Part 2 –  Proceed with Caution – Analogue to Digital

April 22, 2020 by Alan Larkin

In the first blog in this two-part series, we shared how Engage can be used to ensure business continuity in the servicing of new family law clients during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Family Law Lab platform and the Engage application did not emerge from a vacuum.  Their provenance and development has some important lessons and provides a cautionary take on the family law profession’s understandable rush to embrace digital remote working technologies in the face of COVID-19.

It is great to see the legal profession positively embracing platforms such as Zoom, but my contention is that in our haste we will needlessly carry across the less efficient analogue aspects of our legal practices into our digital ones. This moment of crisis-induced necessity presents an opportunity to transform digital working practices to make them truly client-centric, but also leaner and more profitable.  To understand how requires the briefest of history lessons.

Over a decade ago, a Brighton-based niche practice, Family Law Partners (FLP), took up the challenge to radically change the way family lawyers conducted initial client consultations. I was in that team charged with driving internal innovation. There was a frustration borne out of direct experience as family law practitioners, that the traditional way of doing things represented poor business practice and a less than perfect client experience. Take the first face-to-face client consultation: in the analogue world this means asking the same fact-finding questions for the first hour. Some clients struggle with the relevance of these questions and recalling, at a time of stress, even relatively simple details such as dates of birth for their children.

We cross-checked our direct experience against the research and survey data obtainable from the SRA, Legal Services Board, MOJ and academia. We discovered that the face-to-face consultation with its prioritisation on fact-finding was a frustrating experience for many clients. We concluded that this process needed a radical re-think.

We created a web application, now called Engage, that would allow new clients to provide all the information required ahead of a first consultation. Engage replicates the fact-gathering experience of a face-to-face consultation including the ‘softer’ questions so clients feel more prepared and less anxious. Engage was launched in July 2014 with Family Law Partners as its first ‘customer’. After some initial hesitation – we were changing a consultation process that had been in place since scriveners first picked up their quill pens – the family lawyers assimilated Engage into their working lives.  It became accepted.  Suggestions for improvements were never in short supply and Engage was iterated and finessed over the course of five years.

In 2019, Family Law Partners’ innovation department responded to the wider interest in Engage by creating Family Law Lab, an innovation hub run by a small team to host Engage and other family law applications. Family Law Lab does not charge for its services. With more family law firms embracing innovation and using Engage, the application has facilitated over 1600 new clients to begin their family law journey. We have a wealth of learning directly relevant for family lawyers embracing digital working who want to offer better first-consultation client experiences and develop more efficient processes.

That’s the history lesson. But where’s the evidence for my contention that family lawyers are in danger of carrying across the less efficient analogue aspects of their legal practices into their digital ones? I have several examples and I will explore them in subsequent posts but let me give one instance now. Why do lawyers spent the vast majority of a first client consultation asking fact-finding questions when what our clients want, need and desire is advice? Not factual stocktaking, not boxes being ticked but carefully calibrated, bespoke advice. It is hard enough for clients to endure a barrage of questions in a face-to-face consultation. But should we be doing it via a video link where the normal visual cues about client comprehension or distress will be diluted through a pixelated remote connection?  That’s asking a lot of our clients who will, most of them, already be stressed by the situations bringing them to our remote doors.

It was an analogue mistake pre-Coronavirus to assume that the fact-gathering could not be more efficiently and sensitively handled by a digital solution instead of a human lawyer. This mistake is not rectified or mitigated by substituting video conferencing platforms for the face-to-face consultation.

The original purpose of Family Law Lab was to let a restricted number of family lawyers from different firms have access to Engage as a pilot.  With a large number of family law firms now embracing digital innovation as a matter of necessity, we have experienced renewed interest in Engage as a means to facilitate the all-important first client consultation. We understand that some family teams are finding the digital transition a challenge.

Accordingly, we have taken the decision to open up Engage to more family lawyers and their prospective clients. There is no charge for using Engage. If we can help, we will.

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