Today, most business is conducted in an environment of dynamic and disruptive change with a laser focus on costs and efficiency gains.
This drives a constant need for innovation across the entire business landscape. Legal teams are not immune from this business need, however, they are ideally placed as cross-functional units to generate and execute innovative ideas in the wider business - and also need to keep up with the pace of change within their own teams
Innovation is a primary objective at most organisations. Whether it’s to give their products or services a competitive edge, to cut costs or to streamline processes, many employers reward innovation richly.
With this in mind, it’s tempting to look for ways to innovate within your in-house legal team. However, don’t innovate for its own sake. Think long and hard and work out how you can innovate in ways that support your organisation’s main strategic goals and improve the way that your team operates internally and with other departments. Before you take the plunge, decide why you’re embarking on the project, what and who it involves and what it’ll achieve.
Consider innovation as a way to further a strategic purpose or business objective more efficiently than is currently being achieved. For example, can you make a particular process more efficient? Can you enhance productivity by doing less work? Can you cut costs or put in place a programme of continuous improvement? All of these are great reasons to innovate, but always align your projects to relevant organisational aims. A good test is "Will it make the team/the business better in ways that the team/the business will appreciate and without making things worse for them or for others?".
Remember too, that organisations and legal teams differ in size, industry sector and culture, so context is important when justifying innovation. What works for one team will not necessarily work for another. For example, key performance indicators (KPIs) designed for a large legal team spread across multiple sites and jurisdictions are unlikely to have any relevance in a small legal team that works together in a single office.
Preparing and executing your innovation project
As with any business venture, prepare a business case and define the return on investment for your proposed innovation project. Factor in all the internal resource costs, predicted spend and efficiency gains.
Don't underestimate the resource intensity of an innovation project. Be sure to consider cross-functional support, particularly IT, if your project is technology based. For highly complex projects, you may need to present a formal business case to get approvals across other teams or at executive level. If so, ask your colleagues in finance to help you.
Engage with your team on ideas for innovation. Thinking and working outside their core specialisms and, eventually, seeing their ideas increase business value will invigorate and motivate them. Tap into younger team members who, having spent most of their lives immersed in smartphone technology, will have their fingers on the pulse of the latest apps and developments. Use this knowledge as innovation often goes hand in hand with technology.
Innovation means doing things differently, so leadership is also important. Be prepared to lead any cultural change resulting from innovation at all levels of the organisation. This could involve anything from teaching the chairperson to use an iPad to convincing the entire employee population on the merits of a new process. Different people respond in different ways to innovation, yet they all look to leaders to set the tone and lead by example.
Remember also that some of the best forms of innovation are actually simply applying existing tools, processes or approaches in a new context. Often the most effective way to be an innovator is to find better or different ways to use the things that the company already has - a kind of "lateral thinking magpie" who takes the best/shiniest ideas from elsewhere and uses them to improve their own team's "nest"!
Finally always remember that innovation is a relative term. It is what is innovative for your environment that is important. What you carry out may not be innovative elsewhere in the business or in other legal teams but if it helps you then "copy with pride"!
Some ideas on innovation
Opportunities for legal teams to innovate are many and varied. Here are some you may be able to take advantage of:
- Going paperless. Per head, legal teams probably generate more paper than any other department. But is it all really necessary? You can process and store most legal documents, advice and contracts online, which is faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than hard copy;
- Setting up simple but effective self-service tools for clients such as intranet FAQ and basic self-service contract automation for clients on volume, simple requests like NDA, licensing agreements, consultant contracts etc. There are many simple and cost effective tools which can help, especially when you price the saved cost of your team members' time;
- Using tablets for board papers. Producing and distributing hard copy board packs can be expensive. Using tablets saves time and the cost of all that paper. Educating board members on using technology may be a challenge. Your company secretarial team will need to be patient at this stage and you’ll need to ensure all software is fit for purpose, user friendly and adequately encrypted;
- Redesigning governance processes. Contract approval and signature processes are fertile ground for innovation. As an in-house lawyer, you’ll probably be part of your organisation’s governance process. And with little, or no, conflict of interest, you’re ideally placed to provide recommendations on making the process more efficient. Consider software applications and intranet tools to make approvals paperless and to streamline process flows. Any changes will require an investment in training and education across the business – which you can lead;
- Managing risk. Like its governance processes, your organisation’s risk management system is another area that you can help make more efficient. Risk reports could also give you a rich seam of data for further innovation. For example, you may be able to use this information to align your precedent documents and playbooks and ensure your legal resources are doing everything possible to mitigate key risk areas;
- Optimising end-to-end contract lifecycles. A high-volume contracting environment provides numerous opportunities for innovation, particularly from a technology perspective. See the Vodafone case study below;
- Training and education. Internal education and training can free up your resources by self-training the business, especially on quasi-legal tasks. You can deliver the training itself in innovative ways such as via video technology, interactive online sessions or podcasts. There are an increasing number of cheap online training tools for AML, DP etc. that you obtain and adapt to do auditable training on key topics for targeted staff;
- Engaging external firms and managing a panel of suppliers. Most external firms will help you with your innovation project and a formal panel procurement process will help you identify those who’ll do it best. Technological innovations such as billing processes and online intranets for major matters are usually free add-on services provided as an incentive;
- Using flexible resourcing options. One of the most significant changes in the in-house legal marketplace recently is the rise of flexible resourcing solutions. Shop around for providers able to provide innovative ways to resolve your resourcing issues, particularly for short term and project based shortages;
- Outsourcing. Can third parties, including offshore providers, carry out any processes or tasks that you’re performing in-house better or more cost-effectively? Outsourcing certain tasks may free up your team to concentrate on premium work. Always take into account the added management time of supervising external providers;
- Sharing knowledge. Share the legal team’s knowledge across the organisation in ways that will make people’s lives easier and more efficient. Intranets are ideal for hosting Q&As and sharing relevant know-how and precedents. Manage access and version control tightly;
- Creating playbooks. Documenting your organisation’s baseline negotiation strategy on key contracts, on a clause-by-clause basis with relevant commentary, can create significant value, especially across large and diverse teams. Also document the details of the business owner who makes the decisions on the clause - because they own the underlying business activity that will also have to be varied in line with the clause. However, don't underestimate the time and effort needed to put a playbook in place, the need for cross-business ownership of various items or the importance of version control. Playbooks need continuous updating with strict confidentiality controls. Some legal teams use a Wikipedia-style approach where the legal team moderates or edits suggested revisions and comments;
- Inviting feedback. An in-house legal team is a service provider to internal clients and, as with any customer service, feedback is critical. Online survey products, such as SurveyMonkey, offer simple, anonymous and innovative ways to get feedback from customers and clients on an ad-hoc or structured basis. This will help you provide objectivity on performance reviews for individuals and your team as a whole;
- Using KPIs/metrics. Use technology to measure progress against KPIs and interpret the data wisely to achieve continuous improvement. At the same time, avoid creating an unwieldy bureaucracy;
- Incorporating artificial intelligence (AI). Though still at a developmental stage, providers of AI are starting to emerge in the legal market. They could help you cut the time and costs involved in a range of tasks and processes, so watch this space; and
- Structuring your team. Not all innovation requires technology. Think about structuring your team in an innovative way. For example, you could transfer your lawyers across (or even outside of) the organisation for short periods to experience the operational coalface. Alternatively, you could structure your team so that lawyers work in business units or have the equivalent of external client relationships with unit heads.
Vodafone case study
The Vodafone legal team ran a transformation programme to improve customer contracting and streamline the legal team’s work to make it more efficient and cost effective.
As a result of the programme, Vodafone now sends over a third of its contract work to India and Budapest, has introduced electronic contract signature to speed up contracting, has created 100 guidance notes and a SharePoint site to centralise templates, content and know-how. The SharePoint site is open to all enterprise business colleagues to encourage a self-service culture.
This is a good example of innovation by a legal team as it delivers cost savings while remaining aligned to Vodafone’s global strategic goals. While the costs and scale of this project are suited to a large PLC’s legal team, the underlying reasons for the innovative approach should be front of mind in any legal team.
Most businesses provide significant opportunities for legal teams to innovate. Technology is available – or possibly right in front of you. Focus on processes you can streamline and ask yourself if you can use business critical data in a different way. Could third parties or external providers make your life easier or save you money? Are you exploiting or optimising the value of your team's knowledge or know-how? The opportunities for innovation are endless.
Before diving in the deep end, plan your innovation projects so they add value to the business or enhance its strategic objectives. Preparing a business case is a useful and important process to flush out the time and costs involved. Don't underestimate this, especially if you depend on others in the business to achieve your success. Start with small innovations while you are learning how to do it - and then grow the scope of your ambition!
Finally, shout out loud about any successful innovation you introduce. Lawyers are not known for being innovative or for singing their own praises. Your bosses will appreciate your success stories, as will your organisation’s communications team.