The COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on many in-house legal departments. Some in-house counsel are busier than ever before addressing a wide range of legal issues that have arisen due to the COVID-19. In addition, the budgets of some in-house legal teams may be negatively impacted due to the crisis. As a result, many in-house counsel are increasingly being asked to do more with limited resources during these uncertain times.
Now more than ever in-house counsel need to actively embrace change and look for opportunities to be even more productive and efficient in their delivery of legal services. In-house counsel should be proactive to “de-lawyer” their work so they can spend less time on the low-impact, repetitive, routine and low-risk aspects of their work in order to free up time to perform more high-impact and high-value work for their company. Here’s a roadmap and several best practices for in-house lawyers to use in their “de-lawyering” journey:
Actively Audit Your Work
Take the necessary time to analyze the range and scope of legal services that you typically deliver to your business clients so that you can determine which elements of your work are ripe for being re-engineered. Once you identify the common legal services that you provide to your business clients, try to break down the processes, time spent and flow of such work beginning from your intake of the request from your business clients up to the point in time which you believe a matter has been closed. Be sure to capture your thoughts on work scope and processes in writing and try to group your work into certain key topical areas.
Identify the Degree of Impact and Risk Prevention Level of Your Work
Once you have a comprehensive view of the range and scope of the work that your legal team delivers, identify how truly impactful that work is to your business clients and how your work mitigates risk for your company. You may want to characterize your work into high, medium and low business impact buckets and high, medium and low legal risk buckets. Also seek guidance from your senior business clients as needed to properly characterize the true business impact of your legal services. Completing this exercise will help guide you to determine which areas you should spend more time on and which areas you should “de-lawyer.”
Seek Senior Business Clients Support
Let your senior business clients know that you plan to re-engineer how you deliver legal services and to obtain their business support to do so as it may require folks on their teams to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on legal support that has traditionally been more “white-glove” in nature. Be sure to “sell” to your business clients that “de-lawyering” your work will ultimately help them achieve their business goals faster as it will create additional space for the legal team to deliver more mission-critical legal services with greater agility for their benefit. Provide them with actual examples of the time you and your teams spend on “low-end” and “low-value” legal work – much of which may not require “hands on” legal support and that their teams would probably want the legal team to invest their time working on matters that drive more positive impact to the business. For instance, if you deliver legal services to a sales organization your senior business clients would probably want you to invest more time in matters that brings revenue into the organization like helping to close large deals with customers instead of spending lots of legal time working on ancillary contracts like non-disclosure agreements or events agreements. You may also be able to make the business case to your senior business clients that by asking them to “do more” in terms of additional self-help, there will be a lower likelihood for you to ask for significant increases to your legal team’s budget.
Consider “Stop Doing” Some Work
Once you have a sound understanding of the full landscape of your legal services, ask yourself if there’s aspects of that work which you do which is really not necessary or which involves work that poses low risk or no risk to your company. If so, consider informing your business clients that it simply does not make sense to spend any legal team time and energy on such matters. Examples of such low impact or low risk work may be as follows:
- Matters that don’t pose any real legal risk/issues and which business clients are simply seeking the legal team’s “rubber stamp” approval.
- Reviewing contracts that are below a certain dollar/financial threshold.
- Reviewing statements of works/work orders under existing standard master agreements and which statements of works/work orders essentially contain business-centric provisions that are drafted by business clients.
Use Leading Technology
I believe that technology is a lawyer’s “best friend” and during this pandemic we are witnessing firsthand how technology is playing a more prominent role in all of our lives as it enables us to work from home and to continue to serve our business clients. Think about how you can continue to put technology to work for you to make your legal team more productive and efficient as you “delawyer” your work. For instance, there are many technology tools provided by various #LegalTech companies which are powered by artificial intelligence that can handle some of the routine and repetitive work that has been traditionally performed by lawyers.
Create Practical Self-Help Resources
Develop self-help/do it yourself resources that your business clients can consult with and utilize to address common and repetitive questions that they have typically asked the legal department. Such self-help resources may take the form of frequently asked questions, playbooks, directions on how to generate new contracts on your own, white papers, checklists, etc…For instance, it your legal team is actively engaged in helping business clients respond to Request for Proposals (RFPs) from potential customers, consider developing a playbook for them which provides details on how to develop proposals in a legally appropriate manner along with standard canned responses to common RFP questions that may require legal team review. Be sure to add those resources on your company’s internal websites such as SharePoint in Microsoft 365 so that your business clients have easy access to them and periodically update such resources. Make these resources easy to use, highly practical and use every opportunity to remind your business clients to leverage them as a first line of legal support prior to a direct engagement with the legal team. Also always proactively ask for your business client’s feedback regarding the ease of using such resources and how they can be improved.
As you “de-lawyer” your work and create self-help resources for your business clients to use so they can handle certain work on their own, remain disciplined in encouraging your business clients to leverage such resources first before they engage you for assistance on certain matters. Doing so will help you develop a more efficienct “ways of working” with your business clients so that you can continue to optimize your legal team’s limited resources.
Create and Deploy Chatbots
Chatbots powered by entry-level artificial intelligence are increasingly being used by providers of goods and services as a “digital concierge” to address common questions and issues from their customers. In our world of tech intensity there is no reason why legal organizations cannot use chatbots to serve their clients. Chatbots powered by basic entry-level AI tools like Microsoft Azure QnA Maker can help transform your legal team’s standard answers to common questions into a conversational format that is answered by a bot. As chatbots and AI-related technology grows more powerful, chatbots can be increasingly used and deployed by legal teams to automate the answering in a standardized format the many routine and repetitive questions posed to a legal team by its business clients.
Develop Thoughtful Contract Templates
Wherever possible create standard form contracts for your business clients to proactively use as needed to drive business forward versus being in a more reactive and time-consuming mode to having to review and mark-up a third party’s contract. Examples of typical form contracts for most businesses are as follows: (1) sales contracts; (2) vendor/supplier contracts; (3) independent contractor agreements; and (4) non-disclosure agreements. When you draft such contract templates focus on contract simplicity, make them fair and balanced and avoid making them lengthy. Doing so will cut down on the likelihood of third parties wanting to make material modifications and will help accelerate the velocity in establishing these contracts with third parties.
Create Contract Fallbacks and Annotations
Once you create these contract templates consider empowering your business clients in advance to propose alternative “fallback” wording on their own and without any legal team involvement when third parties raise issues with certain standard contract provisions. Develop a library of these fallback provisions that your business clients can use as a substitute for standard clauses and rank such fallbacks from more preferred to less preferred – and perhaps you can use a green light (good to use), yellow light (exercise caution) and red light (use only with legal team approval) coding approach with your business clients in charactering these fallbacks. Also be sure to periodically refresh such fallback provisions and if third parties continually raise issues/concerns with certain standard provisions, consider adopting a suitable fallback provision as the new standard provision to decrease any future churn regarding such issues/concerns. In addition, for each contract template that you create, also develop an annotations document for that contract which serves as your company’s de-facto guide that contains thoughtful negotiation strategies and tips for your business clients to help “sell” your standard contract provisions to third parties. When developing such annotations be sure to make it highly practical and useful for your business clients to help them persuade third parties regarding the merits of the contract’s standard provisions. Also be sure to appropriately protect and secure your company’s standard contract fallback provisions and annotation guides in order to minimize the likelihood of them being shared outside of your organization.
Generate Lessons Learned
After your legal team provides legal advice on important matters, consider developing a repository of practical lessons learned or post-mortems that you can share with both your legal teammates and business clients to help avoid matters from becoming potential legal issues in the first place and/or to help accelerate moving business forward in the future. For example, if you recently helped close a large and complex contract with a customer, share the learnings and best practices from that experience with your business clients as doing so may make it easier to close the next large and complex customer contract with smarter utilization of the legal team by business clients. Get into the habit of producing such lessons learned periodically and develop an easy-to-use template built on suitable technology for legal team members to share that important knowledge. Also be sure to reward those legal teammates who demonstrate their leadership by actively sharing their learnings and best practices to make others better.
Train your Business Clients
Look for every opportunity to deliver meaningful legal/compliance training to your business clients. Such training can serve as a form of “preventive law” that can help avoid significant legal issues that could pose legal/financial risk to your company and drain legal resources. When delivering such trainings make it interesting for your business clients and avoid lengthy trainings. While such training has often been delivered in-person prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, use easy-to-use technology tools like Microsoft Teams to deliver such training in a virtual format that can be recorded so that it is durable enough to reach a large number of business clients who can view such training on-demand. Through Microsoft Teams you can also create teams and channels with your key business clients where you can periodically post learnings and best practices with them that serves as a form of de-facto training to them.
Get Outside Help
Think about how you can utilize competitively priced alternative legal providers to help take on some of the rote, repetitive and low-risk work that your legal team has been historically performing. Outsourcing such work to such providers may be a compelling option for in-house legal departments.
Leverage Paralegal & Program Manager Resources
I have had the good fortune to work with many outstanding paralegals and programs managers during my legal career. Consider using paralegal or program manager resources to serve as a first line of support to address new matters from your business clients that require legal support. Enable and empower them to triage and problem solve these matters first or referring your business clients to suitable self-help resources instead of having a lawyer become more actively engaged.
As you reengineer your legal work remember to begin modest projects that seek to problem solve certain issues. Don’t think that you need to “de-lawyer” a large piece of your legal work, but instead try to get some quick wins, learn from your experiences and build positive momentum as you move forward in this journey.
Learn from Others, Embrace Change and Don’t Seek Perfection
Always adopt a growth mindset mentality in this area and be open to learning from others in the legal community. Organizations like the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) have resources that can be helpful to you and your legal teams. As the COVID-19 crisis requires us to change the way we work and how we prioritize work, always be open to adapting the delivery of your legal support so that you can maximize your resources and best serve your business clients. Finally, don’t be afraid to make some mistakes along the way and remember one of my favorite quotes that “perfection is the enemy of done.”