Inside improvements: Innovation isn't always about technology

A willingness to creatively consider new strategies may be what truly defines innovation in the legal department

Sandy Owen, legal operations director at Intel

The technology options for the legal department run the gamut from the archaic to the space-age, but there is no silver bullet to solving the common woes of running a shop. Rather, innovation and success come from knowing exactly what is wrong and then matching the appropriate solution to that problem. While this frequently means partnering with external vendors to purchase a tool to tackle an established problem, for some legal departments, innovation means the development of in-house applications that go further to solve the unique challenges of the specific organization.

InsideCounsel recently had an opportunity to talk with operations management specialists at technology icons Google and Intel to discuss the challenges they’ve encountered, the solutions they’ve implemented and their advice to smaller operations hoping to fulfill their unique needs.

Progression through reflection

As head of legal operations at Google Inc., Mary O’Carroll must balance the challenge of overseeing her team with those that come from being part of one of the largest and fastest growing corporations in the world. Over the past decade or so, Google's omnipresence has transcended industries, but it's easy to forget that the company has only been in existence since the late 1990s. It may seem obvious that a company like Google uses technology to mitigate the volume of work that comes from that growth.

“As a technology company, we really believe in technology, but we’ve also grown really quickly both as a company and as a legal department. I think we’ve faced some unique challenges as a result of that ‘hyper-growth,’” O’Carroll explains. “We often look at our existing processes and see if there are ways to improve those. We then try to centralize and standardize the processes, determine if we can reduce the time spent on things that are lower value, and then we see if we can automate any of those.”

Resource scarcity is a challenge for any legal department. Especially during times of growth, deciding which items get priority while categorizing items that are high in volume but low in complexity can offer a crucial path to automation and other technology implementation. But carefully managing resources has not been the only challenge that O’Carroll has faced. “We collect a lot of data, so the question is, how do we use it and leverage technology to improve transparency? We want to know how we’re getting better, how we’re spending money, or using our resources, or what we’re paying for outside counsel,” she says.

A surplus of information is almost always a good thing, but as O’Carroll points out, having vast amounts of data requires context, and proper management of that data can be a challenge. Knowledge management, and ensuring that disparate teams have a window into the problems other groups have faced, ensures that no one is working in a silo and equitably spreads workplace knowledge.

Sandy Owen, legal operations director at Intel, says that though self-analysis and optimization can pose a challenge, making sure standard practices are thorough ensures that the selected technology will be sufficient if and when it's needed.

“We have been able to pull process engineers in from other parts of Intel to document our processes and help us look for opportunities to optimize,” Owen says. “I always encourage my team to look for ways to optimize the processes first and then automate them. Often, people want to go right for a tool without thinking about what problem they’re really trying to solve. The risk is that you may implement a solution that really doesn't address the issue, and I think that can be a disservice.”

Like O’Carroll, Owen says that once you’ve tightened up your process, it's easier to evaluate the information that you’ve been collecting and dig into the “so what?” of it.

“You can count things, instances and dollars, but how you start to weave all of those pieces together is how you tell the story. There are multiple vectors to that story, so you have to know how to pull it all together and do the business analytics on it. Data alone is not the complete story,” Owen says.

Resource allocation, the need for detailed analysis and budgetary concerns are ubiquitous in legal operations. What's not as clear are the approaches to implementing systems that can connect dots and offer the context attorneys need to make better decisions. Considering the scarcity of contextualizing from vendors, it's sometime necessary for legal departments to start from scratch.

Cultivating creativity

The obvious question for legal departments lacking the technical know-how or the resources to create similar solutions is: How do we find similar efficiencies through technology? Both O’Carroll and Owen agree that, more than anything else, attitude is what drives innovation and creative problem solving in the law department. And, on the plus side, an open-minded approach is much less expensive than a new software solution.

“There are a lot of tools out there that are readily accessible to people, like SharePoint for example. Don't be too wedded to your existing processes; be open to them, look at them and adapt them. Sometimes you make a process change and that small adjustment allows you to work within a tool you may already have in house,” Owen says. “If you approach it with willingness to put everything on the table and be open to change, you have an opportunity to be a lot more creative in your approach.”

And while Owen says that buying a solution versus creating an application in-house gives smaller shops more support, she recommends that legal teams consider the future when looking for the right tool.

“You never want something that's a point solution, because that ends up turning into a silo. They don't typically do a good job of sharing information, and at a time when GCs and operations folks should be looking at departments holistically, you need to have a complete picture of that information so you can deliver the analytics that will drive efficiencies.”

O’Carroll adds, “Certainly the first thing to consider is what your department needs are going to be for the long term. Don't just focus on what you need right now, but also factor in scalability.”

Legal departments are on the cusp of a revolution. With volumes of information from decades of work slowly becoming palatable to advanced information systems, smarter decision-making is just around the corner. Finding or building applications that can digest, display and predict the information and needs of your team requires not only open systems, but also an open mind. While all legal departments may not have the technological clout of Intel or Google, a willingness to creatively consider new strategies may be what truly defines innovation in the legal department.

Managing Editor

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Chris DiMarco

Chris DiMarco, Managing Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, has a background in multimedia production with previous involvement in projects in which he developed and created content for...

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