Taking the next steps on your client onboarding journey

By Allan Carton and Frank Manning of Carton & Co.

Lawyers need digital onboarding now because clients’ expectations of easier digital transactions and communications ramped up during the lockdowns – and because we see now that working digitally can radically improve efficiency of our operations and productivity. Based on my experience as a user of legal services, it’s a must have.

Digital onboarding took off for many firms because there was no other option during the lockdowns and there’s an opportunity now to build on that, which could involve any of:

  • stepping up to a more appropriate solution to better match your objectives and understanding of what is possible now, which may well have changed; or
  • refining what you’ve got or expanding use of the tools available to cover more of the process and other areas of work; or
  • getting started for the first time.

Don’t forget that you should charge the client for out-of-pocket expenses related to the essential components of onboarding (which would otherwise be part of your, perhaps unbilled, internal administration), so that’s a justifiable bonus too – a direct financial benefit for your practice.

As ever with IT projects, the benefits that can be achieved from adopting modern technology across your practice tends to be hugely under-estimated – and the work in getting things running smoothly will probably be more hassle than expected and there will always be niggles at the outset … but readily justified here by those wider benefits.

Choosing the right options and doing more to make it work better is on the agenda for most law firms, where the priority has rightly been to get something working better than using paper. For those already started down this track, the aim should be to constantly improve this process in a truly “agile” way (an iterative approach to delivering a project throughout its life cycle). Listening hard to both clients and their own people, keen to tweak, refine and extend as a matter of routine.

The surge in uptake

Much of the radical improvement in how clients are brought on board digitally has been introduced out of necessity due to the Covid lockdowns, not because the manual systems that had persisted until then were remarkably poor, slow, time consuming and difficult for both clients and law firm administrators. Lawyers had been willing to live with that and clients had no alternative.

Demand has led to more rapid development and deployment than we would otherwise have seen of better and more user-friendly technology to deliver:

  • ID verification;
  • anti-money laundering checks;
  • source of funds verification;
  • e-signatures;
  • automated production and distribution of terms of business and client care letters;
  • integration with practice management systems;
  • online quotes and conversion tracking;
  • document portals and apps with online progress tracking;
  • online payments.

The mesmerising array of options is making it difficult for lawyers to be confident about what’s best for them. Options likely include tools from, for example (in alphabetical order), Amiqus, Armalytix, Brighter Law, FastDox, GB Group, InCase, InfoTrack, Legal Bricks, Legl, Lexis Nexis, Minerva, Perfect Portal, the Link App, SmartSearch, Thirdfort, Verify 365; and of course, a good number of practice management suppliers claim to offer onboarding solutions within their products.

Better client experience – more business?

Efficiency and practicality rather than desire to improve client experience has generally been the primary driver for law firms when making the decision to do this, with improving a client’s perception of the firm undervalued at the outset a coincidental potential. That has changed.

The focus has shifted to improving clients’ perceptions by easing the instruction (and tracking) process, now that lawyers can trust the various technologies that help deal with essential compliance

It is good for business development. Clients who can appoint and communicate with you without encountering frustrating and time-consuming administrative obstacles are much more likely to recommend you to their family, friends and colleagues. Particularly if you ask them about that as part of your ongoing communication with them – which might be driven by how you set them up when you onboard them onto your systems?

Critically, you also have the opportunity with some of these more comprehensive options to manage clients’ expectations as a matter of routine, to ensure a match against what you plan to deliver.

Putting lean thinking into practice

Effective onboarding, with reliable capture of core information about the client and the matter at the outset should help to improve the client relationship and the process throughout the life of a matter … and beyond.

Developing and introducing client onboarding is an opportunity for your people to experience and learn the benefits and value of that early capture of information – a key action when introducing “lean thinking” on initiatives to cut out waste from legal and admin processes across the practice.

You might engage people on this project to help start to develop that mindset too. What more data can you capture at this stage to make this matter flow more easily? Would the client provide it in a form that we can import into case management?

If you map out the traditional processes adopted in every matter, you will find that two related stages eat up an incredible amount of time and resource.

  1. billing and recovery of payment; and
  2. this client and matter inception stage.

Your billing and fee recovery process is worth mapping and tackling too. You want to tackle fee and payment expectations as part of your client/matter inception process to get your relationship with the client off on the right foot – ensuring clients agree and genuinely understand what they are paying for and when payment is expected. I suspect that this is not always reflected in the digital-driven onboarding processes that firms have been introducing so far. Does your onboarding process deal with this?

Many leaps of faith – rare for lawyers

Lawyers fared relatively well during the lockdowns and most managed to implement working from home successfully, with much done out of necessity for immediate results. For many, there wasn’t a lot of long-term strategic thinking or planning. Some things just had to get done, with digital onboarding remarkably high on that agenda.

Some of these come from suppliers who may either directly, or through associated businesses already provide other services, for example, related to conveyancing, property searches. So, there has often been a relationship in place and an opportunity for the supplier to upsell their services with other tools when your practice was in urgent need of some digital solution while everyone began to work and live remotely.

This path would have been difficult to resist, so I’m not convinced that all firms have done market-wide research in choosing their best options when they launched their new digital onboarding systems out of necessity – under pressure, often not familiar with this territory – as quickly as possible during the lockdowns. Are there better solutions available for what you want now that you didn’t fully appreciate at that stage?

There are new options from new technology suppliers coming on stream, some included alongside longer-term players on this area. None of them is standing still so it’s difficult to keep track of who is ahead of whom in any area at any given time. New suppliers have the benefit of being able to start afresh without being hampered by earlier developments.

A wider technology challenge

The uncertainty amongst lawyers when it comes to choosing and implementing onboarding applications is a fair indication of growing problems for SME law firms in optimising their adoption of new technologies more widely.

In some areas there are too many options and variations for SME law firms to have the time or resource to compare, mix and match what’s likely to be best for them. This problem is growing with the plethora of lawtech point solutions being developed in the legal sector, with funds from many sources (from equity and private investors to the UK government) available to entrepreneurs to help develop their products. All very difficult to track.

Making sound, informed decisions aligned to strategy

It is worth making time to reflect on this now.

Unless you know and map out what process you want to follow and why, it is virtually impossible to make well-enough informed decisions about which applications and tools you should use and how to apply them to onboard new clients and matters.

The best approach to choosing the right software is first to define and map out what you need/want. Then match your requirements against the functionality of the off the shelf options you can customise and/or integrate to deliver the right mix of what you want.

Run this as an agile project, accepting that people will learn more about requirements, must haves and wants that can be added later if really needed – recognising this all changes over time as technology changes, people learn and what clients want becomes better understood.

Look afresh – keep improving for clients

Step 1: Map your stages, define what you see now as your requirements. Key questions to ask yourself and the team entrusted with this project:

  1. Which area/s of legal work will be covered? Just conveyancing or family or private client or practice wide?
  2. Which essential functions do we want to deliver digitally to clients? If not digitally, how do we do this manually and fit with the digital tools we do use?
    • AML
    • ID Verification – to what level of assurance? It varies.
    • Verification of source of funds. In which areas? How deep? Is that too intrusive?
    • Quotes – in which areas of work? Follow up and tracking conversions?
    • Digital payments
    • E-Signatures on ToB’s, client care letter
    • Document and/or activity tracking
    • Secure messaging to minimise emails and cyber risks?
  3. What more can you improve by first tackling it at this stage?
    • Managing client expectations
    • Pricing and billing
    • Client feedback
    • Introduce client liaison / people
    • What else?
  4. Do you want to deliver this as an app, web portal or via email?
    • For everything?
    • Just for some component parts?
  5. Which (if any) components must integrate with your practice, case management and compliance systems?

Step 2: Build and evaluate a matrix of supplier capabilities against your requirements.

Step 3: Engage shortlist of suppliers on demos with a consistent brief of requirements.

Step 4: Select supplier/s.

Step 5: Build and run a pilot with a minimal workable solution to test functionality

Step 6: Modify requirements if that makes sense now. Be prepared to do that.

Step 7: Learn from that experience to modify, refine, extend or change track.

This takes time that has been hard to find but can be well spent. Investing in onboarding systems helps to introduce some fundamental processes that can pro-actively support a business development strategy around the clients who will be your best prospects for growth, aiming also to attract their businesses, family, friends and work colleagues as future clients.

Allan Carton and Frank Manning of Carton Consultants can be contacted on 07779 653105 or by email at solutions@cartonconsultants.com.

Allan Carton is a specialist in practice and business development, working with law firm management to develop and deliver better value propositions for their clients, whatever that takes. Centred on understanding clients, developing and introducing the right technologies, process and compliance to be able to deliver.

Frank Manning works with law firms to improve adoption of technology from defining the strategy to detailed business analysis, procurement and project management to introduce new technologies that improve the business, service and productivity cost-effectively.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.