Legal Retail

March 1, 2005

Irwin Mitchell is a unique law firm and, as such, there are many very unique technical challenges. Irwin Mitchell consists of four businesses; Personal Injury, Private Client, Corporate and Insurance. Each business requires a different technical treatment bringing with it a number of applications designed to deliver a particular legal service.

One particular strategy developed over the years has been to court volume work providers and institutions who deliver to us a great number of cases of a similar look and feel. This type of work has all the hallmarks of retail. The cases require rapid execution operating against tight service levels, small margins and therefore has to be machine driven, with online information provided to the work provider or client and good quality telephone access on a near 24/7 basis.

General Approach

To match this sort of requirement, we have had to modify our thinking. Back in 2001, Irwin Mitchell converted its traditional switchboard to a call centre. It is unfortunate that call centres are associated with negative feelings, however, we pressed on. Clients were profiled such that specific telephony approaches were adopted for each of the four business areas. Corporate clients would be received in the traditional manner with DDI (direct dial in) being very much part of the strategy. For those business areas on the receiving end of volume instructions, the call centre approach begins to come into its own.

In many instances, specific numbers (service lines) have been created which the work provider/institution can publish to its customers or members. From our perspective, it enables calls to be uniquely identified, routed and tracked to specific internal teams. The call centre technology provides ready access to a wealth of management information from which service level adherence can be proven and trends identified.

The call centre has flourished to meet business demand. Currently there are around 45 call handlers dealing with 130,000 calls per month.

Killer Move – Process Re-engineering

The call centre development rapidly moved to the next stage. This was to assess the type of call traffic entering the call centre and its destination. Very quickly, we established that a great number of calls were of an enquiry nature or to make an appointment. This type of call does not require the attention of a busy solicitor. We focussed on two pilot teams within Personal Injury who received calls considered to be of a volume type. The objective was to intercept the calls heading towards these teams and effectively defend them from continual interruption. A protocol was defined which described the type of call the call centre should handle and those it should forward on to the pilot teams. Clearly legal advice was off limits.

By doing this we had effectively started to move some of the business processes involved in the delivery of legal services away from the solicitors. This enabled the fee earners to focus more on the legal process, the component they are good at. It is clear that this slow migration of non-legal business process away from the fee earners is to be a winning formula going forward.

A very specific requirement of this operation was the absolute adoption of the case management systems. This exercise proved exceptionally useful in making that final cultural shift to complete system dependency.

The Result

The pilot groups returned results that were impressive for the three-month pilot. For group A, of the calls destined for them, 90% were dealt with in the call centre by a team who understands that work type. Group B returned a 72% interception.

The benefits for the client are clear. The client has a dedicated number to call and is greeted by staff trained and dedicated to handle that work type. The client deals with one person only during the call and is not passed from extension to extension in the vain expectation of finding a fee earner cognisant with the case.

It is a well recorded fact that the levels of client complaint relating to the non return of phone calls by solicitors are impressive. This initiative makes a substantial contribution to reducing this painful statistic at Irwin Mitchell.

The Technology

Workflow: The process requires some means of the call handlers having to hand information relating to the great many open cases. Given the physical spread of the teams and access to the files, the only logical solution was to make best use of the incumbent case management system. In the case of the Personal Injury team, this is a product called Legis. The fee-earning teams use this tool to manage the case load and update key events. The call handling unit have limited access to a number of fields in order to make notes of conversations with clients.

Document image processing: This was considered and elementary analysis performed to assess if the process could be enhanced by the call centre agents having access to an image of documents. The analysis showed that, providing the case management system indicated that a medical report has been delivered, then an image of the correspondence added no value. Indeed, a risk was identified; if too much information was available to the call handlers, then interpretation may be a problem.

Telephony: The telephony system was upgraded. The Sheffield site operates a Meridian Option 81 which needed a software revision and hardware to increase capacities. Additionally, an ACD system was purchased and installed which delivers much more functionality, not least of which was a comprehensive set of management information.

Intranet: Irwin Mitchell’s intranet was strengthened in particular areas to assist the call centre staff. For example, a rapid employee search tool was developed along with an advanced version in the event a caller is looking for a solicitor with particular skills or language capability. The intranet is being developed further for the call handlers to ensure all the right kind of information that is being asked for is readily available to the call handler with regard to the range of products and services.

Business Continuity: With increasing dependence on the call centre function and particularly in regard to the service level regime operated under, serious consideration has been given to service failure. Plans have been written and tested to ensure Irwin Mitchell does not go ‘off air’ to our clients. This extends to IP telephony and the need to plug in a work place recovery solution. This subject is key to being able to offer up credible telephony access to clients and cannot be underestimated.

Culture Shift

When it comes to process changes or automation of any type within the legal community, a frequent charge is that what the lawyers do is so special – it cannot be automated. I agree that many aspects are beyond the machine, however, there are some fundamental ‘business’ processes which surround the legal process which can be given a technical treatment. Better still; the processes can be removed from the fee earners all together. A long campaign should be planned with deliverables which are very tangible in order to gain trust by the fee earners that some of their magic can be done elsewhere and maybe to a better standard.

Next Steps

Given the success of the two pilot groups, we have already moved further into other teams within Personal Injury. It has to be said that not all work types would derive the benefits in the magnitudes described above and so an assessment of volumes and caller types should be made before a plan is developed. Conveyancing is also part of the call centre services and Will Writing will move there shortly. Any part of the Irwin Mitchell business that receives calls in quantity are candidates for this type of approach.

Further business processes such as conflict checking, file opening and file closing are potential areas of exploration. With this model extension, the call centres function would morph to a more generic customer service centre dealing with a wide range of business processes and tasks.

IP telephony is already part of the technology platform and the ACD (automatic call distribution) will follow suit shortly and brings with it a number of business continuity benefits given its flexibility. CTI (computer telephony integration) and portal technologies will be reviewed and implemented to ensure the call handlers have a fast and extremely efficient interface. The priority is to service the client as effectively as possible and this definition includes speed.

All of the activities in this area are monitored by the Business Development and Communications team who conduct client surveys periodically. The instances of non return of calls or being passed from place to place have fallen dramatically for those teams involved in the project.

Richard Hodkinson is the Operations Director, Irwin Mitchell Sheffield.

He can be contacted on 0870 1500 100 or at