“My contracts? They’re not electronic. They’re in a cupboard!” the general counsel of an online service provider admitted.

Her answer came when asked if she had a single repository for all her previous contracts, a good way to allow the business to tap into historical data and inform decision making.

Edward Wilson

Her disorientation was matched by several other GCs, who shared wins and misadventures in their journey to streamlining their internal operations. The conversation was part of a virtual roundtable at The Lawyer’s inaugural Smarter Working Week in association with Shoosmiths. It was led by Edward Wilson and Jason Moyse, respectively chief executive officer and director of digital operations platform Autologyx. The duo introduced the in-house attendees to the concept of “self service,” namely the use of project management and technology to allow the business to conduct basic legal tasks without robbing lawyers of precious time that could be devoted to more strategic duties.

Autologyx is a platform that can automate nearly any business or legal processes, including contract renewals, claims and entities management. It can be used by anyone in the business to self serve and generate documents without calling in-house lawyers, as well as request instructions from external counsels. It also allows teams to store data and analyse it according to business metrics so that they can track activities and inform decision making at managerial level.

The concept of self-service in legal, Wilson explained, started with templates that can be automatically populated in order to generate standard documents like NDAs. But templates are just the starting point. The art of the possible includes using platforms with self-service portals to handle certain types of work across the business, including the re-use of digitally-stored data in further workflows, and analytics to gain insights into performance of these work types. He acknowledged upfront that while very few corporate functions make full use of the tools available, the direction of travel and growing maturity of self-service in legal is clear.

The participants were at different stages in this journey. One GC said she introduced a legal inbox to instruct the legal team and adopted e-signing platform Docusign. But none of these tools are linked together; their impact is still limited. Many participants highlighted the need for solutions that acted as a front door for legal work, helping to deal with rising volumes of work and to integrate different technology platforms in a combined solution.

But even simple things encounter barriers. Even something like e-signature, which on its own removes a part of the legal process, faces questions of legal acceptability from the business. “We had to get a QC opinion to introduce that,” one participant noted. “It took three weeks just to obtain authorisation.” In some instances, being forced to complete an M&A deal remotely helped people in the wider business become more familiar with it.

Jason Moyse

While self-service techniques present practical benefits, they can clash with the nuances of a job largely based on human engagement. “Legal relationships are built on trust between lawyers and their client base, and they depend on human interactions,” one GC noted. Some elements of the process entail more than an employee logging into a platform to download an automated document. “A tick-tick system doesn’t really lend itself to the legal sphere,” he continued. He added that these types of tools work mainly for commoditised and standard documents. Legal advice often requires working around nuances and edges that cannot be addressed only with a technology platform. 

The concept of self-service brings to the table clear benefits. It can draw insights out of data in historical documents from previous transactions that can cut down time to produce new ones. But it is harder when many legal functions don’t have a centralised database for these documents. On top of a GC who declared that her documents are still all in physical form, another GC said that, while having a database, she would still struggle to find contracts from past years. The confessions showed that there is a clear gap between the art of the possible and the situation in most legal departments. “It is fascinating how few legal departments have nailed this,” Autologyx’s Moyse said. “Document databases have been around for years, but still there is no searchable storage for contracts in most departments.”

Mining data can also provide an overview of activities across the legal team, showing what type of work is being carried out, as well as its volume and frequency. A participant GC recounted their efforts to find evidence of the legal team’s contributions and value to the wider business. “We ran surveys where people said they spent a certain percentage of time on something but it was not trustworthy data,” one GC said. “A finance director won’t be impressed by a survey.”

Similarly, Wilson raised the point that activity does not necessarily equate to value, for example in contract negotiation. There are areas, like low value claims, that could be dealt with in a more commoditised way through a platform.  “Once you identify areas where you might not need a business partner relationship but only inputs and outputs, you can start to divide the work according to that distinction,” Wilson said.

These steps toward self-service should be outlined in a change roadmap based on realistic objectives. “What is the problem that you can solve tomorrow?” is the question that is guiding one GC in his quest toward more effective internal operations. Every piece of technology is a nice-to-have, but it is important to focus on “what can cut down your time by 30 per cent right away.” Wilson noted: “We have seen some wildly unrealistic horizon maps saying what a three-year journey would look like for a company. The problem was that then the roll-out for the first goal would last 18 months instead of a single year.”

With increasingly smaller legal budgets, some GCs found it helpful to partner up with other functions in the business when exploring new ways of working or the adoption of platforms. This allows both to promote collaboration between legal and other business groups and to save on expensive investments. A GC trialling a system around risk appetite analysis said his team is working with the business’ growth team to share development and roll-out costs. “This will be a reasonably expensive project, so it feels less lonely to go through this change together,” he explained. “You’re less exposed if you’re doing it with someone else.” 

As much as interaction between functions can be helpful, ensuring that each lawyer in the in-house team tags along is vital. The GCs who were most successful in their change projects were the ones that involved staff in implementation with ongoing training and assistance. “You can easily provide templates for self-service, but everyone needs to have a good understanding of what they need to do with them,” one participant noted.

Whether it is a new activity tracking system, a workflow platform or simply an e-signature tool, small gains can be more easily achieved than large-scale ambitions. As one GC noted: “You need to think at granular level about taking small steps to convince yourself you can do it well – something that shows benefits and value from the beginning.” He concluded: “Once that is out of the way, it is easier to drive change on a grander scale as you have the trust and confidence that the same idea can pay dividends on more challenging points.”

Commentary from Autologyx CEO Edward Wilson

In our recent roundtables discussing self-service workflows with leaders from corporate legal functions, three main themes emerged. First, the perennial challenges of managing information remain, compounded somewhat by new channels of communication. Second, inertia still wields great power. Third, the collective wisdom in legal has evolved considerably in recent years, and early adopters have blazed many trails that others can now use.

Legal teams still face most of the same challenges that they have for years with intake, triage, and allocation of legal work. These challenges range from educating the business to maintaining a line of sight on legal workloads to keeping information up to date. And with the advent of Teams, Slack, and so on, legal teams must manage even more channels of incoming requests. On top of that, there is growing pressure from the business to track and measure the value Legal provides.

Yet, inertia remains a powerful force, and legal has been slow to adopt technology and process improvement. In many departments, process automation remains at a very basic level. To be fair, it’s neither quick nor easy to define and refine processes, vet solutions, secure budget, implement new workflows, and manage change.

But it is actually much easier and less risky than it used to be. Early adopters of technology have already done so much of the hardest work. They’ve established proof of concept, vetted, and tested many solutions, and quantified the return on investment. Most importantly, many leaders have learned a lot along the way, from successes and missteps alike, and are now sharing that knowledge with others. It’s time for individual teams to tap that wealth of knowledge and put it to even greater use.