INDUSTRY INTERVIEW

INDUSTRY INTERVIEW

An objective requirement

Resource allocation is an area that law firms can improve upon when it comes to both efficiency and diversity and inclusion measures. Fortunately, there’s a new application for that purpose, say Rich Mephan, director of research and innovation, and Charlotte Love, product manager, at Peppermint Technology

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If the sea change that was remote working can be thanked for anything among law firms, it’s perhaps a realisation that large professional services businesses could do with a little more data-driven decision-making when it comes to the running of legal matters. That’s certainly the view of Charlotte Love, product manager at Peppermint Technology, whose most recent work has centred around helping firms get more objectivity into the process of work allocation.

She explains that the business has recently launched a new work management application tailored precisely to this purpose, which can be deployed standalone or integrated into a firm’s existing Peppermint tech stack. “It’s intended to help firms make sense of their existing data and use that as a basis for decision-making. It’s about generating evidence rather than relying on intuition, guesswork or personal relationships.”

Of course, law firms are far from oblivious to the importance of resource allocation data, systems and processes. Love says Peppermint has seen firms increasingly focus on managing the way legal work finds its way to the ‘right person’, including a growing number of firms hiring resource allocation managers.

But what many may still struggle to do is tie together their people and processes in a systematic, streamlined way: “We’re seeing most firms move towards a resource allocation way of thinking, and considering how to use existing data to inform resourcing decisions – but often that data exists in disparate systems or unstructured formats that are not really up to the job,” she explains.

“We’re seeing most firms move towards a resource allocation way of thinking, and considering how to use existing data to inform resourcing decisions – but often that data exists in disparate systems or unstructured formats that are not really up to the job.”

Charlotte Love, product manager, Peppermint Technology

The question of ‘how’ to make work flow better has led firms to ask for help developing a solution, adds Rich Mephan, director of research and innovation at Peppermint Technology. “We were getting feedback from several firms saying they couldn’t get an overview of employees’ availability and workload. Most were trying to cobble together something through spreadsheets, Outlook or Microsoft Planner – but none of those are intended for this kind of task,” he says.

Many firms were generating enormous, unwieldy Excel files that were becoming corrupted and losing data, he adds, and have been unable to collate information crucial to the broader work allocation process, such as competencies and existing personal relationships. None of these solutions could meaningfully manage requirements around reporting, KPIs, service level agreements, notifications and alerts, either. “When we start to get into those really complex data scenarios, a spreadsheet can only do so much. You can’t get a real understanding of people’s workloads and how long things are going to take with these old-fashioned ways of presenting information.”

In the absence of either in-person interaction – the classic scenario of walking up to a desk or getting a feel for the mood in the room being long gone – or any kind of real-time, live data, Mephan says getting work allocation functioning in the hybrid working world has been particularly challenging for many firms. Some have found people spending inordinate amounts of time chasing people manually, and many others have similarly encountered issues in their high-volume managed legal services or alternative legal services models, often offshored or nearshored for cost-effectiveness, where efficiency across a large team of lawyers and paralegals working to a deadline is paramount to the business model, he says.

Alternative methods

So, to address these needs, Peppermint began developing its work management application in June 2021, a journey which took approximately six months to deliver a working solution in collaboration with focus groups and taking on specific feedback clients, he explains.

“Our goal was to deliver an out-the-box application that could be easily configured and didn’t require technical resource to keep on top of it. Plus, we wanted to be able to get something up and running within a very short amount of time – weeks as opposed to months.”

Rich Mephan, director of research and innovation, Peppermint Technology

One specific need was autonomy, with the idea of an app that required an in-house developer to continuously work on it proving to be a dead end. That meant going down the no-code route – a design philosophy which Mephan says has become increasingly popular. “Our goal was to deliver an out-the-box application that could be easily configured and didn’t require technical resource to keep on top of it. Plus, we wanted to be able to get something up and running within a very short amount of time – weeks as opposed to months.”

Though he says it is possible for law firms to configure the app in a more customised manner through the low-code configuration – allowing firms to take advantage of technology such as adaptive cards to surface messages from the work management application in Outlook and Teams, as an example – the no-code approach was prioritised to help law firms rapidly respond to new client requirements. “A developer would have to go through a software development process to make any changes to the application, including testing and user acceptance training – that could be a three-month process before going live, which isn’t feasible if you’ve just onboarded a new client. This setup allows people in charge of the delivery teams to control the application through configuration data – that still all needs to be tested, but if you get it wrong it’s not insurmountable to revert back.”

Indeed, relatively little structural work is required to get the application going, Mephan explains. As part of Peppermint’s wider philosophy of allowing people to work where they want to, the app is built on top of the Microsoft Power platform and integrated into Peppermint Connect, he adds, which sits natively inside Teams or Outlook. This allows the app to integrate with third-party applications – including Microsoft’s own platforms, such as Teams, curtailing the drag of context-switching as people increasingly use Teams as their go-to ‘hub’ for work.

Getting integration across systems to work was crucial, Love adds, both so as to be where people want to work and to get the right data into the allocation system. “Firms want to get both unstructured and structured data into the work management app, whether that comes from email, data from a third-party case management system, or something else,” she says.

“We’ve had to think carefully about how we open the work management solution to third-party applications, but because it’s all built on the Microsoft Power platform, you can take data from that third-party system and inject it straight into the work management app in terms of requests and provide links back to that application.”

Rich Mephan, director of research and innovation, Peppermint Technology

However, Mephan adds that it’s not necessary to have Peppermint Connect – or any other Peppermint technology – for a firm to use the work management app, even when it comes to integration. “We’ve had to think carefully about how we open the work management solution to third-party applications, but because it’s all built on the Microsoft Power platform, you can take data from that third-party system and inject it straight into the work management app in terms of requests and provide links back to that application. You can put any custom, front-end user interface on there as well, because everything is built on the Microsoft stack and is compatible with Web APIs,” he says.

Competency matters

On a more structural level, Mephan says the team at Peppermint identified a need for a more nuanced understanding of how quickly individuals are able to complete tasks. In order to generate that data, the work management application is built around competency levels, which the system is able to generate and adjust on its own. “You’ve got to understand your employees and their skillsets to make resource allocation work, but you might not necessarily know how long each individual takes to complete a given task. So, the app refines its understanding of how much time to allocate to a given task based on historical data. It’s almost like it marks its own homework,” he says.

Though it can’t quite yet do legal professionals’ homework for them, what the app can do is detect when a deadline might be missed because of an illness in the team, for example, and automatically re-allocate work to another person to ensure completion.

“You’ve got to understand your employees and their skillsets to make resource allocation work, but you might not necessarily know how long each individual takes to complete a given task. So, the app refines its understanding of how much time to allocate to a given task based on historical data. It’s almost like it marks its own homework.”

Rich Mephan, director of research and innovation, Peppermint Technology

And in future, Mephan says, the team may be able to go even further and implement “intelligent automation” – he resists calling it ‘AI’, as that is too imprecise a term – which would embed a chatbot into Teams and triage allocation needs or re-allocate work at the behest of a partner. “From a research and innovation perspective, we’d like to move in that direction in the next few months, as that can add real value. The people currently doing that triage would only need to get involved as and when the bot can’t allocate in a way that fits a proposed deadline.”

Mephan continues by explaining that the system assigns competency levels to individuals relative to given legal tasks – A, B, C, D or E in the example he cites – adjusting as it goes and generating more data-driven evidence to guide decision-making, as well as highlighting potential training needs. “Firms are currently missing out on knowing how effectively or quickly their people are doing their work – you might think someone should be a grade A in completing court bundles, but you don’t have anything to compare that against. With the work allocation app, there’s just no debate.”

And, crucially, he says, this system can help firms identify high-performing individuals and deliver a more objective people strategy. “It allows you to highlight individuals who are performing either above the competency level that you think they’re at or who need more support.”

Including diversity in the resourcing mix

That’s sure to help in an area Love says law firms are beginning to take very seriously – namely diversity and inclusion (D&I). By adding more than a dash of objectivity into the process of allocating work and tasks, she says, firms can boil matters down to skills and competencies, and make more informed decisions that correlate with D&I goals. “Thankfully, D&I practices are now seen as an absolute given in businesses, and the expectation is that they’re core values. Clients are also making it clear words aren’t enough – they’re expecting tangible evidence that those beliefs are being put into practice.”

“Having oversight of resourcing and utilisation data while also maintaining a personal touch in relationships is tough in a remote-working world. We know firms want to foster personal career growth and avoid creating a sense that these resources are a faceless ‘legal matter conveyor belt’”

Charlotte Love, product manager, Peppermint Technology

Being able to store and develop a dataset around these metrics will help firms both support and achieve D&I targets by getting a more accurate picture of who does what and how efficiently they do so, and provide evidence of how well firms are living up to those values, Love says. “When we’re thinking about instituting equitable practices, that’s the kind of evidence we need to see and is what’s needed for proper reporting.”

In this environment, keeping on top of data-driven decision-making is crucial, Love adds, and firms also want staff to feel they’re being nurtured and can enjoy career development. “Having oversight of resourcing and utilisation data while also maintaining a personal touch in relationships is tough in a remote-working world. We know firms want to foster personal career growth and avoid creating a sense that these resources are a faceless ‘legal matter conveyor belt’,” she says.

Mephan reiterates that having such data is increasingly important in a hybrid working world: “The pandemic has definitely accelerated the need for live data tools around resourcing, and particularly a need for something that has no bias except who is available to work on a matter and their competency level. Plus, it’s much easier to reward people accurately because you have the facts to back everything up. We’re solving multiple issues at the same time with this application,” he says.

Clearly, the evidence is mounting that law firms have access to the tools they need to get a handle on resourcing – and that’s the truth.