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Improving your legal operations: get back to basics

Helen Lowe

03 Mar 2021

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva (Photo)

When I moved into the world of legal operations in 2015, my only previous encounter with the law was a house purchase and a speeding ticket; neither of which had equipped me with any understanding of lawyers, and certainly not in-house teams.

Moving into the legal sector from ‘outside’ presents a unique opportunity. An opportunity to ask ‘why’ without fear that you might be found out: “why do you do it like that?”, “why does that happen then?”. No stone should be left unturned and no question regarded as too stupid to ask. You are a fresh set of eyes who can look critically at processes, policies and procedures, and wonder whether they are necessary or if they could be done more efficiently or even not at all.

A new report from Thomson Reuters sets out how using a Legal Technology Roadmap can help you align your technology and legal operations strategy to improve your efficiency and effectiveness.

Law is a profession that fundamentally knows it must change but doesn’t fully understand what to change or how to make that change happen. Change in any industry is blocked by one thing: perfection, which as we all know, is the enemy of good. The challenge is to identify quick and easy ways to deliver change that transforms performance and really lasts, without using any budget. The answer lies in relying on what you already have, your people, processes and existing technology (however basic that may be).

Start at the beginning

Take the time to document the processes that you’ve already got and store them in one place. Although they might not make sense, might end abruptly or in an odd place, write them down and keep them safely. This is your starting point, the “current state”.

Use these process maps as a foundation and speak to your team to understand what works and what doesn’t. Identify any friction points, what problems they cause and, crucially, what would make your team’s lives easier. Overlay these questions, concerns and ideas onto your process documents.

Above all, ask “why”. Pull at the thread to see if you can unravel the jumper and work out what the process and problem are all about. Then you need to ask yourself whether it:

  • Can be fixed by making a quick change (for example, changing delegated authorities to stop logjams and fixing contract approvals).
  • Requires a new approach (for example, a process that attempts to mitigate risk but actually increases it and needs to be reconsidered).
  • Needs a technical solution.

Work out what technology you have

Find a helpful IT person who can share the systems architecture for your business. It’s incredible how often a useful piece of kit is lying in a virtual corner not really doing anything but is no doubt still being paid for. Although you need to understand your internal Legal IT infrastructure, it’s worth exploring where there may be overlaps that you can exploit.

For example, a procurement database can be re-purposed by adding a contract expiration field and legal owner to give you visibility over the BAU pipeline of contracts that will need renewal. This solves both a budgeting and workload problem in one by leveraging technology that already exists. It’s not perfect, but it is a step forward.

Identify the ‘low hanging fruit’

These are the quick fixes that can help you get started. They are easy to implement and often deliver disproportionate returns on the time invested. Usually, they address the biggest friction points identified in your process maps but in a small way, such as re-routing an approval or archiving content on a shared drive.

These quick fixes often sort out issues that everyone has complained about for ages because “there must be an easier way to do this!”. Draft your new process and discuss it with the team and stakeholders; an extra set of eyes (or ten) will ensure that it works as planned.

Now tackle the bigger stuff

There are all sorts of creative ways to use the technology that you already have. For example:

  • Speak to suppliers to really understand what their product can do.
  • Ask super-users in the business if a solution can help to solve a problem that you are looking at.
  • Forms can be built in Excel if you don’t have a 365 forms solution.
  • Data can be captured manually to create reports in Powerpoint.

All this can be done in a low-tech way. By building solutions in systems that aren’t designed to solve the problem you are trying to answer, you often discover better routes around a problem. Even if you don’t find a solution, at the very least you get to test out how you really want it to work. When you have reached that point, document the new process, the “future state”.

Don’t think like a lawyer (even if you are one)

Lawyers are typically risk-averse. Change requires leaps of faith, big ideas and the knowledge that you are never going to get it right 100 percent of the time (sometimes, not even 50 percent of the time!). Looking at a problem from a commercial perspective, and seeing the opportunities rather than the risks, is vital to delivering any change, however small. Being ready to lean your shoulder hard against doors that look closed to unlock change is also necessary, as well as being able to explain ‘why’ you need to do something.

Making change stick

In any change, it is important to identify your ambassadors. Often these are the people most likely to resist the change. Bring them on the journey, involve them in your thinking, and get them to support your implementation plans as champions.

Find a problem to solve

One of the biggest mistakes when purchasing new technology is not understanding the problem that you are trying to solve. If you don’t understand how your team and business currently work, trying to set up a product which solves the problem that you think you have, rather than the problem you actually have, will only lead to confusion.

This is the reason why the back to basics approach is so valuable. The knowledge and information you gain give you a platform to build on and it’s not wasted work because you are improving things right the way through the process and giving your future plans the best chance of success.


This article originally appeared on Practical Law In-house as part of The Inside View series of opinion articles written by in-house counsel, all of which are free access, you can access it here (free access).

You can access The Inside View archive here.

Download your copy of ‘How to develop a legal technology roadmap’.

In-house agenda: April 2021 Legal Geek—Lessons from COVID-19 and human nature The impact of COVID-19 on managing your legal department—a new report New report: In-house legal departments see pandemic as a catalyst for accelerating change Outcome: Spring 2021 Budget—Practical Law’s summary Ethical considerations around AI in legal technology—TR Takeover of Legal Geek event In-house agenda: March 2021 Post-Brexit: A new report on meeting the challenge of legislative divergence Spring 2021 Budget—Practical Law’s predictions Unlock the benefits of a legal technology roadmap