Solve your top three process problems before you try to implement a comprehensive matter management technology solution, legal tech specialists say.
It’s tempting for legal ops chiefs or general counsel to want a new matter management system to solve all of the legal team’s big workflow and database problems at once, but implementing such a system can take years and even then it can disappoint if attorneys aren’t good about inputting data.
“I get it,” Jennifer McCarron, head of legal ops and technology at Netflix, said in a Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) podcast. “You want to solve 15 things, but we’re going to solve and go live with three. You’re sweating and you’re mad, but trust me, we’re going to get there.”
Matter management is one of the older legal ops technology solutions. It was first put into use in the 1970s as a way for corporations to get visibility into everything having to do with a legal matter – details, notes, documents, facts, court dates and information about opposing parties – in a single system.
“It’s essentially moving from redwells – for those who remember what redwells are, those red folders that hold all of the details – as things increasingly moved to electronic systems,” said Eric Elfman, CEO of legal workflow software company Onit.
Software companies later began incorporating electronic billing processes. “Matter management was already 20 years old before someone thought, ‘Hey, let’s combine it with the financials,'” said Elfman.
Although the technology has had decades to evolve and organizations have spent some $2 trillion on it over that time, results have been mixed, in part because the software is being asked to do too much, making it overly complex.
And since it’s only as good as the data that gets inputted, if attorneys aren’t systematic about filling in online forms, the software can’t accomplish the efficiencies it’s designed for.
“What we’ve started to realize is, even though this is an older industry, most lawyers don’t use matter management to manage their legal work,” said Elfman. “So, you have these big, bloated matter management systems that really didn’t move the needle in terms of productivity for lawyers. It’s not designed to help lawyers do their jobs better or faster or cheaper. So, if it doesn’t do any of those, lawyers aren’t going to use the system.”
For the last decade or so, software companies have started to evolve the systems around the way attorneys work rather than around databases, with the goal of generating data not through data entry but by converting attorney workflow actions into data points.
Microsoft Outlook plug-ins, for example, can convert actions that attorneys take in email exchanges into information that gets stored in databases.
“It gets attorneys to use the system more as well as [leverages] the ability to do as much as they can from Outlook or any other email system they have,” said Duc Tran, senior manager at EY Law.
“If they can click an action button in the email that triggers that someone approves [the contract] at 2:59, there’s your data point for your lifecycle management,” said McCarron. “I love that real people-centric approach.”
Workflow vs. database
Part of the problem with early matter management software was the database-first approach it took, relying on attorneys to enter data in a way that didn’t fit well with the way they did their work, so moving to a more workflow-first approach is a promising evolution.
“We have to come up with more cunning ways to capture all of this data so we don’t slow people down or don’t have to hire 25 data entry clerks who also won’t love that work in a few years,” said McCarron.
For legal departments in companies small or new enough that complex systems aren’t needed, the approach that seems to work well is focusing on the money side – spending and billing – rather than trying to capture everything involved in a matter.
“There is a certain maturity scale that clients go through,” said Tran. “Mostly it’s at the beginning, starting out implementing the system and reaching the potential cost savings on e-billing and doing very basic matter management, maybe leveraging some of the more simple workflows relating to [timekeeping and invoicing].”
“Think about it as building a house,” said Elfman. “Matter management isn’t sexy, but it’s a foundational piece of technology, just like for a lot of companies document management is foundational. You really can’t get to the creative, innovative types of things without that as a baseline. But all of that being said, it doesn’t help the legal department push the legal actions further. It doesn’t help the lawyers do anything better, faster, cheaper. But without that, if you’re a big company … you’ve got to have this foundational technology, as un-sexy as it is.”