As the pangs of Covid-19 continue to reverberate around the legal industry and lawyers’ workloads rise without commensurate budgets, many have felt the need to examine their existing processes to identify how they can work more efficiently.

The legal market is still grappling with how to optimise their use of tech, and for some, simply adding more lawyers to the team is not going to provide the right solution. After all, it’s not just about churning through the work but also what work is done and how.

In a recent roundtable with Thomson Reuters, as part of The Lawyer’s Smarter Working Week, participants said that charting more effective ways of working is critical for legal teams going forward.

Should firms be implementing legal technology?

Defining how a legal function of a business should increase efficiency proved contentious. But for many participants the priorities were clear: firstly, getting visibility over their contracts, the rich stores of their business’s rights and obligations. Secondly, delegates spoke of the benefits of introducing streamlined intake processes to manage and allocate requests into the legal department.

Some spoke of unintended benefits of introducing these systems. One common refrain was the ability of legal tech solutions to drive insights that enable the legal team to demonstrate a shift from being a cost centre to a value creator.

For in-housers, it was noted that the CFO of a business will often say to the general counsel: “We know you are working hard but what are you actually doing? We need to make savings and understand our costs”. For some, the use of legal technology has improved their reporting capability, enabling the GC to be more proactive about how they run the department.

“The business doesn’t see us as bringing money in and we cost them money. You need to get them to understand how we have the necessary systems and data,” an in-house lawyer quipped.

For many, contract strategies include how teams are supposed to review specific contracts. Sifting through lower value contracts or higher risk contracts is tedious for many legal teams. Having the kind of visibility that enables users to prioritise for risk, allows them to target resource where it makes most impact on the business, and deprioritise contracts that, for example, don’t tend to give rise to disputes.

Winning hearts and minds to new ways of working within the legal team can be tricky. One lawyer told the group that a good way of implementing tech is to explain the benefits first. “It was a process of eliminating those little tasks and winning the team over slowly. For example, legal intake processes can reduce email ping-pong and capture instructions more comprehensively.” One delegate also spoke of worrying about his internal clients’ reactions to introducing self-service for a certain work type, for fear they would feel unsupported, but the client was delighted as it gave them more autonomy.

For firms embarking on a process improvement project, it is often a good idea to explore the process they want to address, through prioritising key pain points, and starting small. Then they can look at what their existing technology can do. Eventually, if those generic systems don’t offer the functionality needed to, for example, generate the sort of analytics that enables the team to shift to a more proactive service delivery, they have already done the process improvement necessary which is a prerequisite to getting value from a new system. Centralising data with appropriate permissioning was also highlighted as a way for quick wins.

Using contract management systems

Contract management accounts for 55 per cent of technology adoption among corporate law departments according to Thomson Reuters’ 2022 State of Corporate Law Departments Report.

Introducing a contract lifecycle management in the business may allow some legal teams to start to map and define processes. The contract management system can let the team log in key metrics and the key risks in specific contracts, also allowing for a legal front door meaning contracts can be efficiently handled.

A lawyer noted: “When we first rolled out the legal management system, there was a bit of a shock. We had to start from somewhere and the portal is getting more traction. I feel like its running fairly smoothly”.

According to Thomson Reuters’ report, 90 per cent of departments now use some metrics to track their work. However, many think the metrics could be more sophisticated and extend beyond, for example, what is spent on external counsel in the round and look at more granular spend metrics as well as measuring outcomes and the quality of the service provided.

Legal operations

Around 80 per cent of in-house legal teams now have dedicated legal operations specialists, according to the 2022 State of Corporate Law Departments Report, and these professionals are at the heart of identifying process improvements and when and how technology can support teams to both work more efficiently and deliver new value.

But not all the delegates were fortunate enough to have this resource. One lawyer said: “For some, it’s terrifying getting help from the outside. Sometimes the business just expects you to deal with legal tech. It’s quite daunting for lawyers – especially if you don’t have another team.”

A legal operations executive spoke about how the business embraced the new way of working. “We took it as a top-down approach at first. We need to change and do things. By adding legal operations, this helped us prioritise what we can do, what can we stop doing, and what we can do more of.”

Once that work is done, the excitement really starts as the department looks to leverage the insights that data provides to target their energies in the best way to navigate risks and support their businesses’ growth.

Kirsten Maslen, director of product marketing – LegalTech at Thomson Reuters, moderated the discussion and concludes: “The views of the group show a clear drive for legal teams to that of proactive value creators. The use of technology to provide metrics that demonstrate value back to key business stakeholders is becoming a natural part of in-house reporting. For some, the difficulty is not the actual technology implementation itself, it’s the change process, getting the team on-side, and making the shift to new processes. Bringing in a dedicated member of the Legal team to do this, can help smooth the process.”