Technology: Transitioning from the firm to the corporation

Focusing on three ingredients—people, process and technology—helps in-house counsel solve business problems in the corporate environment

The transition from outside to inside counsel (or compliance officer) can be far more difficult than throwing out the billable hour. You have to adjust to a corporate culture, which means making allies and approaching objectives in new and unfamiliar ways. There are three primary ingredients to a successful transition: people, process and technology. Focusing on these ingredients offers a useful model for analyzing and solving business problems in a corporate environment. 

People

The day an attorney leaves a firm to join a corporation as counsel or compliance officer, she moves from one side of the billable hour equation to the other. Less becomes more. Although many law firms array human capital one hour at a time, most corporations array human capital on a task and functional basis, as opposed to a time-dimensioned approach.

More importantly, new in-house lawyers often leave behind law firms that are rooted in a caste system, where partners reign above all, and even the newest associate outranks support staff. Corporate counsel are wise to make friends at every level and in every department of the corporation. In particular, they view IT staff as fellow artisans working in a different medium rather than as technicians who run on invisible treadmills somewhere in the basement of the firm. Corporate IT generally wields more power and demands more respect within a typical corporation than the litigation administration and e-discovery specialists at law firms. Compliance officers will fail without key partners in IT.

And lawyers often need to overcome a reputation, whether perceived or real, of arrogance and hubris, which gives an additional obstacle to overcome.

Process

Successful companies scrutinize core processes—especially processes that directly generate revenue or expense—for efficiency, accuracy and optimization. There are no monetary rewards in allowing a contract-generation process to take six hours when it can be reduced to four. Processes should be documented using notations familiar to corporate management, scrutinized for inefficiency, and reviewed for key inputs, outputs and dependencies. Gains in efficiency are often made when identifying cross-functional dependencies and optimizing processes to better satisfy internal partners.

It also makes sense to use existing corporate processes rather than duplicating functions. For example, an internal legal function might leverage vendor management, accounts payable and human resources services instead of operating unique versions of existing systems. Likewise, external service providers can replace expensive internal processes with cheaper outsourced ones. For example, corporate counsel may engage a legal services provider that employs a modern, innovative billing model based on value, not hours, especially for low-risk, high-volume transactional legal work. 

Technology

A golden rule for buying or building technology is never let the technology tail wag the process dog. This means that in order to be successful in deploying technology, you must understand what problem you are trying to solve, and more specifically, what business process you are trying to automate. Technology for all its impressiveness is still just a dumb beast that speaks in zeros and ones. It can only automate what you have already defined and optimized. If you automate an inefficient process, you simply get more inefficiency faster. If you don’t have a clear process in mind to automate, with specific goals, you risk allowing your technology to create problems for which you need to create new processes to solve, and you introduce chaos. Your goal in procuring technology should be to execute repeatable, automated steps faster so you can free up human resources to work on what is generally not automatable. A friendly IT staff can help match technologies to your processes. 

Contributing Author

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Matthew Richards

Matthew K. Richards provides general counsel services to clients, advising them on regulatory compliance, electronic discovery and records management, historical preservation and contract management. He...

Additional Contributors: Matt Sorensen

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