Why legal aid firms really need technology

Sophie Ramsden describes why legal aid firms need technology and how it can transform them.

As any firm which does legal aid will confirm, the business case for doing this work is under increasing scrutiny. I used to be a practice manager, so I know the issues only too well. For a start, legal aid rates are relatively low; firms are limited as to the number of some types of matters they can start each year; and perhaps only a small number will actually make money. Firms are having to cross‐subsidise legal aid work because the majority of cases are loss‐making.

What’s more, firms are often still compiling legal aid bills by hand. Fee‐earners usually input their time manually. Support staff will check that what’s on paper matches what’s on the system and that all time is broken down into activities, as required by the Legal Aid Agency. Then firms have to spend additional time on navigating the LAA’s payments maze which asks for lots of information, which can vary depending on the type of work. Then there’s the plethora of different fees based on different types of work, thresholds reached, the hearings which have taken place and the outcome. Each element has its own coding. These have to be used in the right combinations or else the LAA’s system will reject them. Plus, if the limits are exceeded, the firm can lose out. All in all it’s labour‐intensive, thus expensive, making it even harder to make legal aid pay. Fortunately, however, technology can now make a substantial impact on that.

How technology can intervene
What effect can technology have? Well, I work with Tikit’s P4W, a sophisticated practice management system which uses a module called FormShare. Using P4W, a lawyer or firm representative can complete a FormShare form on a laptop when meeting a prospective new client for the first time. This structures
the information‐gathering process and ensures nothing gets missed. It’s a big improvement on trying to capture all the necessary details, using pen and paper, in a pressurised environment, in front of an often distraught potential client.

When the laptop is back online, press a button and the information is automatically downloaded into the firm’s system. There are no pieces of paper to be filed, no information to be taken back to the office and painstakingly keyed in.

Once the new client’s data is downloaded, the system can then trigger the creation of a new client file. The data can also automatically create a new matter file and generate fully populated client care and next steps letters. The lawyer attending court the following morning can have all the information they need at their fingertips. Meanwhile the attendance at, say, a police station has been recorded by the system so that P4W can generate the relevant CRM11/7.

The impact of P4W
What’s the impact of P4W? For a start it saves time, which is important. Thirty minutes saved every time a member of support staff needs to open a new client file is time that can be redeployed on a higher value task. Things still need to be checked, but a 20 to 30 minute time saving per client care and next steps letter can quickly accumulate into a significant amount.

Also, by capturing information at source and holding it in P4W, there’s only one version of the truth, and it’s accurate and complete. Data never needs to be re‐entered, which is where human error can creep in. The fact that all the data is held securely in one place also means that nothing gets mislaid. It makes compliance with data security legislation really straightforward.

Moreover P4W can be set up to generate alerts so that lawyers are told when they’re near billing thresholds, which makes for more cost‐efficient time management. It’s also programmable to check LAA billing codes and billing code combinations. It can validate bills before they’re submitted, thus reducing delays in getting paid. Finally, we all know that legal aid lawyers have time recording drilled into them. Nevertheless, a system such as P4W helps ensure that time is never lost.

All told, the firms which use P4W find that it makes a transformative impact on their legal aid work. It can make the difference between legal aid being viable or not. This is why legal aid firms should really take a serious look at today’s legal technology.

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