In a profession that places a premium on time, powerful workflow automation gives you a considerable edge in the business and practice of law. Software that can autonomously manage and perform your day-to-day administrative tasks will help maximize productivity by saving time and improve the performance of your administrative workflow.
Ken Grady identifies automation as a key component of the legal service process:
Lawyers’ jobs are composed of thousands of tasks. Some tasks are extremely complex, but many are very simple. Most are mixed. Legal service processes can be disaggregated, for example, during the lean thinking exercise of process mapping. Once a process is disaggregated, the question is whether computers can automate a task or even part of a task.
While the concept of an augmented lawyer is linked to machine learning, it is applicable to the power and volume workflow tasks of a law office. Zapier can help you get there.
What is Zapier?
If you do not already use Zapier, you may have seen it featured as a third-party integration for any number of the cloud applications you use. It delivers the power of automated computer tasks without requiring any experience or technical skill.
Without using any software code, you can use Zapier to direct an application to “copy and paste” information to another, unrelated application. Zapier then works quietly in the background, sharing that information automatically, based on your settings.
For example, let’s say you have a client meeting scheduled in Google Calendar, and you want to record this in your timekeeping software. Rather than making both a calendar and time entry, Zapier will do the heavy lifting by first getting notified of your “Client Meeting” appointment. Zapier will then transfer data from that calendar entry (description of the meeting, time, and length of appointment) to Harvest, Freshbooks, or lots of other timekeeping applications.
Data from any of the 500+ Zapier supported apps can be sent just about anywhere you want it to go.
How Zapier Works
Zapier sources the data it sends from an application’s built-in API (application program interfaces). Then, Zapier connects with the receiving application’s API, allowing the programs to talk to each other. Here is the Zapier-specific terminology that addresses this process:
- Triggers. This is an event in the application you choose first (like the initiation of a Google Calendar event), which sparks the occurrence of a Zap.
- Actions. This is the automation that occurs as a result of a trigger.
- Zaps. This is the single process of automation — containing a single trigger, and at least one action.
- Multistep Zaps. One trigger can cause multiple actions, in any number of applications.
- Filters. Require that specific data values (from the trigger or actions in a multistep Zap) are necessary for the Zap to run.
- Tasks. A tally of how many Zaps have been completed.
The primary pricing factors are the number of Zaps concurrently activated and how many tasks you use in a month.
More details can be found on Zapier’s Pricing Page.
Key Benefits For Lawyers
On the surface, the economics are fairly straightforward—less activity on administrative and other routine non-billable tasks will give you more time to do legal work (or, you know, work towards a balanced life). However, Zapier can also manage key components of your workflow, extending the advantages well beyond those of mere convenience. Zapier’s focus on modern cloud applications can also lay the foundation for bespoke practice management software at a surprisingly low price point.
Perhaps the most immediate benefit of automation—the initial input of your routine workflow—is the immediate population of your remaining tasks, saving you the time it would take to complete those tasks by hand.
An effective workflow typically requires consistency in both process and application. Zapier can save not only the time of performing the task but helps avoid the fatigue of needing to remember to do it in the first place (or the stress of forgetting to complete a task).
Minimizing Human Error
The data from your initial trigger input will appear uniformly and consistently across all your applications connected to Zapier. Depending on the workflow, one correct entry may be enough for information to appear correctly everywhere you need it to, with no extra effort.
Overcoming Limitations of Existing Software
Zapier can come in handy for circumnavigating deep-seated software used in your firm (which, needless to say, is most likely not supported by Zapier). For example, if you prefer another time tracking application (e.g. Toggl or Harvest) over Timeslips, you can automatically populate a spreadsheet with time entries from the preferred application, which can then be imported to Timeslips.
Custom Practice Management Software
Perhaps the most compelling concept of Zapier is the ability to create a highly customized practice management solution. This is particularly relevant when the all-in-one practice management software is no longer flexible enough for your workflow. Lawyers can also leverage Zapier to enhance existing practice management software. Greg McLawsen Zapifies Clio by sending it key data from Trello.
Zapier Pain Points
The power of Zapier is not without shortcomings, especially in regard to law practice. It takes time to automate your manual tasks, and the intention to automate can become thwarted by information overload.
Upfront Time Investment
Regardless of your comfort level with technology, there is an inherent first-time user learning curve with Zapier. Even when you’ve nailed down which applications you want to connect, choosing the type of data and its presentation can take experimentation before you’re confident in a Zap’s functionality.
The process does not end with making a Zap. You will need to check on the Zap periodically to ensure it is functioning (or set up email notifications and alerts). Also, as your actual workflow changes, your automation process will need tweaks and adjustments.
If the placement of data is not strategic, it could become overwhelming, and defeat the purpose of automating with Zapier. For example, if you are drawing to-do data from several places to a single application, you may get a massive list that you aren’t sure how to deal with.
Although Zapier integrates hundreds of cloud applications, it doesn’t integrate with them all. Additionally, lawyers accustomed to native operating system applications (as opposed to cloud applications) may not see any familiar software providers on Zapier. You may need to finally embrace the cloud in order to fit certain automations into your workflow.
Zaps for Lawyers
The variety of cloud applications relevant to law practice management makes the Zap possibilities endless. Here are a few examples of how Zaps can improve your law practice:
Regular Follow-ups with Your Clients (Freshbooks ? Delay by Zapier ? Trello)
Once a matter is paid and complete, you may want to keep in touch with your client. This Zap will create a reminder card in Trello one month after your client pays a Freshbooks invoice. Delay by Zapier, a native function of Zapier, intervenes between triggers and actions to postpone the time between the trigger and action until a specific date or length of time. Once this Zap is complete, you have a front-and-center customized reminder to follow up with your client on the correct date.
Automatically Track Time from Calls
This Zap solves the problem of forgetting to track time and other details when receiving an unplanned call—especially when away from your desk. A new call will trigger Zapier to search your client CRM (such as Clio) for an existing contact. If no existing contact is found, Zapier can create a new CRM contact. Zapier will then update the contact record with details from the call (how they found your number, the billable time from that call, etc).
Time Sensitive Alerts
This Zap is triggered whenever your signature is requested by HelloSign. The Zap will send you an SMS to let you know when your signature is required. This can be especially useful if you re mobile all day (in court, on a trip, etc), ensuring you know there is a time-sensitive document waiting for your signature.
Specific tasks may come due at the end of each week (or month), such as entering time or submitting an expense report. With the native “Schedule by Zapier”, your routine to-do items will pop up in Asana at the interval you specify.
Keep in mind that any product name in these examples can likely be switched out with another similar product (e.g. Google Drive can be replaced with Box or Dropbox). It will depend on which software you use or prefer.
While the cloud applications each have their own security features and policies, Zapier-related security covers the Zap-related data. In addition to using https and SSL whenever possible, here is Zapier’s high-level description of security:
- Credentials that you use to connect your accounts to Zapier are protected with bank-level encryption.
- The only action that Zapier takes on your accounts is those necessary to run the zaps you create.
- The raw requests Zapier makes to other services on your behalf are stored for 7 days for troubleshooting purposes, then purged on a rolling basis.
- Your user-facing Task History is stored for a longer period of time so that you can monitor Zapier activity and replay failures.
There is a reason legal workflow automation experts have API guides on their annual reading lists. Using APIs through Zapier empowers automation of your law practice’s back-end for a fraction of the cost of software developer involvement. Zapier transforms your law practice into a well-oiled machine, condensing demanding workflows in a variety of ways.
In my practice, I now strongly prefer applications that integrate with Zapier because it transports data more harmoniously than if I were to move the data with a mouse and keyboard. Determining whether Zapier is right for your practice will require evaluating your existing workflows, your comfort with this type of automation, and perhaps whether you will use cloud applications in the future.
The good news is you can give it a try with a simple Zap that takes only a little time to set up and doesn’t cost a thing.
Originally posted 2016-05-02. Republished 2020-02-12.