In recent years, the tech adoption gap between legal and other departments has grown considerably. In 2018, a survey of CEOs by Gartner revealed that 8 out of 10 legal departments were unready for digitization. Honestly, legal professionals have never been at the front of the line when it comes to technology adoption. This reluctance is partly due to the nature of the work. Risk management is meticulous work where very few (if any) corners can be cut.
The concern amongst most general counsels is that the speed of the modern digitized business is incompatible with legal and compliance practices. As businesses speed up, the legal department risks becoming more and more of a drag on operations. To keep up, the general counsel must innovate and embrace the digital transformation. However, the skills needed to run the technological tools available to legal departments are scarce.
As Timely points out: “Adopting new technology and new processes means having to adopt new ways of thinking; it also means developing new sets of skills - and when legal professionals have worked for years to get where they are today, such rapid change (...) may not be attractive.” Although accurate on its own, such concerns are a bit of a catch-22. Incremental change is resisted in favor of traditional means until traditional means begin to fail. By the time change has become essential, the jump is too far.
In this article, I will discuss some of the changes general counsels can start making today to start the digital transformation. These changes are relatively small or can be done with minimal impact. Above all, they help to avoid that word technologists love but legal professionals hate: disruption.
The new role of the general counsel
5 ways that general counsel can start digitizing their departments today
1. By regulating and improving the flow of information within the corporate structure
2. By boosting Department Efficiency by taking advantage of automation
3. By using Matter Management to declutter litigation processes
4. By optimizing Knowledge Management to ensure experience is retained and accessible
5. By using eDiscovery tools to bring more litigation tasks in-house
Let's dive in!
As mentioned, the general counsel is more or less forced to adopt technology to strengthen their capabilities. This is not to say it is a process only driven externally. Many in the profession are more than willing to embrace digital transformation. As time goes on, these numbers are bound to increase further. The amount of data involved in the day-to-day operation of legal continues to grow, and deadlines become tighter as a result.
Even when open to digital transformation, legal departments won’t be able to make the change overnight. The general counsel’s workload is hardly ever considerate. Meaning legal will have to take its transformation step by step rather than in one fell swoop. Less of an overhaul and more a ship of Theseus style approach, then.
Recent external factors have also played a key role in forcing changes upon the general counsel. As highlighted by the Docket, the COVID-19 pandemic was a baptism by fire for many legal departments. It put those already on the path to digitization at a distinct advantage: “The need to switch from office to remote support, literally overnight put legal and risk management teams that had already incorporated digital solutions into their support models at an advantage. They were able to rely on working tools.” For departments that hadn’t made the jump, the first steps of technology adoption came thick and fast. The Docket writes: “Digital components for legal and risk management support were once viewed as expensive gadgets, but have been increasingly recognized as business enablers.”
All of this has changed the role of the general counsel from the traditional to a more technologically enabled way of operating. For those still in the early stages, it is not always obvious where to start implementing tools to improve legal performance.
In the technology space, it’s quite common to see solutions that promise to revolutionize the way legal operates. In most instances, this simply isn’t the case. Realistically, the work of the general counsel does not and will not change as time passes and technology improves. The medium in which the work comes is no longer paper but digital, and the amount of work is growing. This is why technology is so valuable - it allows the general counsel to continue to perform in spite of those changing circumstances. Technology can help legal departments become a business enabler. It can allow the general counsel to show their value in ways that they cannot without technology to back it up.
That said, how are digitally-minded general counsels improving their departments?
For a GC in search of ways to facilitate easier compliance, all roads lead to information governance. As organizations hold increasing amounts of data, the management of that data has to be tightly run. In practice, this means a joint project with the Information Technology department to determine policies that ensure data is kept as long as needed (but no longer). Tools such as Legal Document Management Software (Legal DMS) help legal departments by making such policies easy to follow.
By taking advantage of user management options included in many Legal DMS tools, it’s possible to ensure access to documents is regulated. Documents needed for compliance or litigation are kept safe. In the Legal DMS environment, these documents can be kept, searched, and produced whenever necessary.
A lot of work currently done by hand in the legal department is repetitive and can be easily automated using software tools. For example, contract management tools can assist in both the drafting and tracking of various contracts. This includes processing amendments for points of negotiation. Contract management tools free up time spent drafting and redrafting contracts. It also helps in tracking signature statuses. That way, the general counsel can spend time on more important legal matters.
According to Juro, a contract management tool can cut the time spent on routine tasks by 75%. Even if we take that number with a grain of salt, it’s a significant improvement over the manual alternative. Most importantly, these types of tools are specialized. This means adoption is possible without major impact to legal operations. It also keeps control over the process in the hands of legal professionals. This makes it a very manageable first step into automation for most legal departments.
In 2019, the ACC benchmark survey found that on average, inside lawyers handle just over 9 cases a year each. For legal departments employing multiple lawyers, that’s a lot of cases to keep on top of. Matter management software helps to create oversight. It does this by allowing the general counsel to work in a single environment through which the process is easily viewed. Since it’s an environment that they share, progress is easily tracked and deadlines are clear.
Matter management tools also allow for more accurate budgeting and cost controls. These controls let the legal department run more efficiently. Like contract management, matter management can be used on its own. This makes its adoption relatively low-impact while offering a significant upgrade to legal operations.
I’ve previously written an in-depth post on knowledge management and its value. Knowledge management is the process through which organizations retain the experience of employees. The general concept has been around for decades, starting around the turn of the century as the baby boomer generation began retiring. The digitized tools of today mainly focus on making sure the knowledge retained is readily accessible. A corporate memory can be a great boon to an organization, but it’s only as good as it is accessible.
eDiscovery as a concept needs no introduction in the modern legal space. For many corporate legal departments, however, eDiscovery is something external lawyers do. To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on external help. At the same time, there are a lot of operational parts to eDiscovery that the legal department can perform themselves. By using modern DIY-friendly eDiscovery solutions, it is possible to more effectively cull the dataset of potentially relevant documents and eliminate duplicate files. This allows the general counsel to send out a leaner dataset to the law firm, which reduces the time (and cost) of document review dramatically.
Nowadays, almost three-quarters of legal budgets consist of costs associated with document review. eDiscovery tools let the general counsel reduce the time spent without compromising results.
General Counsel has come to the point where no amount of prudence can stop the digitization of legal operations. That doesn’t mean they have to lose control of the process, however. It certainly isn’t too late to start moving towards a more tech-supported legal department. The notion of revolutionizing or overhauling a legal department is not realistic. By taking a more methodical approach, the general counsel can maintain control. That way, they know the transformation does not interfere with safeguarding their organization.
Technology adoption tends to be self-reinforcing. The results achievable through the solutions available to today’s legal professionals are significant. As such, once that innovative ball starts rolling, the going becomes easier as time passes. If you’re looking to discuss possible improvements to your legal operations, I encourage you to reach out.