Wolters Kluwer manager for UK and Ireland Shay Ogunsanya talks to The Lawyer about general counsel feeling overwhelmed by the idea of digital transformation, the best place to start with your digital strategy and keeping in mind that rolling out new technology often takes longer than expected.

What does digital transformation actually mean for the general counsel and the legal function? 

Digital transformation is more than just going paperless and digitalising all the processes within the legal department. It’s about how technology is integrated into the legal function and how it fundamentally changes the way the legal department operates and delivers value to the rest of the organisation. Some advantages of digital transformation are lower costs, increased productivity and efficient collaboration with the rest of the business. It’s important to remember that digital transformation within the legal function should be aligned with the rest of the business.

Many of the general counsel I’ve spoken to are reluctant to embark on digital transformation simply because they’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. The general counsel’s role during digital transformation involves coming up with a long-term plan including where the legal function is today and what it should look like in the future. Another key role involves managing up and managing laterally. Managing up involves aligning with business leaders and explaining why development of the legal department is important for the overall strategy. Managing laterally means managing not only the in-house team but also all other related business functions, facilitating knowledge sharing and taking ownership of what’s being developed.

Shay Ogunsanya

Where do you start with creating a digital strategy for the legal function and what is considered a sensible timeline for this?  

The best place to start is by carrying out an internal investigation. This involves determining your stakeholders and taking a closer look at your team. What are your organisation’s objectives, both strategically and financially? What are the business needs? When looking at your team it’s important to consider the team’s core responsibilities and processes and how they are aligned with the organisation’s overall strategy. Get to know your team’s strengths, how tech-savvy your team is and where room for improvement is needed. I would also recommend to talk to your IT department to see what tools and resources you currently have available.

Carrying out an internal investigation is often overlooked because it’s tempting to jump straight to the acquisition phase and start looking at tools right away. The danger of not conducting an internal investigation is that you’ll end up with a digital strategy that doesn’t align with the goals of your team and the business.

In terms of timeline, six months is reasonable for developing your strategy. The implementation phase will take longer. It’s important to be realistic about the timing, keeping in mind that rolling out new technology often takes longer than expected.

What are the main pitfalls for in-house teams when it comes to creating and implementing a digital strategy?  

The pitfall I see most often is that organisations want to change too much at once. This approach is likely to be unsuccessful given the enormous amount of change required. Once you’ve prioritised the issues your digital strategy will address you can build on the initial success. I recommend to focus on persistent, high-priority issues, such as spending too much time searching for documents or waiting weeks for contracts to be signed. In the end, your digital strategy should create lasting change. Investments that address short-term needs will be less beneficial. Technology that’s both flexible and scalable enough to meet your needs over the next three years will help you make the most out of your investment.

Another pitfall I’ve experienced is failing to ensure user acceptance and getting everybody on board. I would avoid saying that the digital strategy will bring about disruption. People get nervous when they hear the term “disruption” because it implies that the situation is temporary and everything will be better in a few months. In reality, it takes much longer to instil change.

What is your advice for selecting the right tech and future proofing your technology roadmap, given how fast things evolve and change in the tech space? 

When it comes to selecting the right technology, take the time to reach out to vendors. As a former legal counsel myself, I refused to answer calls and ignore emails from vendors because they had tried to reach me three times that month. My perception drastically changed three weeks in to my current role, when I realised the potential value I missed by avoiding their attempts to contact me. When I worked as a legal counsel, I was sceptical of a legal tech vendor’s ability to understand how the legal department works. However, an exemplary sales manager at a legal tech vendor will take the time to understand your requirements first before launching into a sales pitch about why a particular legal tech solution would be a good fit for your department. A sales manager can assist in evaluating what specific features you need to address your biggest pain points, while keeping your budget in mind.

Furthermore, it’s important to stay updated on the legal tech market. When you’re more aware of what tools are on the market today and how your peers are using them, you’re able to help your team grow and operate more efficiently.

Who has been the biggest influence in your career?

The biggest influence on my career is my father. Growing up, I remember watching him as a lawyer and then moving on to politics. He showed me the importance of law and how you can influence people’s lives for the better using the law. When I was growing up, I believed – as many people do – that I could change the world. Perhaps it was my father’s involvement in politics that influenced me the most. He showed me that driving for change even in the middle of adversity, learning to persevere, hard work and determination play a big part in achieving your goals. Using the law in that regard ensured that he was able to make a difference even though he might not have been able to change the world. “Making a difference” became my motto. As long as I can make a difference, I will persevere, using the law.