Digital Workspaces: The Most Important Legal Tech Innovation You’ve Never Heard Of
Your email inbox is your primary workspace. It enables and records all of your communications, both internally and externally.
The volume of information flooding your inbox requires a tremendous amount of organization and coordination. Retrieving relevant information at the right time is an impressive and important skill, vital to the productivity of modern lawyers. But it’s not legal work.
Would anyone intentionally organize all of their materials into a single, linearly-organized filing cabinet based solely on when it arrives? Not if they had an alternative. A single repository for all of your clients and matters requires constant sifting and searching. Even the most diligent folder-using attorneys are endlessly managing and searching their inbox.
Digital workspace is an alternative, and increasingly important in our virtual work world. Here’s a look at what they are, and the science-backed reasons why they are so effective at enabling us to search, think, and collaborate in ways that optimize our work as attorneys.
What is a digital workspace?
A digital workspace is a standalone virtual desktop dedicated to a client, case or matter. An effective digital workspace will provide a comprehensive view of all materials related to that particular case or matter (emails, documents, checklists etc.), and can be made accessible to colleagues to see joint views of information.
You haven’t heard from a client in a few weeks, then they resurface with a request. Click into that client’s digital workspace, and pick up exactly where you left off.
You’re cc’d on a matter but not as the lead attorney. Then you’re tasked with an assignment for that matter. Instead of searching through email chains and document folders, you simply toggle to the matter’s digital workspace, and all the relevant materials are instantly at your fingertips.
Utilizing digital workspaces enables lawyers to access bounded sets of information, free from the clutter. It allows attorneys to collaborate with colleagues in real time and records the project management benchmarks of a case or transaction – a process currently relegated to the depths of email chains.
While largely invisible to many lawyers, a version of digital workspaces has existed in the “back office” for years, in practice management and case management solutions (think intake, billing, conflicts etc). These tools help run the business of the law firm, but they’re not used by the lawyers to actually practice law. The digital workspaces of the future will be built to serve lawyers in practicing law, to enhance their productivity and adapt to their existing workflow.
It’s about how we get to the answer
Search emails from lead partner. Search emails from my partner, with attachments. Search emails from my partner, sent directly to me, with attachments, older than three weeks. Sound familiar?
Our current way of working is static and requires constant searching and sorting through our inboxes. Each time you need to find an email or document, you either need to sort through your email, your document management system, or interrupt a colleague and ask if they have it in his or her inbox. A study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that most workers spend approximately 19 percent of their time each week searching and gathering information, and 28 percent of their time reading and answering email. That’s 47 percent of the work week!2
You eventually find that email. You get to the correct version of that document that your colleagues circulated three weeks ago. But if you need to find that document again tomorrow, you’ll likely perform the exact same search, again. The current process is haphazard and ridiculous. It’s not about getting to the answer, it’s about how you get there.
Sorting emails and documents into separate client digital workspaces reduces the perpetual micro-stresses of searching for information (I know you feel it). Everything has a place, and you know exactly where to find it.
In other words: We can’t guarantee that partner won’t email you at 1:38 am for that document. But we can guarantee that you’ll know where to find it when he or she does.
Benefits of Virtual Workspaces – Cognitive Geography
Cognitive geography is the interdisciplinary study of cognitive science and geography, and it tells us a whole lot about why we are spending half of our week stumbling through our inboxes, trying to tame our emails like thousands of roaming sheep.3 The answer is: we’re not wired to view and understand information the way inboxes are designed.
Empirical evidence shows that our brains are designed to view clusters and patterns, not lists of emails within folders.4 Results from experiments on visualizations and recall show that grouping materials and dynamic displays increase precision and accuracy.5
Regardless of whether your current email sorting process is sophisticated or non-existent, the answer to improve it is quite simple: dynamic displays and cognitive geography increase our precision and recall. Put simply, changing how we see our email and documents to accommodate for these cognitive principles eases the laborious email burden we currently experience.
The human brain is designed to recall and organize information, like language and email, through visual cues. Unlike Outlook’s static folders, Digital Workspaces present all of your client’s messages, documents, and checklists into separate dynamic displays. Imagine having a dashboard for each particular client that enables you to see all of the relevant information in groupings: Emails on the left, relevant documents on the right, a chat function to coordinate with your internal team, and a checklist that updates in real time. Ah, now that’s better.
How humans collaborate: Why having a “third place” is vital to our productivity
Our work requires more than just finding information; Meaningful collaboration requires an effective system in which to share and exchange information with your colleagues.
While there was already a global shift underway regarding where work happens, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation and working in dispersed, virtual teams. The pandemic has deepened our need for a better way to communicate and convey joint views of information virtually.7
Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist, is known for his research that demonstrated the importance of having a clear “third place,” a term he coined to describe a gathering place to collaborate and problem solve.8 Well before digital workspaces were an option, Oldenburg encouraged people to find “neutral public spaces” as a means to foster social vitality, communication, and productivity. In an increasingly digital world – and our current (in many instances, fully) remote world, it’s become even more important that we create these “third places” virtually in order to foster collaboration.
New data suggests having these “third places” are crucial specifically in the legal world. In her research, Michelle Destefano, Professor of Law and Founder & Director of LawWithoutWalls, found that legal teams that connect in virtual “rooms” — both at pre-established times and at the spur of the moment — solidify as a legal team and are more efficient and effective. Her research found that this is especially true for millennial attorneys, who are 71 percent more likely to seize the opportunities that virtual, collaborative work presents.9
Digital workspaces enable teams of lawyers to visualize their materials and provide a full picture of each client and case all in one, dynamic, environment. Research shows that virtual workspaces are a crucial element of a distributed team that enable you to create a culture that is team oriented, rather than siloed.10 As law firms become less localized and more dispersed, this becomes even more vital.
Digital Workspaces are an essential upgrade to email chains where only certain individuals are included, information is restricted, and there are enormous gaps in knowledge —
especially when cases or transactions are at their busiest.
The bottom line is: email is inadequate to meet the demands of the current attorney workflow. Digital workspaces fill this gap by creating shared fields of view that get your team on the same page and working together in ways that have not been possible before.
From Big law attorneys to solo practitioners, Dashboard Legal is a powerful tool to help organize your practice and it can be up and running in a fifteen minutes flat. It does not require a change in how you work. It is designed to intuitively work within and alongside your current systems, and will get you and your team out of your inboxes and into a collaborative workflow that helps you better serve your clients.
Want to learn more? Contact us for a free demo.