The number one goal of innovation in our legal team, in an organisation manufacturing basic commodities, is to be able to do more with less – to consistently deliver high quality outputs at lower cost, so we are contributing to improving our organisation’s profit. There’s always pressure to keep costs to the minimum, but there is also a particular risk in needing to do more and more in terms of meeting increasing compliance requirements whilst containing costs.
The second goal is to increase reliability. There are more regulatory requirements to deal with and more things being asked of us, and to do that confidently and efficiently we need to make sure that the information and the processes we’ve got to be able to do that are robust and reliable – so I know that when the CEO wants a piece of information I can produce it reasonably quickly, and we are providing various stakeholders with confidence about our organisation’s governance.
We’re in the early stages of looking to see what new legal technology is available that can successfully meet our needs. I’ve been an in-house lawyer for over 20 years now and am probably one of the longest serving in-house lawyers in Australia. I use a basic, but robust and reliable system which has served us well.
We use a SQL Server relational database for recording and linking all the information we use every day, such as information about matters we are working on, agreements, property details, intellectual property, company details, and external lawyers’ fees, but we are looking to upgrade from this. We have been looking at what there is on the market, and there have been some quite interesting developments in terms of matter management. Overall, our organisation does not have a consistent process for information management, leaving it to particular teams to make their own arrangements.
We have had a lot of growth over the time I’ve been here and we’re a much bigger company now, with more operations, more people, and more issues that need to be resolved every day. We are in a period of rapid change for our organisation. One aspect of this is the organisation is about to embark on a digital transformation project planned to unlock value, including a focus on the benefits from automation and smart analysis of our financial and operating systems and processes. We’re also looking at how that works for us in the legal team, to bring it all together over the next probably six months, against the objectives of robustness and reliability that I mentioned before.
We are currently looking at NetDocuments, iManage and a couple of other leading information management systems and are also looking around for matter management systems. What did surprise us was that there was not really one overall, out of the box, comprehensive package available for the typical needs of an in-house counsel team like ours.
We try to keep things as simple as we can, and we prefer just to go out and get something that is going to do what we want off the shelf. Our needs will be similar to many other companies’ needs. Given that we already have a good simple set up, we don’t want to have something new that is of a proprietary nature and forces you to go down a route in doing things their way, that may not align with our preferences, and could provide less functionality than we’ve got at the moment.
A couple of high-level IT leaders I have worked with recently, inside and outside our organisation, have confirmed a contemporary approach is to use out of the box wherever you can. They also reinforced a strong preference for a cloud-based approach, rather than on premises facilities.
We have quite a free rein in terms of what technology we can onboard within the team. Of course, if it doesn’t work or deliver value, I carry the can for that. To learn about the value of the technology which is now available, we went out and got anecdotal evidence, did research, and then followed up with a few of the aggregator providers about what they would recommend. That led us to talking to some people, getting some demonstrations and forming our views.
I was surprised at the low estimates for setting up this system and migrating our data. I feared from previous experience that the actual costs could be greater than the optimistic forecasts, so in the budget I’ve put in a more realistic amount than has been suggested for a migration (which of course we will manage carefully). I’ve also said we want to do it in incremental stages, which helps us manage the transition risks.
We’re a small department, who operate in a company that has traditionally run everything very lean. That’s the environment I’ve been working in for a long time with colleagues in the legal team. We evaluate our technology intuitively and based on how much it is actually helping us to achieve our objectives. Having said that, we are building KPIs into our assessment process at the moment as part of our structured evaluation procedure.
When staying abreast of what legal technology is available, organisations such as ALITA are useful and easy to access to corroborate what we’re finding in other places, and help us to test things anecdotally against promotional material or the stated capabilities of the tech.
I’ve followed what’s going on in artificial intelligence relevant to our responsibilities, and I can see where it will have application, but in our case we are a heavy manufacturing industrial company which doesn’t have a lot of low-value, high volume legal work. We leverage our internal expertise with carefully selected external advisors who we are confident will apply themselves creatively and deliver value for us, and while I currently don’t see a big role for AI in our legal team on a regular basis, we’re continuing to monitor its progress. We have used AI in certain cases, for instance during some major litigation, and I was really impressed with the quality that came back from applying AI to our discovery records. Automation, AI, and machine learning are opportunities we are planning to exploit for our heavy manufacturing business, with an expectation of significant benefits, so we are on the look out for where these sort of opportunities might be there for the legal function also.
COVID-19 and its effects have of course had an influence on the way we are working at the moment. From March to July, everyone was working from home, and in July we cautiously moved back to offices, following a contingency plan which for us had a ‘team A’ and ‘team B’ that were in the office on alternating weeks.
We are operating throughout Australia, so we have had experience with the different situations in the different states. We’ve had experience with all the video conferencing facilities, and have had a major rollout of hardware and software to people who weren’t using stuff in a mobile way to the same extent as others. In our legal function we’re all equipped with laptops and iPads, and because (pre-COVID-19) we’re often all around the country, it wasn’t a great change for us. The relational database that I mentioned before has given us a really solid framework for our essential information, so that even though the team’s been at home for some time over lockdown, we’ve been able to continue all of that essential stuff without any glitches whatsoever.
Going forward, I think that technology will change the roles of in-house lawyers in a more subtle way than many are predicting. Some tech that we use, such as hearings via video conferences, can be used tactically, and you need to consider that before being pushed down a certain path – should you agree to videoconference or not agree? Are you giving up some advantage if witnesses are not being cross examined in person, or if your representatives are interacting with the court in different ways? This shows that technology needs to be adopted in a measured way, because there are just too many side issues that come up.
Our Annual General Meeting (AGM) was in May, so we had to deal with how we were going to do this in the middle of the pandemic, with the restrictions on meetings. This quickly exposed us to virtual AGMs, but these are still not that straightforward. We did a hybrid AGM, which went well apart from the fact that a third-party tech provider played the CEO’s speech before the Chairman’s speech. It was simple human error, despite numerous rehearsals undertaken and the procedures we had in place. Most viewers would not notice, but it just highlighted that there are risks in new technology. Next year, I think we’ll probably still do a hybrid AGM, but we will have learned the lessons, I don’t think we’ll move to a fully virtual AGM.
Young lawyers who will have to drive the profession’s use of technology forward should be clear about what they are trying to achieve from legal tech. That’s cost efficiencies, delivering valued outcomes, avoiding surprises, and having reliable information and systems and tools to be able to do the task that you’re responsible for dependably. Everything comes back to that, and that’s what we’re trying to do in order to deliver value for our shareholders. You need to have a mindset that is going to let you understand how you can use the technology and the potential developments to further what the organisation is trying to achieve. You can’t be divorced from the underlying nature of the business.