Tech Savvy In-House Part I

In the early days of Evolve Law, we hosted events for in-house attorneys on both coasts to analyze the pain points of legal department lawyers. We followed up those events with another event series, titled Tech Savvy In-House, which aimed to make the topic of legal tech less intimidating. In those sessions, we discussed technology solutions, the future of in-house legal counsel, and the growth of legal operations.

These events were tremendously valuable; that’s why I’m now adapting them to a blog series. In this part one of a three-part series, I’ll discuss how in-house attorneys and legal operations can balance risk with early adoption to provide better service and contribute to change as an equal member of the management team.

Not First Adopters

Attorneys are trained to be risk adverse; therefore, it is in-congruent for in-house lawyers to be early adopters of major technology or seek out change. Many attorneys are focused on protecting the company rather than enabling business transactions. Businesses will look for metrics around the adoption of technology, such as cost savings and return on investment.

During our event series, Lawton Penn of Davis Wright Tremaine commented, “You come into a company because you had really specialized legal subject matter expertise. But now, it seems like in-house counsel are expected to have business acumen to come with data to back up their intuition and their recommendations, and to be able to process these huge volumes of legal work product efficiently and cost effectively.” This can be a challenge for many attorneys because law school and/or law firm work does not prepare you for the legal support function within a business.

Maja Larson from Allen Institute talked about her journey trying to implement a knowledge management system. Her goal was to be able to retrieve every bit of information on the life cycle of products, grants, and innovations, and “slice and dice” that data for her work. She described the failure: “It was a fantastic system that we purchased knowing that it was not currently being used the way that we wanted it to be used, but the provider assured us that they would make it so that we could use it. I was totally disappointed when they just could not do it. So now we use it for basically a large database. And it also doesn’t interface with any of our other systems, so we’re having to look at other options for our front-end and back-end.” It’s these types of missteps that can set back improvement through technology. Also, a lack of integration with other systems can be problematic when trying to use niche or legal-specific technology.

Once a business chooses a technology, implementation can prove difficult, and it often requires a multidisciplinary approach as Mike McQueeney, in-house counsel at Pearson, explains with two examples: The first focused on e-billing technology that he and his team “implemented by first lining up our policies and using our outside counsels’ guidelines.” They “demonstrated cost savings both in reduction of outside counsel cost as well as in-house billing resources.” He and his team moved the project to implementation within two months. The second example was implementing a litigation hold software, and this situation was much different: “Budgets have become very tight, and IT is going through a restructuring. They’re trying to reduce the number of applications.” The litigation hold software doesn’t have immediate cost savings, and IT doesn’t understand the software’s capability. “As a result,” said McQueeney, “we’ve been trying for over nine months to get this in place, and we’re still not there (as of June 2016). And it’s both an issue of the product as well as what’s going on within the organization.” The latter example illustrates the need for buy-in across departments and the need for lawyers to articulate the value that the technology will bring to the business.

Lawton Penn commented that because the law is not the core business of the company, in-house technology needs often fall to the bottom of the list. Her team designed a client dashboard that solved the legal department’s needs for matter and financial real-time tracking; legal loved it. Five months later, they still can’t get IT to prioritize getting this application through the firewall. So, the lawyers can use this dashboard from their home computers and from their iPads, but not from a company-issued laptop.

On a positive note, Ken Callander of Value Strategies discussed a few of the technologies in place at some of his clients’ businesses, such as e-billing, contract and document management, and e-discovery. Specifically, companies that use machine learning to read invoices from law firms and identify inefficiencies. Also, Ken mentioned the use of Slack for team collaboration within and outside the companies, including in-house and outside counsel.

Change Management

Adopting technology is a change management project. Many business purchase technology solutions but do not fully implement or actually use the software. One of the main reasons why software becomes “shelf-ware” is due to lack of management support and resources as shown in the above mentioned Pearson example. Many times, it is because the project has not been managed at the fundamental workflow level, including understanding and obtaining the required buy-in for the necessary changes.

Lucy Bassli from Microsoft in-house and legal operations encourages us to look at processes and create playbooks or road maps. Her experience came from going in-house from big law to do contracts at Microsoft. She described her “epiphany that said, ‘This is not that novel every time.’ And I started walking down the virtual halls of our department saying, ‘Wow, why are 35 paralegals and attorneys still doing similar contracts over and over again in a dissimilar way. And what is it about them that’s so special?’ And in my case, it was in the area of procurement, which is inbound contracting, which is a safe place to start. Risk tolerance and risk mitigation—I was in a safe place to push a little bit and say, ‘It’s okay; let this go.’ And then we went through a journey of documenting the process and then outsourcing. This is certainly not law firm lawyer work, not elite law firm lawyer work. It was just the wrong resource. The work was always perfect. I didn’t need perfect.” The technology may lead to a shift or change in business, or the business can lead to technology adoption.

It’s important to remember that working with others outside of the legal department can bring fresh eyes to a process that may itself remain the same. Mike McQueeney talked about the law firm selection panel process: “We would naturally think that we could just do that ourselves. The company was using Accenture for all their procurement activities and rather insisted that we give them a try. And we did. And they brought together some skills, non-lawyer skills, in terms of being able to analyze data [and] put it in meaningful context for us to evaluate as well as negotiating with firms effectively. That’s where it makes sense, when they have the skills and technology that we just don’t have.”

A final comment from Mike resonates with all busy attorneys, “I’ve not had any situations where we have implemented technology, nor do I envision situations, where lawyers say, ‘Wow, I wish I could review a thousand documents today.’” I think the consensus is that budgets and target metrics will drive the use of technology to solve the business problems that include legal work. The legal work will not drive the business. Lawyers that embrace the change as their roles evolve will become valuable management team members. #onwards.

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