As an information professional I am fascinated by the way in which information spreads across an organisation. And - as far as information management is concerned - I’m always keen to learn more about different sectors and industries. Take in-house legal departments, for example: legally qualified people fulfilling a vital role in their company’s long-term success. In my mind, a function which filters information in a similar ways to law libraries.
The more I researched the in-house role, the more questions I had. So I turned to a senior in-house lawyer friend - let’s call him ‘Bob’ - to get some answers. How has the role evolved? What are their current priorities? What is their approach to legal tech? And as an information professional, I’m curious as to how they manage their information requirements: for instance, who looks after their current awareness or news alerts?
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I discovered some surprising commonalities between our roles - and not just because of the legal connection. In particular, I was struck by three key tenets that unite successful in-house legal departments with information teams:
- A holistic and proactive understanding of business goals
- Embrace time-saving technology but don’t be overwhelmed by buzzwords
- Understanding that being prepared is half the battle!
Know your client; Know your business
Scenario: A company executive asks a General Counsel (GC) to put together a draft supply contract as a matter of urgency. The lawyer pulls up a pre-drafted, pre-prepared document and sends it on immediately. A combination of corporate awareness and legal good sense meant the GC had anticipated this request months ago.
In-house teams are never just passive providers of legal services. GCs have always performed an essential function, not merely supporting their organisation’s direct legal needs, but possessing a deep knowledge of its wider business environment. They are dynamic, trusted advisers, combining industry insight with a uniquely critical and specialist legal point of view.
Some commentators are calling this type of lawyer ‘T-shaped’; people ‘who are entrepreneurial and capable of thinking in the many project roles they may fill in their professional life.’ This is an excellent way of describing the desired attributes of a well-rounded and effective in-house team.
Legal acts as a ‘sanity check’. There is a practical reason that they need to know exactly what the business is selling, and how it is being sold. For instance, Sales might want flexibility in contracts with certain customers, however this might have unintended consequences further down the line. The lawyer needs to anticipate risks and explain what could happen. Therefore putting the business at the heart of the legal department is essential.
Technology: Beyond the Legal Tech buzzwords
A recent report revealed that 63% of the 80 GCs interviewed were interested in the adoption of tech tools, with 48% looking to ‘skill up’ in legal tech and legal operations. The report concluded that in-house legal departments/legal operations are increasingly receptive customers for law firms’ tech solutions. Indeed, if the legal news is to be believed, everyone is embracing a veritable tech A-Z, from AI and blockchain to chatbots. But what is the reality?
I asked my lawyer friend ‘Bob’ directly about his organisation’s attitudes to technology and received a wonderfully legal response: ‘it depends’. Currently they have two tech project in progress: firstly, rolling out a document management system; secondly, the standardisation of document automation. Nothing particularly startling from a legal tech point of view, but it fits in well with current trends. But these are significant steps!
A well indexed, organisation-wide Document Management System (DMS) ensures everyone has access to all documentation - including the legal department’s. Rather than spending time answering queries about contract renewals, payment windows, etc, they are enabling colleagues to help themselves. This has the added advantage of creating an organisational atmosphere of transparency and productivity, whilst encouraging collaboration and saving time.
Automating standard documents
For Bob, automating standard tasks is a priority. It seems like old news, however, some companies have not invested in this aspect of legal technology. In this case they have been working across the organisation to create an easy to use, flexible system where pre-approved, legal documents can be drafted - with built-in options for amendments, subject to management approval.
If everyone agreed on the same contract terms, over the same jurisdiction, there would be no need for changes and further approval. However, to overcome certain challenges, we have had to come up with a hybrid system - a mix of automated and manual.
Over the past few years - and this reflects the landscape more generally - Bob’s legal team has gone beyond the simple drafting and negotiating of transactions. The automated process means that wording, branding and design are all standardised, which frees up resources to focus elsewhere on behalf of the business.
Better business intelligence means being prepared
I’ve already mentioned the importance of knowing your business to mitigate risks. The in-house team can be responsible for protecting the business’ reputation. For some companies, this can present a real challenge - take Uber for example.
In my view this is where the legal team need their own news alerts, specialising not only in legal and regulatory updates, but business intelligence more widely. If they are alerted to any potential future risks to the company, they can take appropriate action in advance.
We manage all information sources ourselves, we do not have an information person
Most in-house lawyers will be familiar with some form of aggregated news alert. However, because information teams are a rarity within a corporate environment, they may not have access to tailored daily bulletins.
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What wisdom can I share with Bob to thank him for the time he spent with me? One way that a legal team could really make an impact on their organisation is to lead the way in implementing a current awareness and news aggregation system - for both in-house use and to collaborate with other advisers. I remain convinced that it would open up many possibilities that companies such as Bob’s barely understand - and would fit in with the evolving work environment of GCs: ‘T shaped’, entrepreneurial, technologist, collaborative - and ‘getting stuff done’ before anyone even asks for it.
By learning from professionals across industries, we can all develop our skills and strive to be dynamic disruptors. What are your priorities? How has your role in the organisation changed? What is the general attitude to technology and the types of IT projects underway?