The past year has been one of disruption for businesses everywhere. Daily team catch-ups migrated to Zoom and progress meetings once rewarded with a pint are now paired with anxiety around job security.

Responses to the pandemic, such as switching to remote working, have exposed the considerable inefficiencies of conventional working practices. Confronted with this dilemma, legal functions are now turning to legal operations to help bridge these gaps.

As part of The Lawyer’s Smarter Working Week, we explored how in-house legal functions can become smarter about the work they do and how they do it.

Stephanie Hamon

This was the subject of discussion in a recent roundtable hosted by Stephanie Hamon, head of legal operations consulting at Norton Rose Fulbright, where in-house lawyers gathered together to share their experiences with resource management and discuss how in-house legal functions can be the best strategic partner to their business.

Following the return to ‘normality’, whatever that looks like, organisations will see a rise of regulatory, litigation and transactional issues which will require an agile team of experts to provide solutions quickly. With this in mind, the first question for the attendees was clear: As a legal function, “how do we help our business understand what value we will bring?”

Strategy

Legal functions have proved central in the drive to recovery this past year, and the most progressive legal teams will be the ones who transform how they deliver their services to the wider business in the long term.

“We need to move the narrative towards legal as a strategic enabler”, said Hamon. What this means is that legal functions must fully understand their business’ transformation roadmap and harmonise their own strategies with it.

There was a general agreement among attendees that GCs were often criticised for being unaware of the business risks. One attendee said: “In order to really understand the organisation and what their risk appetite is, you have to embed yourself and become close to the business and aware of where their pressure points are.”

Attendees stressed the importance of tailoring your resource and allocation strategy to support the overall strategy of the business. Significant shifts in strategy will mean changing legal needs, which in turn will require changing legal skills and resources.

Filling the gaps

Legal teams vary in levels of maturity – thriving in some areas while experiencing gaps in others. Before a function can deliver their organisation’s strategy, it is paramount that such gaps are pinpointed.

Legal ops pyramid

Norton Rose Fulbright’s Stephanie Hamon has developed a pyramid model that acts as a tailored roadmap to help teams fill these gaps. While strategic elements such as delivering the business’ strategy are placed at the top, tactical elements such as skills/process mapping and resource management are placed at the bottom.

One attendee asked: “How can we make sure we’re using the skills of our lawyers in the most effective way?”

The first port of call here is to identify your team’s skills base. “A useful exercise is skills mapping, where you look at the technical and cognitive skills within your team,” added Hamon. “You need to map what it is you already have because that might give you an indication of training and recruitment requirements.”

It is also important to determine areas of excellence, as well as areas for improvement. “One thing I tend to do with my clients is a simple trick where we colour code each box red, amber, green to ask- how well am I doing?” said Hamon.

Management

With businesses requiring ever-increasing legal support, in-house teams have been overwhelmed by requests, making resource management a key priority. Attendees agreed that a key challenge from the pandemic has been the overseeing of multiple projects and being aware of what your team are working on.

“As the team grows, it’s been very difficult to get to grips with who was busy and who wasn’t,” said one attendee. “I have found it more difficult during lockdown to take the time and look through the data, whereas before we were face to face and we could go through it.”

The conversation shifted towards the topic of triaging. But how exactly does legal triaging work in practice?

“We’ve introduced this concept of the legal front door”, added another attendee. “If you’ve got five lawyers or more and you try to work on the legal front door it basically means that the business then directs all the queries through a bot. That then minimises the time spent of one lawyer, allocating work across different lawyers.”

Through the management of your legal function like a business, you will deliver more value. NRF Transform’s Legal Operations Consulting practice provides support to GCs and in-house teams to help them become the best strategic partners

Commentary:

Whether you’re still operating in a virtual world, or moving back into normality, the question on how do you allocate the right work to the right people to ensure you’re delivering value to the business remains. And, it’s a highly relevant question as around 75 per cent of CEOs believe their legal functions do not deliver sufficient value to justify their time and money spent (General Counsel Roundtable & Plexus Thought Leaders research). It is hardly surprising therefore, that in-house teams are feeling the pressure to do more, for less. The prospect seems gloomy, but there is good news: gone are the days where working harder equalled value, it’s now time to work smarter.

Smarter working can be supported through utilising workflow automation: the end-to-end process of identifying what needs to be done (otherwise known as “demand” or “in-take”), who it will be done by, forecasting and prioritising work (or “triage”) and creating workflows, all of which ultimately enable you to deliver valuable outputs.

Starting this journey can be overwhelming. Just entering the term ‘workflow automation’ on a Google search brings you to pages upon pages of workflow tools. You would be forgiven for thinking it really is just as easy as implementing a workflow tool and, like the wave of a magic wand, you will be more productive and therefore more profitable. But, as with most things, starting with technology is not the answer. Rather, it’s important to get your basics right first. There are some simple steps that will pave the way to successful workflow automation:

Step 1: Understand your demand

Consider what type of service your business needs from its legal team and how this aligns to the wider strategy of the business.

Step 2: Understand your requests

Consider creating a standardised legal in-take/ instruction form to ensure the briefing you receive is clear (a simple word document to start this will do).

Step 3: Understand your options to resource the work

Take time to understand what skills your team has and identify any gaps that are needed to better resource your demand.

Step 4: Understand your tools

Consider what tools you have at your disposable to support the workflow process, it’s better to start simple and over time, scale up with a more sophisticated option.