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Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance

Innovation Insights

Robotic process automation: How will it transform the legal sector?

For us here at Clifford Chance, tech and innovation is a core part of our vision for the future. We can see how new solutions and the latest advances are already delivering benefits in all walks of life. The global legal sector is no different. And we believe there are numerous technologies that our industry can benefit from. One example of this in action is robotic process automation (RPA).

It has been reported that RPA, where used in legal sector work, can reduce costs by as much as 40%. It’s important not to see the benefits purely in cost terms, however. This is about bringing a very real (and positive) change to our sector. From internal processes to external partnerships, RPA has huge potential to deliver efficiencies. And we’re already starting to make that happen.

What exactly is “Robotic Process Automation”?

Tech has long been at the forefront of what we do. It helps to define us as the global law firm of choice for our clients. For others in our sector, however, it has been a slow conversion. That can be seen in how investment in the UK legaltech sector ramped up dramatically between 2014 and 2019. So, it is not a surprise if some are less familiar with what robotic process automation actually is.

RPA, as its name suggests, is designed to automate specific business processes. But its "robotic" element doesn't refer to a physical robot. Instead, the "robots" used are scripts or software that perform tasks without the need for human input. Using defined logic, RPA bots have a capacity to capture and/or interpret data across multiple applications.

For Gartner, RPA is one of four trends that – unlike some other hyped technologies – is here and is ready to support the legal sector. But this doesn’t mean that organisations should rush into its adoption without proper thought. Gartner highlights how 60% of organisations who implemented RPA are facing challenges to scale, something that will hold back their return on that investment.

How RPA is being used to deliver efficiencies

Of course, this shouldn't set off alarm bells for those organisations – or, indeed, the legal sector as a whole. At this point in time, research from Deloitte suggests that a shortfall in capacity and skills is the main barrier for those looking to scale intelligent automation. And yet our own focus on RPA has given us some important insights into how it can be achieved.

RPA has been on our radar for at least the last three years – as our 2017 briefing highlights. For us as a law firm, we saw opportunities to use technology in such a way that our internal teams could be freed from some of the most repetitive tasks. These can often be tasks that require little critical input – so why not let robots take up the task?

The benefits to us – and the wider sector – are plain to see. Using bots to perform these tasks is helping to improve the quality of data being processed. Part of this may well be attributed to the reduced risk of human error. On the flip side of the coin, removing human input from one task is a chance to refocus the resource elsewhere. With this, productivity across the business goes up.

Achieving success with RPA now and in the future

Avtar Singh, our Head of Legal Technology Solutions, is in charge of the centre that’s leading our RPA efforts. Under his direction, we’re fortunate to be in the position of knowing what’s needed for RPA to be successful. It is a discipline that spans four key areas. More importantly, perhaps, is how it again underpins our commitment to cross-team and external collaboration.

From the outset, RPA is something that all teams need to be part of. Deloitte’s research reveals how 60% of organisations don't even know if automation brings with it a need for employees to retrain. At Clifford Chance, that training is a must if RPA is to deliver for us. It must be based in sound strategic thinking too. If the path ahead can’t be seen, RPA can't be scaled to match.

This forward thinking also allows us to create a standardised approach that lays the foundations for future scalability. Again, it is a cross-team effort, spanning all Continuous Improvement (CI) and business teams. After all, processes that aren’t – or can’t be – standardised will demand an extra layer of investment that eats away at the savings that can be achieved.

Key factors to consider for RPA in the legal sector

CI and business teams alone are not enough to achieve the success of RPA in a legal context. It also calls for software development, IT operations and computer engineering to be incorporated from the initial stages. When this happens, failures happen earlier in the process – which means resolution does too. It also allows for proper monitoring and measurement to be put in place from the start.

It brings us to one of the most important takeaways from our RPA efforts to date. In the search for greater automation and the efficiencies this can achieve, the risk is that you go too fast, too soon. Yes, there can be situations where you need to react and learn at pace. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Use strategic thinking to define the path ahead – and take it all step by step.

We also firmly believe in our people to remain an integral force behind our legal service delivery in years to come. RPA and other forms of automation should help to achieve a smarter model of recruitment – not replace it. Some processes just cannot be defined. Some activities simply call for that human touch. But we’ve also now seen first-hand the potential of RPA that awaits us.

For more information about our efforts to transform legal services on a global scale, please see our Innovation hub.