Legal Operations

The Keys to Driving Success in the Legal Department

Rich Cohen, Managing Director with Protiviti Legal Consulting and Russ Dempsey, General Counsel for BroadStreet Partners discuss some of the challenges that business leaders and executives face as they try to drive efficiencies in processes and technologies within their legal departments.

CCBJ: Please start by describing some of the challenges that business leaders and executives face as they try to drive efficiencies in processes and technologies within their legal departments?

Richard Cohen: One of the biggest challenges is people’s reluctance to accept change. While change is not an indictment of current or past practice, people tend to be wedded to approaches with which they are familiar. “We've always done it this way. Why do we need to change?” That's one of the challenges leaders face when trying to implement change. Another is having adequate time to focus on the change. Everybody's running from issue to issue, trying to figure out what fire to put out first, and they don't have time to look carefully at new ways of doing things and to understand the value and implications of new processes for the organization.

Russ Dempsey: I agree. Any change is hard. People get entrenched in the way they've always done things. And, frankly, learning something new isn't always that exciting. “Why do I need to reinvent the wheel?,” “I've done it this way for 15 years,” and “Why do I need to think about it differently?” are common refrains. Another challenge is that oftentimes business leaders aren't that good at change management.

For these reasons, it’s important to have a set of tools in place to help you identify allies so you don’t have to make decisions all on your own – techniques to help you reach out to the group that will be adopting this change – to bring them along in the decision-making process rather than forcing it upon them. Having the right team in place to help reach decisions can be really effective in implementing a new process or technology.

How can general counsel get a ‘seat at the table’ and become collaborative partners with company stakeholders?

Dempsey: That's a really important question. It takes listening to your clients, delivering practical solutions, and helping them solve real business problems. To take it a step further, I like to remind myself about the adage, "What my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating." While one might get the eye roll, there's a kernel of truth in it.

For example, if you're working with the finance team and they're talking about their EBITDA margins or some other financial measure, make sure to note what, in particular, is important to them. When you're delivering advice, you will understand what their metrics are for success. You should think about delivering solutions for all your clients with this perspective and not just for the organization overall. And it’s not only about listening to your clients. Being able to provide practical solutions also requires spending time with them, getting to know them, and building a rapport. You have to invest the time to make sure you understand their needs (and pain points).

Cohen: I’ll add by saying that it is important that general counsel and other legal executives have an in-depth understanding of the business. General counsel are being brought in on so many issues and you don't always know which issues to focus on first.

Learning the business and getting close to its people will enhance your ability to understand the priorities not only of its employees, but also of its customers and shareholders.

Think about a three-legged stool—shareholders, employees and customers all need to be in balance. Earlier in my career, when I was general counsel of an electric utility company, I wanted to learn the business, so I went out and read electric meters; observed accounts payable and receivable transactions; answered phones for complaints. I even went into a coal mine! Seeing what's actually going on within the business operations will make you more effective when you do get that seat at the table.

Over the past few years, businesses both large and small have undergone a seismic shift in how they manage their business, facing challenges including hybrid work expectations and the so-called great resignation. How have you reacted to the market environment and what strategies are you putting in place to become more resilient?

Dempsey: One of the things I learned early on in my practice is to manage the work, not the person. This lesson has been reinforced in recent years and especially as it relates to remote work. Then you have a set of metrics and goals that you're working toward. Before the shift to hybrid or remote work, there was too much of the former way of thinking; too much stopping by a desk to make sure that someone had their computer on, or that they arrived at their office on time, or left work a few minutes early—instead of reviewing the actual work being performed and focusing on priorities.

Hybrid work has its own share of problems. While giving people flexibility is terrific, there's a tax in not having people at the office, not least of which has been the great resignation. Since I've been at my current company, I've hired four attorneys and a paralegal and onboarded them, introducing them to other members of the team and helping them to feel part of the organization. This was a challenge especially with everyone working remotely. So, part of surviving the “seismic shift” is recognizing the value of having people together and making the most of that time to integrate new hires; to educate them about the organization’s goals, procedures and cultural norms; and to work on projects collaboratively. Otherwise, everyone’s just going their own way and you’re not really capturing the full value of your team.

Also, when I get my people together, I always make sure we use that time to achieve other goals and objectives, such as working on pro bono matters, engaging in team-building activities to build unity, and otherwise enjoying the time we have together. Making the most of time in the office also shows consideration for those with long commutes.

Cohen: Hybrid working is here to stay and the old way of doing things has been lost, for better or for worse. What people want in their careers now is balance. Protiviti's parent company, Robert Half, places individuals in a wide variety of permanent and part-time positions around the world. What we discovered through the great resignation is understanding the values people prioritize today, which is personal life balance and maximizing career potential. We all need to adapt to this changing dynamic. I analogize it to when I first started practicing law and there was a place that we used to go called the library, and there were books there and that’s how we did our research. With the advent of the internet legal research is now conducted online. Now, we're talking about artificial intelligence. Things change, people adapt. At the end of the day, our job as an in-house attorney is to make sure that we're helping the business grow within the guardrails of risk and compliance, and we need to adapt as necessary to remain competitive and profitable.

How does your team stay close to changing business requirements and prioritize between urgent, important and less critical action items?

Dempsey: One of the challenges, especially in a world of instant messaging, emails, texts, etc., is to focus on the issue of the day. Any employee can fill up the day with tasks. The challenge is raising the important tasks to the top of the list. This requires individual and team goal setting. Every year, I review our company’s five-year business plan to make sure those goals are aligned with our team and individual objectives. I also check in regularly with team members on their progress.

Cohen: Today, people can prioritize their tasks and evaluate prioritization metrics through the use of technology, allowing more repetitive and lower-risk tasks to be handled by the business side of the organization without involving the legal department. Only when things go outside of the identified parameters does the legal department need to be involved.

To stay close to the business, you need to not only work in the business but also understand the direction that it's going. Create the future, not wait for the future – be proactive. Understand the work that your team is doing, why they're doing it, for whom they're doing it, and ask yourself, “Is there a better way to do it?” That's how you make sure you're working on the most important tasks, not necessarily the most urgent.

Dempsey: People should also be aware of scope creep. I’m not saying attorneys shouldn’t help solve business problems. Rather, that is exactly what we should be doing. Just that's it’s a risk when someone in legal doesn't push back and the scope of their job expands into ongoing administration of strictly business functions. I want to ensure that legal resources are applied to high-priority legal matters, not day-to-day issues that are essentially business in nature.

How do you enhance the attractiveness of your organization to potential candidates while ensuring the current team remains satisfied and empowered?

Cohen: I think that what you need to have in the workplace today is diversity of work and diversity of thought. When you create a culture of diversity—embracing DEIA and ESG as core values throughout your organization—that attracts talent. It’s important that employees feel proud of the company they work for as well as the work they do. Holistically speaking, an environment where people know what they're doing, why they're doing it, for whom they're doing it and the impact of their work are all key factors that will keep people engaged and attract candidates to your organization.

Making decisions around technology investments is never easy, and a lot of internal buy-in is required when adding new technology tools. What process do you go through before pulling the trigger, and then how do you ensure that your team is maximizing the benefits of the technology?

Dempsey: This is tied to the question you led off with about change management. I'll just go with an example. The most recent technology that we've purchased here is an e-billing solution. Before making a decision, I narrowed the possibilities down to a couple of different options. I formed a team to look at these options, do demos, and then make a decision because they’re the ones that would have to use it on a day-to-day basis. I may lean in on a certain decision but getting feedback from the users that have to implement it and work with it every day was very important not only to help with change management but also because they have the experience. They may have worked with other solutions so they're able to contrast and compare the options that you're considering – also, because moving forward they will be the ones that have to own that decision and operate it.

Cohen: It’s important that people understand that this is a process and not an event. When you implement new technology, it's not like you flip a switch and magically realize the benefits that you anticipated. It takes time to adapt to new technology. Just as it’s important to bring others into the purchase decision, you also should make them part of the process of resolving implementation problems.

It’s also important to evaluate periodically whether the technology is doing what it’s supposed to do. “Are we truly getting out of it what we thought we’d be getting out of it?” Stay close to your service provider to make sure that you're using the technology in the way it's intended. I'm frequently asked to consult for legal departments that want to make a wholesale change in technology, when what they need isn’t new technology but some “WD-40” on their existing technology to make it function in the way it was intended. We often find that people are not maximizing the utilization of technologies. Use them the right way and you will realize the ROI. And remember, no technology will fix a broken or flawed process. Process evaluation is a necessary prerequisite for technology success.

Do you have any advice for general counsel and legal operations professionals?

Cohen: Today, the role of the general counsel and legal operations professionals is more dynamic and exciting than ever. There are opportunities to be involved in so many facets across the organization – whether it be people, processes or technology. Choose the areas that interest you and those that have measurable impacts across the organization. Test your comfort zone, challenge the status quo, learn your business, partner effectively with your colleagues, maintain integrity and you'll have a more rewarding career.

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