How Legal Departments Can Effectively Plan in 2021’s Shifting Economy

With uncertain financial footing and the threat of renewed COVID-19 restrictions, how can legal teams ensure they stay afloat?

Kris Satkunas, Director of Strategic Consulting at LexisNexis CounselLink, outlines how legal departments can adapt and remain resilient through another unusual year.

Last year, legal departments had to quickly shift strategies to respond to and address the challenges presented by COVID-19. While challenging, it also gave legal departments an opportunity to examine and implement new approaches to work, spend and vendor management.

Although we have started a new year, legal departments and operations must continue to adapt to changing environments. By continuing to review and update work processes and supporting technology, in-house lawyers and their teams can successfully execute planning for the upcoming year. This will help their clients not just survive into 2021, but thrive.

Key Steps for Effective Planning

While the events of 2020 launched a shockwave across the world economy, the shutdowns from COVID-19 also forced businesses to take a fresh look at the way they have traditionally operated. As we move forward into 2021, legal departments can continue to make long-lasting, positive changes by assessing several areas of their operations.

Review Workflow Processes

A great place to start is to scrutinise and evaluate workflow processes for in the legal department, including those related to knowledge, matter and litigation management – and revamp processes where necessary.

Most legal departments have processes that have been in place for many years and are rife with opportunity for increased efficiency. Mining data out of the systems used for these processes can be extremely useful in identifying bottlenecks and other process breakdowns. A fresh set of eyes evaluating old processes can often identify low-hanging fruit that results in overall improvement.

Most legal departments have processes that have been in place for many years and are rife with opportunity for increased efficiency.

Optimised processes make good use of staff time and take into account the skill level that an individual needs in order to complete a step in a process. For example, increasing the role of professional staff such as paralegals may be one area where legal departments can better scale. Rather than automatically sending work to in-house lawyers, paralegals can often take on some of the work earlier in the process and serve as the first point of contact with outside counsel to handle the initial intake.

Leverage technology to enable redesigned processes

Legal departments should leverage the right technologies to refine and adjust workflow processes. Automation is one way in which processes and technology come together. Consider contract management. Contracts are often reviewed by multiple paralegals and lawyers, even though organisations frequently execute contracts that are extremely similar. Through automated workflows and the use of templates, legal departments can minimise the number of people who have to touch any given contract. As remote work continues, this approach makes even more sense.

In-house counsel may also find that they are using redundant systems or failing to fully leverage the systems they do have. For example, some departments may be using one platform for billing and another for matter management. Yet their billing system may already have robust matter management capabilities that can be easily integrated into the entire workflow process, eliminating the need for two separate systems.

Reevaluate outside counsel rates and fee arrangements

Effectively tracking and managing outside counsel spend, including the examination of alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) and pricing rates, can improve legal departments’ positioning in 2021.

The negotiation of fees and hourly rates is always an important conversation with outside counsel, and that is particularly true when the economy is uncertain. But before in-house counsel have meaningful conversations about AFAs and rates, they need analytics and tools that allow them to benchmark firms against each other, both for their own legal work as well as for external benchmarks.

Most legal departments continue to feel increasing budgetary pressure. Making data informed decisions regarding outside counsel pricing is essential to meet the demands of the business on tightening budgets.

Foster optimum communication and collaboration

In 2021, legal departments should prioritise client relationship management techniques, both internally and externally. A more personal interaction like a phone call or Zoom meeting is often more effective than an email, which can be misinterpreted or require extensive or excessive follow up.

Within the organisation, regular meetings with business teams can help to minimise ongoing issues that frustrate business people and the legal team alike.

When dealing with outside counsel, identifying one point person can make challenging conversations easier. For some legal departments, designating a relationship lawyer is the best approach. For others, someone from the legal operations team may be in a better position to lead business conversations related to fees and matter budgets.

Conclusion

For in-house lawyers, 2020 brought unprecedented change for their teams, their clients and their law firms. One thing we can be certain of is that this year will continue to be unpredictable. By honing processes and technology, legal departments can stay ahead of the shifting environment and take advantage of the opportunities available from new approaches.

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