Ari Kaplan recently spoke with with Debbie Foster, the managing partner of Affinity Consulting, a company focused on optimizing law firm performance. They discussed why efficiency, productivity and profitability have become a focal point for leaders in the legal industry, the technology applications that have the greatest impact on a law firm’s success, and the “Lemonade” virtual conference.
Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your background and your role at Affinity Consulting.
Debbie Foster: I am a founder and partner at Affinity. I focus on helping our clients with the strategic challenges associated with leadership, growth, planning and building a roadmap for whatever is next.
Ari Kaplan: Why has efficiency, productivity and profitability become so much more of a focal point for leaders in legal?
Debbie Foster: We have been hearing all kinds of buzz about the “Great Resignation,” but I think that law firms are facing an upcoming “Great Retirement,” during which many of the baby boomer lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries are going to retire. As a result, people are starting to realize that working efficiently, being productive and thinking about the matters and practice areas that are most profitable is essential because there is about to be a big shift in how lawyers deliver work to their clients. At the same time, clients are demanding different services from law firms than they were three, five and 10 years ago. The focus on efficiency is part of the effort to transform.
Ari Kaplan: How have you seen law firm leaders best navigate the remote and hybrid working environment?
Debbie Foster: There is a belief that an organization cannot build culture remotely, and I just don’t agree with that. At Affinity, we have 80 professionals scattered across 30 states, and we are very intentional about our culture. The struggle that firms are having about maintaining the environment they had before while thinking about how to work differently is one of their biggest challenges. There is a lot of focus now on bandwidth and workload, especially because one of the most coveted benefits of being an employee at a law firm is having the flexibility of working remotely. As a result, firms are trying to find the right balance of giving people the flexibility to work from home but having them in the office at the same time. Figuring out how to intentionally build a welcoming is something that law firms are trying to do in the most impactful way possible.
Ari Kaplan: What type of technology applications tend to have the greatest impact on a law firm success today?
Debbie Foster: I’ll joke for a minute and say that whichever application they will actually log in to and use would be the one that would have the greatest impact on their success. The reality is that it is matter management software and tools that allow a professional to come into the office and identify what they have to work on that day. Having predictable workflows can be a game changer when it comes to how a lawyer manages their cases and how paralegals support them.
Ari Kaplan: Where is automation best deployed?
Debbie Foster: There are some automation opportunities in matter management and workflow, but automation is best deployed when it comes to documents. Without an automated forms-based system for documents, there is too much opportunity for mistakes and embarrassing situations with your clients. The deployment of document automation software is not only an answer to some profitability challenges, but it also enhances speed and efficiency in producing work for clients.
Ari Kaplan: How long should a law firm expect to get value from technology before needing to buy something different or to upgrade?
Debbie Foster: Law firms should upgrade. Of course, if you’re using a [software-as-a-service] program, you don’t have a choice because the upgrades are automatic. But even for desktop software, upgrading is very important. With respect to buying something different, if you are using software that is approaching end of life, move on. Too many law firms play software merry-go-round by purchasing something, offering little training and providing minimal setup, so it … does not work when or the way they need it to, which prompts a discussion about a replacement. We prefer to understand how people are using their existing technology before throwing it away. It is important to leverage the tools in which a firm has already invested before considering alternative options.
Ari Kaplan: You are the co-producer of the upcoming virtual “Lemonade” conference, which is taking place on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Why did you create this event?
Debbie Foster: We all went home for two weeks back in March of 2020, and three months later, my friend Alan Wilson and I decided to do something to bring cheer, brightness and excitement to inspire our community. We were brainstorming about what to call it, and Alan said, “lemonade,” because when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. We put on our first “Lemonade” virtual conference in 2020, and people loved it. Then we produced “Lemonade: Take Two” in 2021, and it was also very well received. We were not planning to do it again in 2022, but “Lemonade: Take Three” is returning by popular request from the attendees on Aug. 31, 2022, and this five-hour event will focus on leadership. We are going to facilitate a series of discussions about how leaders can be more inspiring, thoughtful and connected. Our objective is to create a program centered on education, inspiration and entertainment, and we will conclude with a 30-minute performance from country music star Collin Raye.
Ari Kaplan: How are law firm leaders successfully navigating their current challenges with technology?
Debbie Foster: Law firm leaders are seriously thinking about moving to the cloud and what the impact will be for their firms. Rather than looking to change a single software program, many are considering how a holistic approach will benefit their users. Lawyers are generally starting to invest time to understand how new technology can help them deliver services more efficiently. They are also starting to appreciate that technology is essential for attracting and retaining talent, which is a key challenge for many firms, and want tools to help them stay organized, work more efficiently and remain in contact with their clients. Clients also want access to portals that provide the ability to share information and collaborate.
Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals.
Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change and introduce new technology at his blog and on iTunes.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.