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EY Law

Legal Shared Services 

By EY Law

Page Reading Time: 5 minutes

The art of tailoring an approach that aligns to an organization’s unique needs 

As corporate law departments continue to look for ways to do more with less, the concept of shared services frequently enters into the equation. For most organizations, centers of excellence (COEs) represent a generally familiar approach. Historically, a “typical” COE model was often thought to rely upon lower-cost/administrative resources focused on lower-risk tasks that arise with frequency. And while this type of COE most certainly still exists, gone are the days where this one-size-fits-all approach to shared services is the only option on the table. This blog post will outline the considerations most heavily influencing the design of shared services models today, identify a few potential challenges (most of which can be proactively mitigated) and provide guidance on the next steps toward designing a (successful!) shared services model. 

In exploring how a COE might drive value in an organization, where should a corporate legal operations department start? 

There are many reasons to consider legal shared services: improving client service, reducing costs, standardizing processes, lowering legal costs or spend, supporting corporate strategy, eliminating redundant processes, or helping to introduce new technologies. So — where to start? 

  1. Define  short- and long-term goals in collaboration with stakeholders for the shared services initiative 

Shared services centers appear to be underused, according to findings from a 2021 EY study in conjunction with the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession. While 73% of companies use them to support the legal function in some capacity, only 9% use them extensively. One frequent driver of this lag in shared services adoption is the absence of a clearly articulated set of goals and objectives for the initiative. In the absence of this, shared services models can stagnate, thereby reducing overall value and leaving internal resources frustrated by the lack of progress. To avoid this outcome, formally define goals at the outset and include all impacted stakeholders in the process. 

  1. Solicit executive feedback on shared services goals and enlist leadership support to drive stakeholder buy-in 

The implementation of a shared services model can be challenging under the best of circumstances. However, with a well-articulated set of goals and buy-in from appropriate members of an organization’s leadership team, the likelihood of success with a COE initiative will increase exponentially! Once the goals for the shared services initiative have been defined, pressure test them with leadership to confirm alignment with other strategic initiatives that may or may not be in the COE line of sight. Finally, ask for a commitment from leadership or an executive sponsor to help drive stakeholder messaging, thereby confirming a top-down approach to promote enthusiastic acceptance of the shared services initiative and the organizational changes it will bring. 

  1. Develop an implementation strategy  

There is no substitute for a well-defined strategy, except a well-defined and documented strategy. With this in mind, be sure to formally capture the requisite details of the implementation plan, socialize and gather feedback as required, and identify a resource to maintain and update the COE plan as required. 

  1. Communicate early and often 

No one likes to be surprised by changes to organizational strategy and/or structure. Thus, a change management and communication plan that contemplates stakeholder outreach both early and often is likely to drive the best outcomes. 

Realistically, what legal work can be managed in a shared services setting? 

The law department’s move toward shared services does not necessarily mean making wholesale changes all at once. Typically, law departments will start a shared services journey with activities that are high volume or low risk that have clearly defined and standardized processes, for example, e-discovery, template automation, document review, entity management or contract life cycle management. Starting with high-volume or low-risk areas, companies can design specific workflows and can measure performance according to standard metrics and process guidelines. Begin with one, two or several of these activities during the initial move to this delivery model. 

However, there is a trend for companies to also look at expanding the legal shared services model beyond those traditional activities to include more transactional-type support. These activities may include regulatory remediation and repapering programs, contract drafting and negotiating (vendor or customer) intragroup service agreements, and IP rights management. These types of activities were previously thought to be too high risk to be handled by a shared services format; however, with detailed workflows and proper oversight, there has been success with expanding beyond process support. It should be noted that the expansion typically requires a legal-driven shared services model with the right mix of legally trained professionals or a COE that utilizes professionals with the right legal skills to provide the necessary amount of legal expertise to offer guidance when needed.  

Is it a COE or something different? 

There is often a lot of confusion about the differences between COEs and shared services teams. A shared services center (SSC) usually refers to a dedicated unit, including people, processes and technologies, that is structured as a centralized point of service and is focused on one or more defined business functions. Shared services may come from several different physical locations (regional or global) and can operate onshore, offshore or virtually in some cases. Service delivery may be executed by internal resources or external providers, or a hybrid combination of both, and can involve a single or multiple business functions. Companies sometimes engage external providers to consult with various elements of the design, structure, location and execution options.  

Comparatively, a COE is typically thought of as a specialized knowledge center. A COE is a team that provides leadership, leading practices, research, support or training for a particular focus area. The focus areas of COEs vary and may include technology, business concepts, strategic initiatives or specific legal skills. In other words, they are smaller groups within an organization that can get better results by devoting themselves to a particular activity or set of ideas. Within COEs, there is an emphasis on advanced training and certification, knowledge sharing, and development of standards and methodologies. For COEs to gain acceptance within an organization, they must be given a clear mission and then provide demonstrable value to the business units. Like SSCs, COEs have many variations and should be implemented to meet an organization’s individual legal needs. COEs can be centralized at the enterprise level, within business segments or in the form of smaller communities of practice.  

This is a big change — what is the best way to bring the shared services vision to life? 

The deployment of a shared services team can represent a big change from a cultural and resourcing perspective. A strong business case that clearly illustrates the overall benefits to the organization and the impacted resources will establish a solid foundation on which to build. From there, internal socialization of both project goals and project approach is key, although a methodical change management and communications plan is equally important to determine the right messaging at the right time. Finally, a flexible, phased approach to shared services implementation will allow for adjustments as needed.  

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization. 

EY member firms do not practice law where not permitted by local law or regulation. Ernst & Young LLP (US) does not practice law or offer legal advice. 

Co-authored by: 

Christine Sanz, Senior Manager, EY Law – Legal Function Consulting, Ernst & Young LLP 

Melissa Miller, Senior Manager, EY Law – Legal Function Consulting, Ernst & Young LLP