Sarena Straus, Outside General Counsel and Legal Innovation Consultant

In-house counsel turned external consultant Sarena Straus talks to GC about her time founding an internal legal incubator at Boehringer Ingelheim and gives an outside perspective on how in-house teams can leverage innovation.

Not the usual route

I started my career as a prosecutor, working with government for several years before I accidentally fell into an in-house role. I started my in-house career as counsel at a mid-sized medical management company that was working off a technology-based platform. Because I’d worked there first as a lawyer, I got interested pretty early on in process optimisation and streamlining.

From there, I worked in big pharma for 12 years, undertaking a lot of self-initiated projects, which is where I started to see opportunities for improvement and optimisation. I intentionally sought out projects that looked to restructure the way we were handling things, particularly through streamlining and automating processes.

That led me to becoming one of the founding members of a legal incubator that started at Boehringer Ingelheim. I was part of a group of five or six people from around the world who worked in the legal department – though not necessarily lawyers – trying to operate at a high level and find what we could do within the organisation in the innovation space. That got me meeting a lot of other people in the legal innovation industry, while seeing what was out there and what was still missing.

Incubating ideas for better business

For the internal legal incubator I helped set up at Boehringer Ingelheim, the notion wasn’t actually to implement anything – the notion was to go out there and explore what was outside the organisation and available outside in other spheres of the legal world, but also to explore internally and discover some really out-of-the-box and interesting solutions that might help the organisation with certain internal needs.

They tried to pick a cross-section of people from a legal organisation – lawyers and non-lawyers in different parts of the world – and said ‘come up with ideas’. We all ended up with our own pet projects in what we were focused on and there was a lot being done as individuals to then bring back to the team. But above all, we were told to structure it however we wanted to.

It was essentially an idea machine and then up to the organisation to say ‘Do we want to implement those ideas?’

As far as we could tell, it was the first of its kind. When we started to go out and talk to people about it, there was a lot of excitement. Lots of organisations focus on innovation, but we had never heard of it being initiated by the legal department, particularly from the viewpoint of those who were looking really strictly at what the in-house legal department was doing. To add to that, I don’t think a pharmaceutical company is at the top of the list when you consider who is going to be thinking outside the box!

Filling a need

What innovation means and what makes sense depends on the kind of organisation you are working with and what their needs are. It could be something very small or something very big, but I think it’s a very individualised decision, rather than a lot of what is being marketed out there. Put simply, out-of-the-box solutions aren’t always for everybody.

As a consultant, I’m not aware of anyone else that is defining themselves this way. Certainly, there are many other organisations who are competing and innovating in the legal tech space, but to look case by case at an organisation’s needs and ask ‘How can we do this differently? How can we think about this differently?’ in order to create innovative solutions – I don’t really know anyone else who is focused on it in the way that I am. Which is to say, I’m not out there marketing a tech solution. There are companies who do that and have the expertise for it. I am more focused on the needs of the company I’m working with. That might be a technology solution, but to me that’s usually going to be one piece of a bigger puzzle.

I think all companies want to be innovative and want to do things better, but I also think that when people have talked about innovation in the past, they are trying to tick a box as opposed to really thinking about what it means for them. For example, the place where companies struggle in a big area that I worked in would be transactions – and if you are really looking at doing something radical in the transaction department within a larger organisation, it can take a lot of work to get there. It can also frequently involve major corporate culture shifts, and a lot of the time somebody is interested in talking about it and I think they are interested in doing it, but the reality of implementation might not be there, or the cultural change required to make the changes is not possible either.

I don’t believe innovation for the sake of innovation is necessarily appealing. Often when people are talking about innovation in the legal space, they are solely considering technology. The challenge is to think more broadly – and not just about buying a ready-made solution out of the box, but instead weighing up what you can do with an organisation to differentiate how you provide legal services.

For me, the bottom line is that tools don’t replace people – someone still needs to be responsible for the process. A tool is out there if you need things that monitor turnaround time, ageing and expirations, but you fundamentally need good people to do the work. But those people, too, are changing. When you look at the legal industry, it is changing rapidly, but you’re also looking at lawyers who are coming out of law school with a different mindset and skillset than those who emerged 20 or 30 years ago.

Looking forward

We keep talking about innovation in law firms, but I think we thought it was going to be further along in some areas than it currently is. I believe it plays a huge part, but I think the more interesting conversation is about where you cannot replace lawyers with technology. A big piece of that is on the counselling and ethics side. I don’t think it is going to be as easy to replace an ethical determination and counselling with computers, as it is to automate an NDA.

All we have really seen in terms of legal innovation tends to be on the technology side. My sense regarding the in-house team would be the role of the CLO growing to become someone in the legal department who is more in charge of operations. Somebody like that would be well suited to try and implement the innovation teams in-house. By and large, law firms are significantly behind the curve. They are still doing things the old-fashioned way, and I think there is tremendous room for improvement and optimisation in law firms in particular.