Technology plays an increasing role in all our lives and to a large extent we welcome this as an opportunity and an essential need.
We see this in our obsessive updating of phone-camera-music devices, to our use of tablets, laptops and the development of home entertainment systems. We spin around the latest gadgets and functions with wide-eyed enthusiasm and zeal. From the age of about two years old children know that pressing buttons means stuff happens. Computers that run our lives have become a ubiquitous cliché and I suspect that available broadband speeds are as big a factor in deciding where we go on holiday as the attractiveness of the sea view!
We relax with technology, we commune with technology, and we drive, walk, run and talk with technology. It is intuitive, facilitative, fun, useful and, relatively speaking, inexpensive.
…Now look around the majority of offices where in-house lawyers work.
You will see lawyers surrounded by paper, bemoaning the lack of space and shackled to handheld devices pinging a never ending stream of messages and meeting requests. It is a dam of information perpetually about to burst and always moments away from washing the lawyers away on a grand rapid of unmanaged demand.
It does not look intuitive, facilitative and it definitely isn’t fun. There is no time to think, no budget to invest, no space to invent.
It used to be that a team’s annual jaunt to a local hotel for their off-site away-day was about team building and a gentle nod in the direction of steady-as-we-go strategy; now it more resembles a self-help counselling session with the gently beleaguered passing on bunker survival tips to the next generation of in-house lawyers muttering surely-it-doesn’t-have-to-be-like-this.
Technology has done many wonderful things, but for most in-house lawyers it has only widened the pipe down which their business colleagues can flush their requests for help. It has spectacularly failed to help them manage this demand. So it has made them more accessible while trapping them in a rigid construct that means they cannot escape their failure to manage the increased demand.
When in-house lawyers fail to manage demand, as they are almost bound to do, this construct becomes the equivalent of the old village green punishment stocks where the righteous public could throw rotten vegetables at a bunch of hapless trapped saps.
What is to be done?
To begin with In-house lawyers need to plan to use technology in the same way they think about people as resources. As a minimum this should be planned with (at least) a three-year horizon. This plan should then be reviewed at least annually and to be successfully implemented the plan will most likely be developed collaboratively with a small cohort of external providers.
Law firms need to do a lot more as well. Technology is rarely presented as a seriously important component in their offering to clients, but it is potentially a brilliant rainmaker for them (and a rainmaker that will not run off to a fancy boutique firm in a flounce of ego). Technology solutions that are developed for in-house lawyers, deployed thoughtfully, managed without fuss and which have long term potential provide law firms with a near unimpeachable position with a client.
Six steps to change the game.
1. Run an audit check on the technology the in-house team has at its disposal. What do we have that we use well including Outlook, Excel etc? What do we have that we could use more effectively to make our lives better? Have we got basics in place like a common filing nomenclature? What could we do with simple inexpensive software tools such SharePoint? What are other in-house teams using that they would be prepared to share with us?
2. This next point is crucial to understand. What work do we actually do? How do we do it? It is simple to ask, but hard to answer. Here the objective is to effectively map out the processes each lawyer follows from initiation to completion for each piece of work. What are the common elements? What could be a common element? How many interventions are needed and to what effect? What is capable of being put into a systemised approach?
3. Further, to then look at the work where the in-house lawyers really do add considerable value by virtue of their insight, expertise and experience. This work should be highlighted and protected. It probably goes to the heart of the value of the team and should be something therefore that the business values as well. Any investment in technology is partly about creating space to do more valuable things; therefore knowing what those things are is crucial to the business case for investment.
4. What can law firms offer if given a three year planning horizon? Too many conversations with law firms on technology happen too soon and then fade into nothing. A pitch is not the best time to do anything meaningful, but a three year timeline is meaningful. The conversation at the pitch therefore should not be “what can you give us when appointed to the panel?” Instead it should be “assuming you win the place on the panel how will you invest in developing with us technology tools over the next three years that will make the team more valuable and more efficient?”
5. In addition what can technology providers offer if given a three year planning horizon? Nothing important happens in tech unless both client and supplier can plan together and support a common approach. In-house teams must give time to this issue and not expect everything to be off-the-shelf and/or free.
6. How do we take the first steps? This is probably the hardest thing of all, but I have two simple rules. First plan big, but implement small. Trials, pilots and “bite-size” keep the risk of failure proportionately small and increase confidence in the desired outcomes. Second to put as much thoughtfulness, time and effort into planning implementation as was given to selecting the firm/supplier in the first place.
So, the challenge is clear, the prize is big and the race is definitely on…