When you order a meal at a restaurant, there’s a menu and a waiter to provide information, service and, if something goes wrong, accountability. It’s a pretty simple system, but it works. What happens when someone on the business side wants to order up something from the company’s legal team? It’s not always so easy. And that’s the issue that Wolters Kluwer ELM Solutions wants to address. Lee Matthews, the new ventures strategy director, and Matt Kivlin, a senior director of product management growth markets, sat down to talk about their approach. The interview has been edited for style and length.
MCC: What challenges do in-house counsel and legal department managers face when someone from the business makes a request for a legal service, such as reviewing a contract?
Matthews: Traditionally this process has been conducted manually and rather ad hoc. Business people might submit their requests by email or they would just call the legal department to make the request. While this may seem convenient at the time, it can also be rather chaotic for legal departments to manage. When you think about it from the perspective of the stakeholders in the group – practice area managers and attorneys – there was no transparency and visibility into what requests are coming in and when. Who's responsible for responding to the request? Who's tracking the status of the request at any given point in time and communicating with the requester?
Similarly, without a central place for storing and managing requests, the burden falls on legal operations to overcome the challenges of managing storage and access. Many legal departments do have matter management systems. But many requests really never rise to that level of becoming a legal matter. Companies lack the tools needed to address those types of requests. The ones that don't rise to the level of a matter, that's a clear gap.
Kivlin: Also, let's not forget that there's another player in this workflow. Of course that's the business requester, the person who made the request in the first place. From their perspective, this request gets submitted, maybe through email, and it's very difficult for them to know the current status. Where does it currently stand? Many of the inefficiencies that Lee just talked about for the corporate legal side also exist for those who are requesting the services.
MCC: Do these issues have a tangible impact on the value the legal department delivers to the business?
Matthews: Most definitely. It's really all about inefficiencies here. Efficiency is adversely impacted within the legal department and among their internal clients in a number of ways. For example, information can be stored in disparate email accounts, which makes access and visibility very difficult. As Matt mentioned, requesters have no visibility into whether someone's been assigned to a request. Who to contact about it? What’s the next step? How much progress has been made? Have the requests been resolved?
For legal department managers, they can't really track the status of any important or escalated requests the way they can with matter management. They can't really look into what are the most critical requests and ensure that they're addressed first in the process. Perhaps most importantly, they lack visibility into being able to analyze trends for planning and budgeting purposes. As well as taking a much closer look at spend on various types of requests.
Lastly I would say that in the worst-case scenario, some requests may even slip through the cracks and never be addressed. That's a real problem.
MCC: How about the perception of the value of the legal department by the business side? How could that be affected?
Kivlin: It's interesting. If you were to put yourself in the shoes of the business requester for a second, they're ultimately on the hook to fulfill some larger business need. Maybe they need to sign a partner or close a deal. Maybe they've developed a new solution, a new product. They need to protect the IP for that new thing. Speaking of being on the hook, it's kind of like that crocodile in Peter Pan that was always chasing Captain Hook. It swallowed Hook's watch and whenever it appears all you hear is that ticking clock in the background. It's really like that for business requesters. While they're waiting for the service to be completed, all they can hear is this loud tick tock reminding them every day that this task needs completing and done yesterday.
What we believe at ELM Solutions pretty strongly is that as a legal department, if you're not setting realistic delivery periods up front with the requesters and giving them ongoing visibility into the status, that perception of the requester is always going to be, "This is taking way too long." That's regardless of the reality of how long it really is taking and regardless of the final quality.
MCC: It might be that the legal people are actually doing their jobs very efficiently, are on top of everything that the business side wants them to be, but without the communication, the business side may perceive something very different.
Kivlin: That's precisely correct. Perception is reality, and unless you communicate well and set the right expectation, you will be viewed often as failing. Even if you're not.
MCC: How should a legal department address these problems?
Matthews: They really need a system to manage this process from beginning to end. In our view at ELM Solutions, the legal department should implement a nimble, easy to use solution that tracks requests from creation all the way through resolution. It should have a series of characteristics. The first is it should provide a means for employees and attorneys to easily enter requests and monitor the progress throughout. The system should organize requests efficiently for legal staff and foster communications with all the stakeholders. It should give departmental managers visibility into the status of all the requests that they're accountable for. It should also provide the means to create matters from requests as needed in a matter management system. Lastly I would say it should provide detailed analytics tools and data to support the departmental strategy.
Kivlin: Think of it this way. Look at the change in IT help desk support over the years. Remember years ago, when your laptop broke and you needed something done, what would you do? You'd walk down the hall, find the local IT person and get their help. That was great for you as the person who needed help, the requester. But there was a problem. The problem was that it was completely unscalable for the IT department. How did IT respond? They did a few things. They put in place technology. Ticketing systems. They put in place processes. They could create more efficiencies and they could get information. At ELM Solutions, we think that's precisely what needs to happen in corporate legal.
MCC: Can you go into a little more detail about why analytics are important when managing requests for the legal department?
Matthews: Sure. Because the process currently is very often done manually, legal departments really lack critical information. They lack insights into things, like how many requests in total they might receive or how those requests break down by type or perhaps by business unit. Once they have this information, they can get better budget analysis and better budgeting visibility for their internal resources. Not just in total, but across practice areas or for specific practice areas as well as business units. Similarly they lack visibility into the speed of delivery. How long, on average, does it take to draft a new contract? How long, on average, does it take to review a contract? Whether there are critical differences among types of contracts. Would an IT contract perhaps take longer than, say, a contract for supplies? Do certain in-house staff perform at a higher velocity than others? All of these kinds of measures are components that they would have access to with the right system.
Kivlin: Analytics are key. The analogy that I use, for legal departments today, it's like they're driving a car but that car is missing both a speedometer and a windshield. Sure it's got a brake and an accelerator, but if they don't know how fast they're going and they don't know what's coming at them, they have no idea which pedal to actually push. By putting a solution in place, they get the right visibility so they can better steer the direction of the legal department.
MCC: Why is this need emerging now? What's changing in corporate legal departments to make this a priority?
Kivlin: Over the past couple of years, when you look at the focus of corporate legal departments, much of that focus has been around cost control, cost containment, with a particular scrutiny on their external counsel costs. Over the years, they've done things like reduce their panel size. They've negotiated rates. Maybe they've started the journey toward alternative fee arrangements. They probably put in software like e-billing and matter management to help drive the process along. Something actually has also been happening in the meantime. They've been bringing more and more work in-house. As this amount of workload in-house has increased, it's become pretty apparent to them that they need to drive efficiencies for that in-house work. That in-house process as well. That's what's leading them now to start looking at both process and technology to help improve that.
Matthews: Along those lines, as legal departments start to bring more work in-house, their mandate is obviously to want to service their internal clients better. To do so, they recognize the need to implement a more effective process. Let me give you an example. One of our financial institution clients, they receive hundreds of requests for services each month from their businesses. The process they used was manual – by email or phone call. It required three different administrators to manage it from request intake to assignment to matter creation, resolution, etc. By providing a solution to them to help them better manage this process, they saw their staffing needs drop. Simultaneously, they saw a significant uptick in client satisfaction. Requests were responded to in a more timely manner. There was transparency throughout the process for all of the stakeholders who were involved.
When you consider all of these factors for in-house legal departments, the changing market dynamics that Matt mentioned, the need for process improvement together with better analytics and a desire to offer better service to their internal clients, this really led Wolters Kluwer ELM Solutions to bring to market a new offering specifically designed to help with these challenges.
MCC: Let me ask you a question about what exactly you're offering. Is the product and service that you offer designed to address the problems for all different kinds of legal departments? From the giants, the Microsofts, to the five-lawyer shop around the corner?
Kivlin: What our new legal services request application does, essentially, is it helps legal departments better take in requests from the business units in a structured way, triage those, get them assigned to the right attorney, provide visibility both internal to the department to drive workflow and then visibility external to the requesters so they can see what's taking place. In the background, providing great analytics so they can track requests and track trends and look for potential efficiencies. In terms of the target segment, traditionally at ELM Solutions, our service has really been geared toward enterprise level corporate legal departments, as well as midmarket corporations. That's where the sweet spot of this solution will be as well.
MCC: They have to be a certain size to really gain the efficiencies that you're describing. Is that right?
Kivlin: When you're a smaller corporation, if your legal department is just a few folks and you've only got so many employees adding requests, while there's always an opportunity for efficiencies, it's really where you start to hit some critical mass, in terms of the number of people, both on the requesting side and the legal department side, where software like this is most likely going to provide the greatest value. Clearly corporate legal departments, every day, every year, are being asked to do much more with less. Driving efficiencies will continue to be of utmost importance. As more work comes in-house, they're going to need to expand their scope of priorities, above and beyond managing outside counsel and toward managing internal processes. Not just doing that well, but doing it exceptionally.
Published April 2, 2017.