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October 29, 2020

COVID-19: A Catalyst for Key Reviews

Summary:

Law and accounting firms must take the opportunity to pause and review: conflicts and intake processes, technology investments and personnel.

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Law firms and accounting firms alike have complex and often rigorous conflicts and intake processes to vet new business and determine the worthiness of accepting and representing clients. These processes need to consider many different ethical and compliance considerations, depending on the type of work and the jurisdiction(s) the work will reside in. Internally, there are often multiple approvals that must be obtained before representing a new client, and the intake requests often must pass through multiple teams for review and input. While firms have, at times, bolted on additional functions and ad hoc workflows to accommodate new or growing needs, it is not common for these processes to get routinely reviewed for improvements and adjustments. That was until COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced firms to pause and review three key areas: conflicts and intake processes, technology investments and personnel. Considering conflicts and intake are the initial gateways for all business coming into a firm, and a way to provide a first impression for how a potential client’s firm operates, firms should assess every aspect of their processes to ensure the resources involved can seamlessly adapt to the challenges a pandemic creates, such as using a distributed workforce and a greater need for more mobile technology functionality.

Processes

Firms should use this challenging time to take a deep dive into reviewing their conflicts and intake processes and make these reviews an annual exercise. Create a small team responsible for this annual review. Review all procedures starting at each process stage and the correlating micro-level inputs and outputs, and then learn where the efficiency gaps are. Often, these gaps are caused by a bottleneck at a process stage because this particular step takes more time, and there are not enough resources to handle the volume, or the manual steps are not automated. An effective way to identify this bottleneck is to create quick, easy and routine internal surveys of users’ thoughts on the processes. Include all users that touch these processes, including partners, executive assistants, conflicts and intake staff and departments with overlapping interests or information sharing needs, such as billing, HR, marketing, and IT-support personnel. These annual reviews of the current conflicts and intake processes will help to identify and prioritize areas of improvement. Use the information gathered in the reviews as the building blocks to execute the necessary changes. Performing these reviews annually will help transform a firm from reactive to proactive, which will help firms be more agile as they pivot to address challenges and needs now, and in the future before those challenges and needs become a problem for the firm.  

Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced firms to review their technology investments, and it is prudent to do so while reviewing the current conflicts and intake technology contracts. There are resources and tools already paid for to help review technology investments that may not be utilized. Reach out to each vendor to find out if there are any new or additional mobile features associated with the product’s use. Finally, ask each technology vendor what its future road map holds for innovation, as well as additional features and functionality. By reviewing conflicts and intake related technology and associated contracts, a firm may realize additional value, features and functionality from their existing technology. A review can also shine a light on potential inadequacies of existing technology and help firms start researching and moving to a better solution. 

See also: 3 Silver Linings From COVID-19

Personnel 

As important as reviewing the conflicts and intake processes is, as well as evaluating what technology investments are, it is equally important to check in on the people who perform these functions. The COVID-19 pandemic has generally resulted in the conflicts and intake staff working from home. This situation can create an environment where collaboration and teamwork could decrease because the workforce is distributed rather than being centralized. To avoid problems, consider cross-training personnel so they learn new skills and can serve the firm in other capacities. Cross-training also creates collaboration and teamwork among the conflicts and intake teams. These efforts will enrich the personnel’s skill sets, increase social interaction with each team and create contingency options for times when a need for a certain position, role or responsibility arises due to changing circumstances. This will also help a firm adapt to situations, such as a pandemic, without missing a beat.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of preparedness and review. A continuous review of a firm’s conflicts and intake processes, technology and personnel should help firms improve in agility and efficiency while also strengthening risk management. Use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to create a refreshed conflicts and intake process by coupling a firm’s internal resources with an external, independent practitioner skilled in the conflicts and intake arena. Clients, partners and staff will reap the benefits immediately and in the future.

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About the Author

Stuart Poole is vice president and director of Aon’s law firm advisory team. He advises law firms and accounting firms on conflicts and intake-related business process improvement, department and team reorganization and more.

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