January 13, 2021
By Kevin Clem, Lauren Chung, Wafik GuirgisReading Time: 4 minutes
The current environment has triggered uncertainty and has accelerated change in law departments in struggling and thriving industries. To best manage an ever-changing environment and, at the same time, advance their evolution, law departments must embrace three critical characteristics: they must be agile, value-centric, and tech-enabled. The foundation for this future state is a mature and data-driven legal operations program.
Agile: Nimble, Responsive, and Proactive
Only one thing is evident during the pandemic: everything you think you know will change—and probably more than once. Returning to the office is just one example of that uncertainty: in roundtables over the last several months, HBR asked law department leaders what percentage of their employees they expect to return to the office in 2021. Over the previous quarter, an increasing number of law department leaders anticipate less than half of their department members return to the office in 2021.
To respond to the ever-shifting environment and clients’ ever-changing needs, law departments must be agile and responsive, continually flexing to meet emerging areas of need. The ability to be responsive to emerging client needs requires effectively allocating and empowering resources in an organizational framework.
Alignment with client needs. While the practice of law is often reactive, there is now a heightened need for structured, proactive alignment with client priorities. Business needs to address a variety of new or urgent priorities quickly.
Leverage model. With the appropriate mix of experience within their attorney ranks and the proper allocation of non-attorney resources, law departments can easily assign work to the right resource level. With the right mix doing the appropriate work, productivity will increase, costs will be lower, and employees will be more engaged.
Organization structure. Concentrating repetitive work such as contracts or research into centralized resource groups (centers of excellence) can allow other resources to flex to areas of need that require more nuanced support.
Resource empowerment. Agile law departments have a culture that empowers individuals and teams to make decisions and react quickly in a fluid environment. Ongoing professional development and cross-training will give team members the skills and knowledge to be confident. In the current climate, creative and continued employee engagement is also critical.
Value Centric: Emphasizing Value While Managing Cost
Value-centric means ensuring that a department’s resources, internal and external, are focused on the highest value tasks and activities. Value centric law departments analyze the work to be done, optimize the processes for performing it, rationalize external spend on law firms and other service providers, and monitor their performance.
In the current environment, cost is a significant value consideration for law departments. Our roundtable polls indicate that law department operations leaders’ priorities have shifted since the onset of the pandemic. In April, talent-related issues were top of mind, as departments scrambled to adjust to the work-from-home environment. By June, the top priority was cost management, even in industries less adversely affected by the pandemic.
Internal value. With new work and personal issues drawing on people’s time, law departments need to maximize their leverage models’ effectiveness, finding new ways of working, and focusing on the highest value activities and tasks. Increasingly, forward-looking departments are working to track and monitor team activity to ensure the department focuses on the highest value work.
External value. To maximize the value received from outside counsel, law departments tighten their partnerships with existing preferred panel firms and rationalize which firms they choose to use based on the alignment between cost and the value received. When reviewing RFPs, leading law departments look for differentiating value—external providers’ opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of client needs.
Tech Enabled: Supporting Agility, Value Centricity and More
The current environment has brought technology to the forefront – technology tools have helped some departments thrive while others have recognized their deficiencies. Technology can drive efficiency, improve decision making, and consistency in delivering legal support and services, including providing underlying support and measurement for departments’ efforts to be agile and value-centric. But with the proliferation of available technology tools and cost management pressures, it is essential for law departments to ensure that their legal tech stack is (a) aligned with their strategic objectives and (b) adopted by end-users to provide its intended value.
Alignment with strategic objectives. Law departments should continually recalibrate their legal technology strategy, aligning technology strategy with the department’s overall strategy. In the current environment, that alignment includes taking into account the “new normal,” such as working from home and enforcing controls more effectively. Still, it is crucial not to lose sight of longer-term strategic goals.
Enabling technology tools should be right-sized for their intended purpose and support efficient processes, consistent tracking, and robust reporting. Generally, a law department’s operational model should leverage an enterprise legal management (ELM) system as one of its central tools, supported by additional tools to address practice area-specific needs. For example, while transactional functions have sometimes felt underserved by traditional, litigation-focused technology, leading law departments are now leveraging workflow and contract lifecycle management (CLM) technology to serve transactional functions better. HBR’s roundtable discussions indicate that law departments are currently prioritizing analytics tools and workflow tools instead of more nascent technology such as AI. Analytic tools can facilitate decision-making regarding spending, resource allocation, and more, and workflow tools can help a department more agilely, timely, and equitably respond to client needs.
Maximizing investment through adoption.
Based on HBR’s roundtable discussions, we find that most law departments focus on maximizing their existing investments—completing implementations and working to ensure adoption by end-users to justify the investment. Most roundtable participants are currently seeing a significant or moderate uptick in user adoption (necessity can drive use), but much of the information they gather is anecdotal or based solely on log-ins. To understand the actual level of adoption, law departments must measure actual usage and monitor relevance. As a result, HBR and others are developing new tools to help law departments better track how users are interacting with legal technology.
To continue to evolve, law departments must be proactive in shaping their future, taking a strategic, forward-looking view. The concepts presented here are not new, but the current environment offers a unique opportunity to accelerate the evolution towards becoming agile, value-centric, and tech-enabled law departments of the future. Simply reacting to the pandemic’s challenges and its fallout is not enough—seize the moment because the future is now.