CCBJ: Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to know each other.
Jared Applegate: My role is chief legal operations officer at Barnes & Thornburg. I run pricing, legal project management, practice management, and the rates team. Alexandra and I know each other from Legal Value Network and other groups across the country. We’ve spoken together on various panels on this topic and have become close friends.
Alexandra Guajardo: I serve as the pricing and analytics officer at Shell, supporting all of Shell Legal globally. My primary role is to apply a strategic mindset within our legal operations teams to provide effective and streamlined support to our lawyers. I also manage our panel and facilitate the engagement of external counsel at the best value. This does include pricing and negotiations, but my goal is not cheapest, but best.
What are some trends you’re seeing in legal operations/technology that are helping lawyers work smarter?
Guajardo: We’re looking at tools that either streamline our processes or provide us data that allow us to make decisions faster. The problem is that there are about 5,000 new technologies out there. For us, it’s not about just having another tool. We are looking at technology that will make us more efficient and effective.
Applegate: I agree. Over the last five years numerous new tools have come on the market, along with a tremendous amount of seed money within the industry. Some tools solved a very niche problem that didn’t last forever. What I’m seeing in the industry now are people going back to more practical, thoughtful tools as they relate to just doing work better or working more collaboratively. Some of that’s looking at the basics: What is the process problem vs. what is the tool going to solve? I believe people are going back to figuring out what are the top two or three process problems they have, and whether technology can be used to solve them. I know that’s not revolutionary by any means, but I just feel that the muck and mire of all the software out there is finally starting to get sorted into vaporware, niche, and practical tools usable by attorneys and legal ops professionals.
How can technology free up lawyers to spend more time on strategy and innovation for clients?
Guajardo: I’ve always said it’s not enough to just throw the technology at a problem. It has to be process-driven. Our lawyers have to see it as a tool that helps them be better. If it’s too cumbersome or takes too much of their time, they’re hesitant to even try it or use it on the daily. Then there’s the technology like Outlook that became imperative for day-to-day until it became too much of our day and has been supplanted, to some extent, by collaborative tools like Teams and RFP tools that allow us to incorporate different actions and that collaboration piece. What I see is if the lawyers view the technology as something that can really help them focus on their lawyering, they’ll use it and it’ll be successful. But because there’s so much new technology, it can be a challenge to convince them of that until they incorporate it into their day-to-day work.
Applegate: That’s a good point. From your position at Shell, have you seen firms bring technology to RFPs and pitches that was legitimate and real and augmented work being done by lawyers?
Guajardo: We have seen some, especially in the e-discovery space. When there’s a lot of documentation to go through, doing those first passes is extremely important because our lawyers don’t need to focus on that. Some firms come in and say there’s more value in what they provide because they’re tapping into this technology; that what they’re billing us for is the strategic piece of the work. So it’s happening, but on a case-by-case or firm-by-firm basis. One reason there’s hesitation around technology is because people are not always confident in what the output will be. When we highlight successes via those outputs, then confidence grows. But it’s not always successful. Some of our big firms bring in technology to conduct our large projects and we’ve seen it go very well in some places, but we’ve also seen it come back and be extremely generic and not a great work product. It still needed that human touch.
Applegate: Lawyers need to focus more on the business challenges of whatever practice of law they’re in and how they’re using technology to overcome them. The industry doesn’t do a good job of selling that. Firms have project managers or talent that’s focused on practice systems or practice innovation. But are those individuals going to client meetings and pitch meetings? Are they putting together full-service solutions? Not many are. But I think more firms are going to be thinking about business solutions to the challenges facing their clients’ businesses over the next three or four years.
How can law firms and legal departments build the right mix of people, process and technology?
Guajardo: It’s about having the right people doing the right things. All of our time is limited; that’s the one thing I don’t have a lot of. So making sure that I’m only touching things that I should be touching is important. Internally, we have to ensure our team has the right mix of people. We always look at whether something is not going right and ask ourselves: Is the process flushed out and documented? Have the people been trained in the right way? Are we communicating when things go wrong? It’s a multi-step approach; we want our lawyers to focus on the things only they can do, just as our legal operations people are focusing on doing what only they can do. This ensures that we’re using the right skill set in each place, and then we can work through everything else that comes after that.
Applegate: Building the right mix of people, process and technology starts with strategic planning. Identify the three or four business problems that you have and get everybody at the table to talk about that. The reason things go off the rails is because firms don’t think about how strategic planning can help them align their missions and goals with their technology systems. Too often they try to boil the ocean, whereas just digging into a few problem areas could really yield positive results.
A lot of people want to lead with tech when they should lead with the problem, then “people, process, technology” in that order. Lawyers lean into that as well. They want to lead with tech because they have their iPhone and wonder “Why can’t we be more technology focused?” when in reality their thinking should be more process-focused.
Guajardo: On the subject of strategic planning, I’d add that firms have to know who they are and what clients they’re going after, just like, on the client side, we have to know which firms make sense for us. Not every firm makes sense for us as a company for every case, and we have to know that. As a law firm, when you’re looking at your strategy, you have to know what drives you and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t know that, then how can you successfully deliver?
What is keeping lawyers up at night regarding client communications and client retention?
Applegate: I think just competition in the space overall. The amount of work that’s out there continues to grow, but the competition also continues to grow. Figuring out how to retain a client is extremely important, because it’s so much easier to serve an existing client than to find a new one. That’s Business 101. So healthy communication is key, and maybe that communication’s a little bit different with each client. Often, law firms only focus on lawyer-to-lawyer communication, when mapping all the client’s touchpoints with the firm would be extremely valuable if you’re looking to improve client retention.
A law firm’s mantra should be “be easier to do business with.” Clients can hire plenty of firms in their market, but they chose you. Was it because you are a great lawyer. Or is it more? Is it being easier to do business with than your competitors? I think getting that question answered is what’s keeping people up at night. Because with competition so tight and excellent legal work now table stakes, these things are key to sustaining your relationship.
Guajardo: From the client perspective, we have to be clear on what we expect from our firms, whether they are working to keep or win our business. If we’re not upfront about what we’re trying to accomplish and what we need from them, how can the firm succeed with us? It’s a relationship, not a one and done, and a constantly evolving relationship. Communication on our end is also important, we don’t want our outside counsel staying up all night, if we aren’t willing to do it for that specific case. Just as they’re investing in us as a client, we want them to know that are also investing in them and see their value. If we’re not honest about what we need and what we’re trying to achieve and what success is for us, how will the firm deliver on that?
Applegate: To circle back to technology, Alex, what are you seeing as the high and right technology you are using now vs. pre-pandemic. What technology has sparked for you?
Guajardo: There was a lot of hesitation about doing many things electronically. People like to print out and sign and send back documents. But the pandemic has shown us that that’s not always necessary. Cybersecurity has always been a big concern for us, especially from the client side. Is our data protected? Our first question is: Any new technology? Are we putting ourselves at risk by the data we’re exposing or sharing? Before the pandemic, even something as simple as DocuSign was a huge endeavor. Now it’s no big deal and there’s increasing opportunities to deploy new technologies. Privacy of diversity and inclusion data has also always been a big concern; how is our data being shared and safeguarded. Since the pandemic and escalation of remote work, adoption of technology has been unprecedented in pace and scale, and data privacy issues have been addressed across the board.
Anything that allows us to do collaborative work has become more of a need-to-use, almost on a daily basis. Video calling has also become the norm. Pre-pandemic, I had conference calls with my colleagues in Europe all the time and the video was never on. Now it’s the default. As we continue to navigate hybrid work and make it less messy, there’s going to be a lot more opportunity to bring on technologies that enable us to work more efficiently and collaboratively.
Applegate: I think that’s true. On the law firm side, it’s amazing how quickly people adapted to new technology. They always knew how to use applications like Zoom, but almost overnight everybody became somewhat of an expert. My 30,000-foot view is more collaboration tools and moving into the cloud to facilitate smooth communication with clients across the globe. And syncing up systems will continue to be a big theme for firms.
At the micro level, I’m seeing a greater focus on expediting tasks that take a lot of time to complete. For us, it’s using deal-closing software so we can close deals faster. Instead of time-consuming couriers and ink signatures, you can cut out the human element and share documents and collect signatures digitally for a secure, smooth closing. In a contract review, it’s using artificial intelligence (AI) to pull out provisions. It’s collaborating in SharePoint or similar platforms, secure places to store, organize, share, and access information from any device. We’ve seen those, as well as Teams and Zoom, massively increase across our footprint because we knew that, in certain areas, we needed to do a better job of being more efficient, and increased efficiency equals lower cost to the client.
From a wellness perspective, some of these technologies have also been hugely helpful. Putting a deal checklist together or, at the end, a closing binder are things you don’t want to wish on your worst enemy. Trying to collect 50 signatures in a matter of days can drive anybody crazy. So being able to augment those tasks has helped many lawyers step back and go, “Hey, that was a better experience!” and “I can really use this time now to focus on client retention.” Just giving people time in their day back has been a wellness benefit. I know technology and wellness aren’t typically linked, but I really do believe that some tools have significantly contributed to the mental well-being of our lawyers and staff.
Guajardo: On the data front, many firms and clients have been collecting data for years and then neglect to utilize it to make decisions. Data allows both client and firm to take a step back and think about it strategically. Putting it in front of the right people ensures they’re aware of what’s happening in their cases and what’s going on with the day-to-day work or the overall project. There are great tools out there that can visualize data in a way that is extremely helpful. Telling the story behind data helps us do a better job.
Applegate: We’ve also found data visualization and analysis to be incredibly valuable to clients. An example is when you have large-scale engagements and have the ability to create very simple monthly accruals and budgets. Putting that in the inbox of the person that’s making decisions on scope and timeline and saying, “Hey, look: Every two weeks, this is where the budget vs. actual is on this case” is helpful. It’s also the thing we have done at scale that has created the most client loyalty and retention. Clients are like, “Hey, I’m glad you send me this, because then I can make some sort of actionable decision on where the scope goes from here.” It is a heightened level of communication that requires nothing more than popping out the data and then putting an email together that drops biweekly or weekly or monthly, or however often our clients want to get them.
The statements made in this interview are the sole opinions of the participants and not those of Barnes & Thornburg or Shell Global.
Published April 5, 2023.