If you had a magic wand, how would you transform your in-house legal team?

This was the starting point of Marsden’s recent Legal Operations Roundtable, hosted jointly with John Bennett of Melius Law, with 15 General Counsel/Heads of Legal participating to share their learnings and challenges with their peers at a variety of companies.

Legal operations is a method of optimising an in-house legal team to help it realise its potential and demonstrate its value to the business. While many in the room had made some progress in their legal operations journey, there were some common themes:

  • ‘Double-hatting’ – General Counsel/Heads of Legal can have many roles to play within an organisation and limited time. They often have small teams and a lack of capacity to take on new work or processes.
  • Many have already invested in legal tech/AI systems, but they are not fulfilling current needs or are not being used properly.
  • Attracting and retaining talent is important as well as ensuring people are rewarded, recognised, developed and progressed.
  • While many believe that they need team transformation, this was not often seen as a valid use of time or money and therefore assigned a lower priority in the organisation. Some said it would be difficult to create a business case given that there was no clear criteria for ‘success’.

If you are a General Counsel wishing to embark on a legal operations transformation, where do you start?

Use the skills of people you already have. There were some interesting insights shared by the GC of a tech company which started its legal ops journey more than five years ago. He wanted to make his team more efficient and add more value to the business, but did not have the budget for a dedicated resource to help him do this. He began by spending more than a year assessing his team and their skill sets and where best people could be deployed to help transform the team.

Assess the non-tech side first. It’s common for new team heads to review the law firm panel relationships they have.  One GC found that members of her team had ‘favourite lawyers’ and some were sending low-value work to expensive firms. She resolved this by insisting that all legal spend was funnelled through her. By gaining more understanding of the usual workflow it helped her create natural efficient processes. It is important to decide which law firms are providing the best value for the organisation and ensure that they align with its values.

Create a timetable for success. For a GC not sure where to start, it can be beneficial to set some desired milestones – what do we need to achieve in the next 12 months/three years/five years? How does each step align with the needs of the business?

Use the existing tech solutions you have in the business. Many organisations often use software tools such as ServiceNow within their IT teams, which help define, manage, automate and structure IT services. One GC found a way to use this to manage workflows in the legal team, beginning with commercial contract processing. Many teams already have G-Suite tools but are not making the most of the various functionalities they offer and can learn from other departments as to how they use them.

With tech, start small. Taking on and using a new technology process can often feel overwhelming. Some GCs had been successful in starting with an AI tool to help process commercial contracts, then assessing how it could be used in other areas. Since lawyers are generally quite resistant to change, one GC decided to roll out a trial over the quieter summer months to increase internal engagement. Another was successful in trialling a tool of an AI system that ‘triaged’ a list of questions that needed to be considered when dealing with multi-jurisdictional matters and automatically fed them into a workflow dashboard.

Communicate with the rest of the organisation. ‘Just send it to legal’ is common within businesses. Some had implemented systems of pushing back on NDAs,  or asking set questions to assess the urgency and complexity of a request to decide how it fit into the current workflow. Having quarterly check-ins with other heads of division to manage expectations and assess needs was also felt to be a way to drive engagement both within the legal team and the organisation. Many GCs reported being successful at managing the ‘churn’ work, but were still struggling with how to effectively resource bespoke requests.

Recruit those with the right mindset. Many GCs felt that the ideal new recruits to their team understand both the law and tech, and that for existing team members it is a development and progression opportunity. Even making small changes takes a lot of energy – some lawyers are happy doing contract churn and do not want to take on additional work. More mature organisations/legal teams are finding themselves in a fortunate enough position to recruit legal operations professionals for their team to help the GC get the best out of everyone.

Celebrate and promote the wins – no matter how small.  Communicating the effects of even small positive changes made both within the legal team and the business was felt to be beneficial. For one GC, this involved instituting a simple dashboard system that kept track of all matters worked on and could be easily communicated to the team/business to show how much work was being completed. It has also helped them push back on things that should be dealt with by other departments, such as procurement, and assess the amount of low-value, low-impact work that can be dealt with via an AI tech solution. Being able to demonstrate additional cost savings generated also is an attractive advert for the legal team. At the same time, GCs should not be afraid to fail, since failure is an essential part of the learning process – if one route doesn’t work, another might.

Ultimately, legal operations is an ongoing learning curve about people, processes and technology. It can help GCs decide the ‘must do’, ‘should do’, ‘could do’ and ‘shouldn’t do’ within the team, and what to outsource to law firms.

You can find out more about Melius Law here. If you are a lawyer interested in legal operations or a General Counsel or Head of Legal looking to recruit specialists for your team please connect with Amanda Chard (interim) or Sarita Rai (permanent).