assumption that technology is always the answer and how analysing processes can deliver the greatest improvements in efficiency.

The pandemic has massively accelerated the pace of digital transformation. Is technology still a challenge after two years of adoption?

I think there’s the assumption that, as time goes on, people are automatically becoming more tech savvy and pro tech. But actually, lawyers are used to and like working in a certain way.  We therefore still need to challenge a status quo that has existed for a long, long time.  But that’s not to say that progress isn’t being made.

From a digital perspective, there were positives to the pandemic. It has forced lawyers to think differently about how they work – perhaps for the first time in their careers.  It is challenging, though, as they’re busier than ever and while they can see the benefits in theory, it’s hard to find time for them to experiment with new tech.  This is an important piece in the puzzle of digital transformation: we still need the lawyers to engage, test and try the technology as the tech is there to assist the lawyers and they need to buy in for it to succeed.

There’s a lot of worry about lawyers being replaced by the machine, but we’re so far off that. What tech can do is facilitate the delivery of legal services and take those admin-heavy, process-driven tasks off lawyers’ desks, so they can focus on offering nuanced, specialist expert advice.

Siân Ashton

What are the biggest obstacles that are stopping your lawyers improving efficiency?

There’s this misguided assumption that technology is always the answer to our problems. It’s easy to think that, because it drives efficiency in lots of instances, you must put it in place and that your biggest hurdle is getting people to adopt new technologies. Actually, I think that notion should be dispelled.

Technology should be the last thing you look at. Lots of lawyers, both in house and in private practice don’t spend time looking at how they work: how they deliver their services and the processes that inform the way they work. In some cases, these processes may never have been looked at! You’ve got to map the pinch points and areas of consistent inefficiency, like the wrong people doing certain tasks or a lack of templates or playbooks to support the work.

Some of the improvements can be facilitated by technology, but it’s not a panacea. Take a step back and analyse what needs to be adjusted first. You can’t just throw a bit of software at something and make it better.

Lawyers deal with incredible amounts of data every day. How can you use that valuable information to improve efficiency?

Data is one of my favourite topics because it’s something we, as lawyers, don’t often think about. We’re sitting on so much data, but we’re not great at capturing what we do, why we do it and who we do it for. We generally get an instruction and then simply crack on and do it. Instead, we need to focus on recording key information in a digestible way at the start and as a matter progresses so we can use it to drive efficiencies.

You’ve got to build a process that enables you to capture data, like a legal front door or a simple form that can be filled out to record an instruction. Once you’ve got this information, you can start to identify the commonalities and trends that keep emerging.

Capturing data can also show us which queries are coming up again and again within the team. From there, we can work out if we need to hold additional training sessions or create FAQs to make the way we work much more efficient. For example, if you’re always being asked ‘what’s the impact of the Data Protection Act on this matter?’, you can create a resource, guide people to it and save everyone time and effort.

How can legal departments use technology to help grow and transform the businesses they operate in?

Carefully implemented tech can allow legal departments to do what they should be doing, which is advising the business on strategic matters. In-house teams aren’t there to block progress and frustrate the business teams, but often, they’re dealing with so much work that it takes up all of their time to get through the business-as-usual and they do not get to the strategic.

When you’ve got very experienced lawyers, they should be able to focus on the strategic and transformational parts of their roles. Technology can improve processes and free up their time so that they can offer strategic advice to the C-suite and help drive transformation within the business. Taking away the noise of those business-as-usual tasks allows legal departments to be more proactive and less reactive, and really think about ‘what’s next?’ for their business.

Why did you choose to work in the legal sector?

I could say it was to help people – which is true – but the real reason is that when I was ten, my dad told me that I had to become a lawyer because I was so good at arguing.  I went on to become a commercial litigator so I definitely achieved that goal! However, the helping people bit is what keeps me here: originally helping clients navigate their way through complex legal disputes and now helping lawyers transform how they deliver legal services!