As the client service transformation partner at TLT, Siân Ashton’s first question for a group of in-house lawyers during a virtual roundtable with The Lawyer was: “What causes you pain?”
This was not an enquiry about the physical or mental wellbeing of GCs, but rather one for the workplace as she seeks to identify where in-house lawyers encounter their greatest challenges.
Unsurprisingly, the varied nature of companies means that problems can arise in different forms; however, the notion of process optimisation is something that Ashton believes can help.
From her many conversations with clients, Ashton highlighted some of the issues that have been thrown up by GCs. The first being increased workloads, which is a frequent pain point.
This was particularly relevant for one delegate who is head of legal at a data intelligence company: “For us, it is about trying to manage the volume of work coming through, which we have seen an increase of over 250 per cent over the last year,” she said. “It is about managing sales teams’ expectations and being able to liaise with our stakeholders to assess where we are up to. Anything that is legal in nature has to come through my team.”
This increased workload then coincides with a lack of resources from both a material and financial perspective, with GCs stressing that teams and budgets aren’t big enough alongside a pressure to increase efficiency.
Things aren’t helped by a lack of awareness regarding technology, and for so many GCs, the question is ‘where you do you even start?’. However, Ashton adds that even when the tools are available, the legal tech industry is very much point solution-driven and not about catering to multiple problems. ‘No one ever asks me what I want,’ is another common complaint.
Process optimisation is a journey to help combat these issues, and Ashton insists that “starting with the pain point is vital”.
As a business discipline, Ashton told delegates that process optimisation can be defined as: “The practice of identifying and analysing processes, in order to improve them, for the benefit of you, the customer and the broader business.”
Therefore, defining the problem represents the cornerstone of the following cycle. The next steps include mapping the process; identifying waste; choosing improvements and execution.
The engagement of stakeholders is also important: “The key step is to get them involved at the beginning,” she says, “Make sure they’re engaged in that development.”
It is also important to consider what you want from the process, with Ashton highlighting examples that could include “increased efficiency, the mitigation of risk and better business outcomes”.
When it comes to mapping out the process, which follows the definition of the problem, Ashton claims this is the most fundamental step to get right. This can be achieved by hosting workshops across the business, talking issues through with stakeholders and by working out which steps might add value.
Next up is waste management: “You don’t want to blindly improve across the board,” says Ashton. “You want to pick the areas that can be improved and where improvement will have an impact.” The final two steps, choice of improvements and execution, may seem straight forward but they are just as crucial.
For example, one must map out the different options available before then working out what is the best thing to do, says Ashton. She adds that the business must be on board when requesting a specific solution to a problem as it is the company that holds the purse strings. An example being one could acquire a piece of tech that works both for the business as well as the legal team.
Despite all the above, Ashton accepts that justifying process optimisation is tough when in-house lawyers are already under huge pressures. The benefits of boosting efficiency may be obvious, but GCs may just not have the time to carry out the process.
Therefore, Ashton claims it may be beneficial to bring in a third-party to help run the procedure: “There are lots of options out there, including by law firms, that allow you to get this on a consultancy basis,” says Ashton.
TLT legal project manager Jonathan Williams claims his involvement in the process of process optimisation can benefit a client as he “does not have any skin in the game”. This can help ease conversations that may ordinarily be difficult to have on an internal basis: “You need someone to ask those really awkward questions which is not easy to do when you are doing it yourself.”
This concept of legal project management is one aspect of in-house legal departments looking to the future.
For many within the legal industry, budgets are under huge pressure and there is an expectation to do more with less. Therefore, process optimisation is a much-valued tool that must be embraced.
For those facing dissenting stakeholders who raise issues such as there is not enough resource, there is no time or budget, Ashton replies “but how does your day look if you don’t do this? Can you balance the resource you do have indefinitely without going through a process optimisation process?” Often the answer is no.
Help is at hand through law firms like TLT with a legal project management offering, consultants and other project management houses. As the virtual way of working is likely to be part of many teams working life going forward, now could be the very time to seize the opportunity to review tired and outdated processes that no longer work in a virtual working environment. In so doing ensuring the legal team is efficient, able to deliver quickly to the business a quality assured service whilst mitigating risk, providing overall better business outcomes.