Light bulbs have gone on over the heads of many in-house counsel this past year, and InsideCounsel has tapped into the insights of 10 innovative legal teams.
In departments across the country, law department lawyers were faced with varying challenges. From streamlining a contract management system and implementing a more robust e-discovery process to using technology more efficiently to train staff and building a more diverse and inclusive department, these teams rose to the challenges and proved that lawyers do know how to think outside of the box.
On the following pages, InsideCounsel profiles the 10 most innovative legal departments of 2013. Their stories and successes are inspiring, proving what a difference just a little original thinking can make in ensuring legal teams remain a vital business center within their companies.
E-Discovery Excellence: DuPont
In 2009, DuPont was spending nearly half its litigation/outside counsel budget on discovery. An analysis by the legal department concluded litigation teams were not seeking support from internal discovery experts, technology wasn’t being consistently implemented, and internal and outside resources were duplicating efforts.
As a result of the analysis, the department created the Discovery Excellence Center (DEC), which DuPont litigation teams now engage at the inception of each matter to collaboratively define the discovery strategy and develop a plan for response.
Since its inception two years ago, the six-member DEC team has conducted more than 100 intake meetings, known as initial discovery assessments, with litigation teams composed of in-house and outside counsel.
“Getting involved from the outset of the litigation is the cornerstone of what we have done,” says Vincent Catanzaro, senior counsel and global discovery manager. “It is the clear differential between what we were doing in the past and what we are doing now.”
Previously, Catanzaro wasn’t called in until a litigation team confronted a complex discovery problem or an issue such as spoliation arose in court.
“Bringing us in at the inception gets the litigation team to think about discovery issues from an earlier stage than they otherwise would have,” Catanzaro says. “The litigation team is focused on the issues in the case, and rightly so. But from an in-house perspective, we realize how much discovery costs and how many landmines there are, so you really need to focus on discovery at that early stage as well. Otherwise you may pay the price down the line.”
One key facet of the initial discovery assessment is determining how important the case is to the business.
“Is this a matter the business will try to settle in a couple of months? If so, let’s stand down on discovery because our obligation is to preserve information, not necessarily to start producing it for the other side, which is where the cost comes in,” he says. “One of the big pushes we have is to preserve broadly, produce and review more narrowly.”
For example, the team may decide to preserve email accounts of 50 custodians, of which only 15 have information that is relevant to the case. They ask their outside counsel to advocate to the other side and to the judge their position that only the information from the 15 custodians needs to be produced.
That strategy alone saved DuPont $5.27 million in 2011 and $10.8 million in 2013, which Catanzaro calls the tip of the iceberg in savings. Other cost reductions, such as those resulting from strategic decisions not to rush into expensive discovery processes on cases likely to settle, are impossible to quantify.
Recognizing the growing role of technology in improving the efficiency of e-discovery processes, the DEC selected Squire Sanders to be the company’s national e-discovery counsel, based on the firm’s expertise in e-discovery technology. Currently the DEC is conducting a pilot program testing predictive coding technology for a case involving more than one million documents to measure efficiency improvements over traditional linear review. While the trial was still ongoing at press time, Dorothy Perillo, discovery strategist and tactical coordinator, believes predictive coding is succeeding in its goal of streamlining the review process, reducing both the cycle time and cost of review.
“We hope to promote it throughout the organization for all the right cases going forward,” she says.
Evolving Legal Ecosystem: NetApp
NetApp Inc., a California-based computer storage and data management company, first cracked the Fortune 500 in 2012. As NetApp continues to grow, it is competing for market share with much larger companies such as IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc.
“For us to win, we can’t win by scale,” says NetApp General Counsel Matthew Fawcett. “We have to out- innovate them.”
That philosophy of out-innovating the competition extends to every facet of NetApp’s business, including the legal department. Every department has a shared objective of creating a competitive advantage for the company.
Fawcett and Connie Brenton, NetApp’s director of legal operations and chief of staff, realized that in order to provide flexible, efficient and high-quality legal services to NetApp’s growing business, it would have to do away with the traditional model of reliance on outside counsel and outside service providers. Together, Brenton and Fawcett came up with a solution they’ve dubbed the Legal Ecosystem, an intimate collaboration between NetApp’s in-house team and nontraditional outside service providers.
NetApp’s key partners are Sky Analytics, a data analysis provider, and Elevate Services, a legal consulting firm. Sky Analytics provides NetApp with a customized platform for analyzing its legal spend. The data Sky Analytics compiles for NetApp allows the legal team to approach outside law firms with a detailed picture of what the rates and staffing should be for any given matter, allowing NetApp to negotiate better rates and more efficient service.
“Capturing and measuring behavior changes behavior,” Brenton says. “You can’t attain sustained improvement without measuring.” Brenton cites an example of a law firm that had 52 different timekeepers billing NetApp on a single matter. When NetApp showed the firm this data, the firm immediately began streamlining its services. Ultimately, the firm cut the number of timekeepers in half during the course of only two months.
Elevate provides on-call legal support services for a variety of functions, including contract management, document review and due diligence. Partnering with Elevate allows NetApp’s lean in-house team of 46 lawyers to scale up its legal support operations at a moment’s notice to respond to immediate business needs without having to hire more in-house staff or outsource to a law firm at a high rate.
“The larger your fixed staff, the larger your carrying costs,” Fawcett says. “Elevate provides on-call staff, so we can efficiently respond to the needs of the business without increasing our fixed overhead.”
The key to making the collaboration work was bringing the service providers behind NetApp’s firewall so they can operate as a part of NetApp’s core team. Because Elevate has an ongoing partnership with NetApp, NetApp’s in-house team doesn’t waste time managing multiple outside service providers. NetApp also avoids the time-consuming step of bringing outside providers up to speed on new matters, transferring necessary documents and information, and giving instructions on how NetApp does business. Elevate is already integrated into NetApp’s team. It not only provides support and staffing for NetApp, but also communicates with NetApp’s law firms and other providers. The outcome is that the legal department provides fast, efficient and predictable service to its clients while maintaining a small inside staff.
“Elevate operates as if they are NetApp,” Fawcett says. “Any business person within the company would not know that we’re operating behind the scenes this way.”
Optimizing for Excellence: Cisco
Cisco Systems Inc. partners with tens of thousands of companies that resell and distribute Cisco products worldwide. And each of those distributors has a contract with Cisco that needs to be reviewed and renewed on a periodic basis. In 2010, Cisco Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Mark Chandler realized that a lot of his most senior lawyers’ time was being consumed with the minutia of moving these contracts through the system—tasks such as chasing after signatures and entering contract details into databases—rather than focusing on the high-level tasks that are the core functions of lawyers. The ever-growing volume of routine work was causing a dip in the legal department’s morale.
“We needed a way to better align our resources to increase the volume of work being done without increasing costs,” Chandler says.
Cisco attorneys met with legal outsourcing firms to discuss ways the department could move low-complexity tasks downstream to people better suited to address them while freeing up attorneys to handle more complex tasks. But ultimately, Cisco decided on a homegrown solution. The company established the Legal Global Center of Excellence (GCOE), a team of 18 professionals, including paralegals and attorneys, who handle the department’s routine tasks in a highly mechanized and process-oriented way.
Now, rather than directly contacting an attorney to handle a routine task or answer a question, businesspeople within Cisco contact the GCOE through a customized computer interface. The GCOE then handles the task and gets a response to the requestor within a pre-determined turnaround time defined by the type of task. This model enables Cisco’s legal department to serve clients 24 hours a day around the world.
“We are process experts,” says Cisco’s Managing Counsel Tanya Vasilev, who heads the GCOE. “Within our centralized group, we know where to go within the company to get the answer.”
Today, the GCOE handles a number of tasks that used to take up too much attorney time—for instance, obtaining signatures on contracts, collecting data about the company’s contracts, and moving contracts through the company’s internal review and approval process. As a result of moving these tasks to the GCOE, Cisco saw a 62 percent year-over-year increase in transactional volume without adding any additional staff. Cisco’s internal customers who dealt with the GCOE reported an average satisfaction rating of 4.97 on a 5-point scale. Cisco estimates that implementing the system saved the company approximately $3.4 million in the past fiscal year.
“The result has been faster turnaround time, lower error rate and freeing up senior people to do the more complex work,” says Lynn Easterling, Cisco’s vice president and deputy general counsel.
In addition to the undeniable benefits of the GCOE shown by these hard metrics, there have also been intangible benefits—greater career satisfaction for Cisco’s lawyers and improved career paths for professionals throughout the legal department.
The company also sees future opportunities to expand on the work handled by the GCOE to increase its impact on Cisco’s bottom line.
“We have established a repeatable foundation of processes and capabilities,” says Steve Harmon, senior director of legal services. “We can build on this infrastructure to support many new functions within the GCOE.”
Growing Strong: Adknowledge
Email marketing company Adknowledge has seen impressive growth since its inception in 2004. Just months after its founding it was profitable, according to CEO Ben Legg, and it has since branched out from just email into other forms of digital marketing—pretty much everything except search. It has expanded across the globe, opening offices in Canada, China, Brazil and elsewhere, hiring more and more people to reach its current size—about 300 employees and four lawyers.
But what is great for a company can often be difficult for a legal department, as Adknowledge Chief Legal Officer John Herbst well knows. When he joined the company about a year ago, its lawyers were largely reactive, solving problems as they arrived. That wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
So Herbst set out to overhaul the legal department through various initiatives that, together, were meant to raise the department’s profile, make it a proactive asset to the business and turn its lawyers into leaders.
In order to effectively measure what was already going on, the team needed a way to gather metrics. Many matter management systems are expensive though.
“Walking in the door, I didn’t want to go to Ben and say ‘I need $30,000,’” Herbst says.
Instead, Adknowledge partnered with emerging company Advologix, which built a cheaper custom matter management system on the platform the rest of the company was already using. The department started using the system in March. Now Herbst can see what his legal team’s workload is like, and metrics gathered from the system even helped influence the company’s decision to hire more lawyers in the near future.
Adknowledge also overhauled its contracting process, establishing guidelines so employees understand who has the authority to do what, and standardizing contract language to encourage cross-selling. If a customer purchasing email marketing services suddenly wants help with Facebook as well, all they have to do is add a small addendum to the contract, rather than negotiating a whole new one. Herbst estimates that the turnaround time for commercial contracts has been reduced by one-third.
On the IP side, it’s all about strategy. Where once there was no organized approach to the company’s portfolio of nearly 40 patents and applications, now each patent is assigned a value. The legal department has created patenting guidelines and educated the company’s senior leadership about patents’ importance to the success of the business. And they’re able to focus on this strategy because the day-to-day management of the patent portfolio is now handled by an outside firm. Adknowledge has a fixed fee arrangement with the firm that saves it 20 percent to 25 percent a year in IP costs.
But perhaps the biggest change in Adknowledge’s legal department is in its attitude. Herbst wants his fellow lawyers to see themselves as leaders and encourages them to take ownership of projects. Legg cites the opening of a new office in Brazil as an example: Many different parties were involved in the project and Herbst stepped up and suggested legal take the lead.
“It’s actually a nightmare opening a company in Brazil,” Legg says. “John said, ‘How about I take ownership ... we’ll make sure it happens,’ and he did and it is,” Legg says.
A simple change in seating best demonstrates this paradigm shift. The legal department used to sit back in a corner, Herbst says, but he moved them to be more centrally located.
“I don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh no, it’s the lawyers,’” he says. “[We’re] not sitting in an ivory tower.”
Curbing Contract Claims: Energy Transfer Partners
Two years ago, Energy Transfer Partners had growing litigation expenses resulting from post-project claims, aggravated by an inefficient and inconsistent contracting process. At the same time, the legal department faced a mounting workload as the company doubled in size with the acquisitions of Southern Union Co. and Sunoco Inc.
The EOP (Engineering, Operations and Procurement) Law Group, under the leadership of Assistant General Counsel Keegan Pieper, developed and implemented a multipronged solution that included a contract management system and project close-out meetings. The result was a reduction in claims that reduced litigation expenses 580 percent from 2011 to 2012.
“If a company wants to reduce litigation expenses, it should reduce the things it is doing that lead to litigation,” Pieper says, rather than focusing on lowering outside counsel fees. “We reviewed how we do contracting, the technology we use to facilitate it and how we are communicating with our contractors.”
A first step was improving compliance with the company’s contracting policy.
“We had a lot of people in the business units who were not complying with the contracting policy,” Pieper says. Rather than use an approved contract, they would use an outdated or counterparty contract. Additionally, they hired service providers without a standardized background check to uncover financial or litigation issues. Pieper directed a project team headed by George Krapfel, senior contract analyst, and Tyler Fedun, senior software engineer, to address the issues.
Rather than buying an off-the-shelf product, the team developed its own contract management system.
“We wrote a database that was interactive and easy to use,” Krapfel says. “Keegan said, ‘Make it easy,’ and I said, ‘OK, will do.’”
The new system virtually ended the use of unapproved or outdated contracts.
“There is no faster, easier system,” Pieper adds. “It completely eliminated the mentality that ‘My way (to prepare a contract) is easier.’”
The system is so intuitive that no training is necessary. “Anyone in the field can log on and use it without training, versus off-the-shelf systems that are cumbersome and you need a degree-and-a-half to use them,” Fedun says.
Among other features, the system automatically feeds in information from an outside vendor on problems contractors experience anywhere in the country, such as employee deaths or other safety issues, Krapfel says.
Fedun is now developing mobile apps for Android and iPhones so employees can access the contract system anywhere with cell phone service. When they have no cell service, they can enter data that automatically uploads once they are in cell tower range.
With the use of the system, in 2013 the EOP Law Group has processed more than 600 contracts a month.
Project close-out meetings, where the EOP Law Group and contractor lawyers and management get together to discuss issues with performance, pay or workmanship, are another key to reduced litigation costs.
“When the project is over, all parties get together to talk about the project, discuss their frustrations and talk about what they liked and didn’t like,” Pieper says. “It’s a time for both parties to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘How dare you.’ Communication is paramount in reducing claims.”
Good communication is also key to establishing strong working relationships with the business, he adds.
“I truly believe our business units see us as bringing value and a safety net to their operations.” Pieper says. “Communication has enabled us to position ourselves in a way that allows us to add value.”
Mobile Marvel: Motorola Mobility
Motorola hasn’t had much time to settle down in one place, but in the mobile arena, that comes with the territory. Keeping the company's law department as flexible and technologically savvy as its phones and accessories has helped the Motorola team become an industry leader.
Originally a part of the Motorola Inc. family, Motorola Mobility separated as a public company in January 2011. Google Inc. then bought the company just over a year later. Throughout the shifting landscape, Scott Offer, Motorola’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel and his team have played a crucial role in reshaping and resizing the ever-changing company.
“In the past 12 months alone,” Offer says, “Motorola’s law department was a key driver in strategizing and executing multiple highly complex deals that transformed the company into a more nimble and focused entity.”
The department has had a direct hand in outsourcing manufacturing operations worldwide, negotiating sales of both the company’s cable set-top box business and multiple factories, and divesting the company’s chipset business. At the same time, the constant task of defending the company’s intellectual property rights and critical patents has remained a concern.
With so many balls to juggle, Offer knew the law department needed to become “uber efficient in record time” and think more creatively to succeed. And to get there, the department turned to Motorola Mobility’s company forte.
David Kenzer, Vice President of Commercial Law leads the team that has driven many of the changes. “The team turned to technology,” he says. “[We] created IT solutions that changed the game and leveraged the Google tools available to everyone.”
Realizing the limited amount of time they had to sign contracts with customers worldwide, Motorola Mobility’s department set out to streamline the process. The result is Motorola’s Agreement eXpress (MAX), an online tool that allows the business teams to automatically generate contracts with field customization, auto-route contracts for internal approvals, and sign documents electronically. MAX can also gather real-time information about contract statuses, deviations and valuations; provide personal and team dashboards; and more.
“This innovative solution is now the new model for other areas of business,” Kenzer explains, “and is a compelling demonstration of partnering with business teams to provide enhanced value as a legal organization.”
The law department then turned its attention inwards to integrating technology within the Motorola Mobility company itself. The team focused on two key areas: offering more relevant and contextual training, and encouraging timely compliance with ethics training. They accomplished the first goal through the Flash Class program—shorter informal, interactive classes aimed specifically at the company’s top training needs. Interactive online training accomplished goal number two, using a game-playing format to make learning about ethics fun and accessible.
The results were instantaneous. According to Kenzer, “[Flash Class] is getting more people in the company excited about learning and teaching, is an excellent complement to more formal training programs and can be leveraged throughout the entire company.” The interactive online training has seen similar results and positive feedback.
With the winds of change swirling around them, the Motorola Mobility team has not only succeeded, but thrived. Normally law departments aren’t in the forefront of change, but Offer strives for his squad to be different. “The team has been, and continues to be, instrumental in transforming the company,” Offer says, “driving a new culture throughout the company, improving morale and responding to the business with innovative solutions that extend beyond the law department.”
Tech Training: 3M
As 3M Co.’s international operations grew throughout the past five years its legal department also began to expand globally. It hired new lawyers abroad—one in this country, two in that—but wanted to maintain a feeling of being one cohesive team. The initial solution was hosting what 3M calls Global Legal Academies, gatherings held every two years at the company’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., at which new lawyers learned about the company’s way of doing business and were exposed to the basics of many areas of law.
But when the class sizes at the Global Legal Academies grew to 16, then 25, then more, it became impractical and unwieldy to organize their logistics. Associate General Counsel Jim Zappa and Assistant General Counsel David Overstreet found an elegant solution in technology.
Starting in December 2012, 3M’s legal department began putting on a series of webinars led by subject matter experts within the company that would serve as mandatory training for new lawyers, both in the U.S. and abroad.
“By developing and launching a series of training webinars covering significant legal and compliance topics, the legal department was able to provide the crucial training while minimizing the costs of travel and promoting a unified global legal culture,” says 3M General Counsel Ivan Fong.
Each webinar, held monthly, focuses on a different topic. So far they’ve run the gamut from global competition law to internal investigation management to environmental marketing claims.
“The intent is that we’ll develop this library of webinars over the course of a year, year and a half, and then in the future, new attorneys will go out and they can watch those webinars,” Overstreet says. “[Then] the goal is to update them from time to time.”
Every webinar is recorded and linked to on the company’s website, along with related resources like handouts and PowerPoint slides, meaning that attorneys who join the company later can go back and watch old webinars to catch up. After getting feedback from attendees that they wanted more concrete resources to help them work through issues, like checklists or templates, Zappa and Overstreet plan to include those as well.
“It’s one of those typical innovation stories,” Zappa says. “When you do something for the first time, the goal is to get as close as you can to a product that really works, but you know you’re going to get 80 percent or 90 percent of the way there. The rest of it is inevitably taking the feedback and restructuring.”
While the team works to perfect the system, they’ve already gotten a lot of positive feedback. Some of 3M’s more experienced lawyers have started listening in on the webinars, even though they don’t have to, just to brush up on a topic. Some lawyers are also using the materials from the webinars to help train clients.
3M isn’t getting rid of the Global Legal Academies, though. Having the webinars as a base allows presenters at the Global Legal Academies to go more in-depth into topics and build on the information everyone’s already received through the webinars.
Aside from consistency in training, Zappa says he thinks the value of the webinars comes from creating a feeling of community among lawyers spread out across the globe.
“We’ve got a positive feeling about the development and commitment of the function,” he says. “That’s really important to us because we want to bring people in, have them stay and have them grow their careers.”
Implementing inclusion: TIAA-CREF
As the general counsel of financial services organization TIAA-CREF, Jonathan Feigelson was proud of his legal department, which was made up of a talented team of 84 hardworking lawyers. But early last year, he felt like something was missing.
“I realized that there was a need to strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts across our law department and to promote our values to our outside service providers,” Feigelson says. With the help of Samantha Frasso, TIAA’s legal communications and practice manager, he got immediately to work building a more diverse and inclusive team.
The first step in initiating the TIAA Law Department Diversity & Inclusion Program, which launched in March 2012, was to set goals and put in place a committee to work toward achieving those goals. The 14-person Diversity & Inclusion Committee set up four “workstreams” within the program: collect data on diversity, create a mission statement and communications plan, conduct outside counsel firm analysis and diversity outreach, and begin engaging with diverse and women-owned law firms for recruitment and retention of legal staff. “Samantha put together a spreadsheet of tasks for the committee members, which held people accountable for various responsibilities,” Feigelson explains. “This really got the ball rolling and set the momentum.”
Within the workstreams, the committee set in place several specific initiatives. First, they developed a strategy for selecting outside counsel. “We now request that all external counsel report annually with demographic information for attorneys working on TIAA’s matters,” Feigelson says. “This outreach also includes an obligation to engage in annual conferences with a member of our law department to discuss other ways in which those firms promote diversity and inclusion within the bar and to confirm that the staffing of our transactions promotes our diversity and inclusion objectives.”
Secondly, they began sponsoring diverse interns within the legal department, working with the New York City Bar Association’s Diversity Fellowship Program and Charlotte, N.C.’s Legal Diversity Clerkship Program. “The goal is to provide first-year law students from underrepresented populations the chance to spend a summer in one of New York’s most exciting legal environments,” Feigelson explains.
Thirdly, the department brought in a guest speaker to discuss the importance of diversity within an organization, building internal awareness and adoption of the need for the program. And finally, they implemented a “diverse slate effort,” which requires that diverse candidates be considered for 100 percent of all job openings within the legal department.
Not surprisingly, a program of such magnitude does not come without its challenges. Feigelson says early on he had to work through his busy committee members getting distracted from the project, and he also struggled to find ways to keep the program fresh and innovative. “I’m also anticipating another challenge to be how responsive law firms will be over time,” he says, “and their attempts to demonstrate in a meaningful way that they are taking diversity seriously within their firms.”
But so far, the program is well on its way to success, serving as a model for other TIAA departments interested in moving the diversity needle.
“Our diversity and inclusion efforts reflect the core values of TIAA-CREF,” says Brandon Becker, TIAA’s chief legal officer. “The law group should be commended for turning those values into concrete actions. Effective D&I initiatives not only are the right thing to do, but they’re essential for us to compete in a global marketplace.”
Social Standing: The Hartford
It’s only 140 characters long, and takes just a second to send, but an errant Tweet can spell disaster for a company. The same goes for an inappropriate Facebook or LinkedIn posting. Given the pervasiveness and speed of social media, how can a company with more than 10,000 employees monitor the content going out on all of these channels?
For The Hartford Financial Services Co., the answer was the Social Media Review Team (SMRT), a specialized group comprising representatives from the company’s law department, its enterprise digital commerce group, and its governance, risk and compliance services team. The SMRT’s mandate is to review all social media requests coming from the business, identify potential risks inherent in the social media usage and provide suggestions for mitigating those risks.
Created in 2011, the SMRT provides a streamlined solution for The Hartford employees looking to establish a business-related social media channel—be it a Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn account. “The team allows for a one-stop shop where someone can … understand the risks and what they have to do to launch [a social media channel] in the proper way, as opposed to [going] to five different people and getting different answers,” says David Cunningham, vice president and assistant general counsel at The Hartford.
Earlier this year, the team boosted its review capabilities with the introduction of an online tool that automatically tracks and collects data on each social media usage request, allowing the SMRT to identify common requests and risks. Once requestors submit their social media plans, often at interactive meetings with the SMRT, the team assesses them for potential risks.
“We have access to such great data about the accounts we have, who are the standard requestors that are coming through … we can really slice and dice our data,” says David Smith, corporate counsel at The Hartford, who developed the tool.
The SMRT also watches out for potential regulatory requirements. As a financial services company, The Hartford can be required to respond to inquiries that consumers post on social media sites, so requestors have to ensure that someone will always be monitoring the appropriate channels for such questions.
After identifying these potential pitfalls—a process that can take anywhere from a day to two weeks—the SMRT produces an executive summary of its findings and risk mitigation requirements, which it then presents to the original requestors. Once the requestors have satisfied the requirements, they are free to implement their social media strategy, although some requestors return to the SMRT for periodic check-ups.
The team continues to refine the tool and is currently looking for more straightforward ways to present the vast amounts of data it collects to various levels of company employees. Above all, Smith says, the team always keeps content at the forefront of their minds. As he puts it: “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is the content that we’re looking to make or build [going] to help educate, to help engage and inform folks that are listening to one of our channels?’”
Complaint Triage: University Hospitals Health System Inc.
A 420 percent increase in the number of complaints and events reported at a company doesn’t seem like it would be a boon to a legal department. But in the case of University Hospitals Health System Inc., (UH) the increase was not only welcomed, it also corresponded with a 50 percent decrease in the number of lawsuits filed annually against the hospital.
The reason behind the two seemingly contradictory statistics is UH’s so-called PASS reporting system, which was first implemented in 2007 in an effort to better track events that could result in liability claims against the hospital.
UH already had an event-reporting system, but it was “cumbersome” and difficult to use, according to Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Kim Bixenstine, who helped to launch the new program. The PASS system, by contrast, can be used by employees at any of the hospital’s locations—which include an academic medical center, six community medical centers and three ambulatory surgical centers. No password is necessary; anyone with access to UH’s intranet can easily submit a report.
Implementing the system wasn’t just about easy-to-use technology, though. It also required instituting a “just culture” that destigmatized reporting and instead prioritized openness and process improvement. That shift in focus started with the name of the system itself (PASS stands for Patient Advocacy and Shared Stories) and was emphasized in an ongoing series of educational programs that told employees how and when to enter event reports.
When an employee reports an event that could result in potential harm to a patient, the report goes directly to the law department, as well as the supervisor of the relevant hospital area. Events that the system deems especially significant automatically go to senior hospital officials.
Hospital staff, including residents, paralegals, patient advocates and attending physicians, then have weekly meetings to discuss each event report and the changes that can be made to prevent a similar event from happening again.
“In the old system people used to think, ‘I put an event report in, where does it go? It’s a black hole,’” says Julia Skarbinski, director for patient safety, risk management and advocacy. “With PASS reporting, because so many more people are involved, there’s so much collaboration … and people are also seeing the lessons learned that come out of it. They know that these actions are being taken and they’re not just wasting time putting event reports in.”
Bixenstine agrees, citing buy-in from executives such as Chief Legal Officer Janet Miller as a key reason for the system’s success. “We have a culture now at University Hospitals of transparency,” she says. “That results in greater employee satisfaction and engagement … and it really results in greater patient confidence in having that transparency.”
Patient complaints also go through PASS, allowing hospital staff to begin mediation as soon as potential problems arise. This proactive approach has cut litigation costs by $2 million for each of the past four years, even as the number of patients at UH has risen by 24 percent.
The system has had other benefits as well. Last year the American Hospital Association recognized UH’s primary hospital with the AHA-McKesson Quest for Quality Prize, awarded annually to one hospital in the country that demonstrates exceptional patient care.
“It’s caused a cascade of things—more people involved, more process improvement, more notifications to our legal department, and decrease in claims,” says Skarbinski.
E-Discovery Excellence: DuPont