June 16, 2020
By Mary O'CarrollReading Time: 4 minutes
May 2020| Mary O’Carroll, Director of Legal Operations at Google and President of CLOC
As legal ops professionals, we know how valuable technology can be, but also recognize how difficult a successful launch (implementation) and landing (adoption) can be. We often run into team members proving averse to new tech, competing internal pressures and priorities, and budget constraints. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges results from our very own belief that we should try to prescriptively match technology solutions to specific elements of existing workflows. In other words, we often try to address what appear to be isolated or team-specific problems with focused, point solutions.
Take, for example, one of the biggest challenges we all share—centralizing the legal department matter intake process, which is prone to bottlenecks, and relies most often on employees simply emailing or pinging contacts within legal for help. Typically, our first inclination is to create an intake form and then force people to use it to “automate the process.” This sounds like a logical and sensible approach. After all, if the legal team needs to track and assign a large number of requests, and the new intake form appears to centralize and automate elements of that process—that’s a win, right?
Unfortunately, not really. In legal ops, we often talk about the need to consider all three pillars—people, process, and technology—when solving problems in our departments. The problem is, this approach oversimplifies the challenge with a process and tech solution, and doesn’t properly appreciate “the people pillar,” nor the amount of change management needed both upstream and downstream to land a new intake form. To be sure, it impacts more than just intake itself. All your client teams will need to reprogram their muscle memory to submit requests through a new channel, and of course, doing it the old way will continue to feel faster and easier.
A new intake form can also cause confusion. (Like when the form requires clients to fill out fields that they don’t know how to fill out, or when it throws unfamiliar error messages.) In these cases, your clients will end up going around the new process by emailing their personal contacts in legal, asking for help… which is precisely the thing you wanted to avoid in the first place. Instead of centralizing and streamlining, all we’ve done is add yet another broken process and channel.
The fact is, when we implement small changes to improve specific challenges with point solutions, we often unintentionally create bigger problems. These new point solutions have to be coordinated and integrated with other existing systems and can require team members throughout the org to adjust their ways of working. It should also be noted that individual point solutions result in a proliferation of systems and tools that you now need resources to manage and integrate. When you do try to integrate them, you’ll realize these have also resulted in the propagation of multiple sources of truth—multiple places where data is stored—and an exponential increase in the number of interfaces that team members end up having to work with and learn how to use… until they stop using them all together.
To mitigate the risk of this, legal ops teams should change the way we think about problem solving with technology.
Although technology requests come to us as single pain points or specific solution proposals, we should approach problem solving more holistically. We should try to take a step back to view the bigger picture and optimize multiple processes and teams collectively, such that we create net value. And we should strive to do this in a way that considers all stakeholders (including those outside of legal), and that doesn’t create new ways of working, but rather minimizes the need for change management.
That means seeking out technology solutions that empower us as process-designers to create and manage workflows that are dynamic, customizable, and multifaceted—systems with broad, not narrow, applications.
Here’s how I’ve been going about this in my own work.
First, when thinking through how to do something like implement a new legal intake system—or, better yet, a new contract management system, which is traditionally even more complicated—we ask ourselves a series of questions:
- Does this tool actually optimize the process end-to-end? If it only solves a piece of the process, does it create bottlenecks elsewhere?
- What kind of change management will be required to use this tool effectively? (Where and how are people working today? Does this create a new place they need to go? How much communications and training is necessary? Too much and we know it won’t work)
- How will other stakeholders interface with this new tool? When sales needs to make a contract request, or when an additional approval is needed from finance on a contract, will the existence of this system impede upon their ability to do their work seamlessly?
- How much flexibility does this tool offer me from a process-management standpoint? Does it allow me to adjust parts of the workflow to address my unique or shifting needs? And how complicated is it to do that? Will I need engineering support?
- Finally, what impact does this have on day-to-day work? Is it decreasing the amount of manual work, or does it end up adding steps in other ways or in other places?
We ask ourselves these questions for a simple reason: unless you think holistically about changes you’re making internally, you risk—among other things—gaining efficiency in one area while losing it in others.
Ultimately, that’s something we should work to prevent.
Especially now. The outbreak of COVID-19 has illuminated the importance for legal ops teams to prioritize resources and leverage solutions more broadly so that we can address department challenges more holistically. Managing a portfolio of point solutions is simply not sustainable or scalable.
Moreover, COVID-19 has made urgent the need for legal ops teams to take on a more innovative role inside organizations, where operational excellence has become a top priority for many.
Now more than ever we need to be working more closely with our legal and business counterparts, doing work that—by design—exacts wide-ranging impact and encourages efficiency, creativity, and optimization.
All told, that requires a new, “bigger” way of thinking.