Recession is the time for general counsel to eliminate low-value, high-volume tasks so the legal team can focus on the strategic work the organization is going to need to get through tough economic times, in-house leaders say.
Having the legal team write knowledge articles and FAQs on matters that the business functions can do themselves, like handling routine contracts, frees up time for in-house attorneys.
“That gives you the headspace to actually give those more impactful tasks the energy, effort and thought they need,” Katherine-Anne Waldron, general counsel at Hewitt Cattle Australia, said in a LawVu webcast. “You can’t do that if you only start thinking about the advice 10 minutes before you’re giving it. You actually need the time to work through it to understand the implications.”
Attorneys burdened by low-value tasks face a vicious cycle that impacts their well-being and, by extension, their work quality.
But the opposite is also true. In-house attorneys that can focus on higher-value work, including strategic work that looks across the organization to see opportunities or head off problems, enjoy what they’re doing more and, by extension, produce better-quality work.
“What’s important is to create that space to ensure strategic projects can be done, focusing on things that are going to shift the dynamic for the legal function,” said Mollie Tregillis, director of legal optimization consulting at MinterEllison. “On a human level, are they able to do a good job and not be overloaded?”
Organizations facing cost constraints because of weakening economic conditions are more likely to reduce headcount even as workloads rise. But there are expenditures that could go a long way in making the legal team more of a value creator. But to get new budget approved, the expenditures have to be about the broader organization, not the legal team.
Contract lifecycle management and e-signature software are good examples.
“When you hear a senior executive say they have no confidence the contracts they’re being asked to sign are actually getting filed and the other side is signing them, you can use that as your leverage to get your e-signature platform in,” said Waldron. “If I hear someone talking about manually copying and pasting from one form to another and then sending it to someone else to put it into a contract, that’s the time to look at a contract automation system.”
Because it’s not legal driving the need for those solutions, the expense is seen as something that helps everybody.
“You’ll probably have an easier time selling that within the business,” Waldron said. “Look for pain points your colleagues have that you’re seeing as well. Put some energy into getting a system there.”
Legal ops ROI
For larger teams, bringing in a legal ops chief is another expenditure that will quickly pay for itself because of the value the person brings in minimizing the legal waste that otherwise characterizes some teams.
“The ROI on that is an easy sell,” said Tregillis. “You see heads of legal ops pay themselves back in six months just by ensuring they catch all the value added [opportunities]. In some ways, the answer might be someone else needs to be brought in to support the strategic thinking piece.”
Compiling data to help create a narrative of what legal does and how its work impacts the business functions is a starting point for improving the department’s efficiency. It helps the general counsel clearly see what the team is spending its time on. That’s a first step in determining if the legal team’s workload aligns with the goals of the organization. If it doesn’t, you have a basis for handing off low-value work to others or bringing in a technology solution. But you need the data so senior executives can see the same thing you’re seeing.
“You have to start somewhere,” said Tregillis. “You're almost rebuilding a service catalog and getting executives to say, ‘Yes, these are the things we want you to do as a priority,’ so everyone’s on the same page about what’s high value and what’s low value. We’re passing the low-value work back to the business or creating automation efficiency in some other way to deal with those.”