Among the many impressive finalists for this year’s ILTA Innovation Awards, the submission for the Telstra legal department stood out as a compelling change management story.  By enabling the right kind of collaboration among its lawyers, the Telstra change initiative reduced the internal workload on the 220-lawyer department by 40,000 hours. Further, by returning time to overburdened lawyers, the department created a culture that is much more supportive of change efforts.

Yet, what is most significant about this story is that virtually any legal organization could replicate this success by taking a few simple steps.

The business challenge facing the Telstra legal department

Telstra is an Australian telecom company that was formally a state-run utility.  Shortly after completing a phased privatization in the mid-2000s, the 2008 financial crisis forced the company into downsizing mode. 10% annual budget cuts were implemented for all parts of the business, including the legal department.

Like many successful change initiatives, this one began with false starts and disappointment.  As the cost-cutting pressures continued to mount, in 2013 the legal department created a long list of key pain points that needed to be addressed for the group to be successful. Recalls Mick Sheehy, Telstra’s General Counsel of Finance, Technology, Innovation & Strategy, “we thought the list was so important we made it everyone’s shared responsibility, including our senior legal leaders, which meant ultimately it became no one’s responsibility.”

A Process to Prioritize, Plan, Implement, and Repeat

With the department struggling to gain significant traction, in 2015 Sheehy attended a design thinking course at Harvard Law School.  Impressed with these ideas, Sheehy returned home and ran a design thinking workshop with a group of his own lawyers, receiving some expert facilitation from a team at Herbert Smith Freehills. Cf. Post 015 (noting key determinants of organizational innovativeness are leadership’s attitude to change and openness to external perspectives).

After once again creating a laundry list of the department’s biggest pain points, the group limited itself to the top four.  Thereafter, they used design thinking techniques to construct potential solutions for each problem and to implement them through an eight-week “sprint.” (Borrowing from the world of software development, a “sprint” is a discrete time period — usually two weeks to two months — where a team creates a working prototype or an updated version of a product. See Agile Glossary.)

Below is the simple process each Telstra work team used evaluate and improve each change initiative:

What makes the Telstra process different that other change initiatives is that it is iterative and enables the group to learn from implementation.  Thus, a decision to continue is also a decision with much better information and a higher likelihood of success.  Likewise, a decision to kill an initiative is less a failure than a prioritization of limited department resources to support the highest impact projects.

Notes Sheehy, “We ran the sprints and we came back to another workshop and we looked at what we achieved and were so enthused and excited that we decided to do the whole thing again. And we haven’t stopped. This is now an embedded process in Telstra legal and we recently ran our 8th Telstra innovation workshop.” Cf. Post 008 & Post 011 (noting simplicity and trialability as among the keys to successful adoption).

Telstra rotates lawyers through the innovation program, known internally as the Legal Innovation Forum, or LIF.  As of August 2017, 35 Telstra lawyers have participated in the program.

Results

Thus far, four “streams” have left the Forum, having achieved their core objectives.  Although Sheehy notes that none of them are particularly exciting on their own, “collectively they’re telling a great story.”  Here are the four streams.

  1. Self-Service NDAs (5,300 hours saved).   Most non-disclosure agreements are standard and low-risk.  By embedding the key decision points into an automated workflow, the number of lawyers hours per annum dropped from 6,425 to 1,125, resulting in an 82% time savings.
  2. Less Legal Report Generation (2,250 hours saved).  The equivalent of two lawyers were producing a weekly report for the CEO that he was not regularly reading. So the reports going to the CEO were cut by nearly 2/3, reducing the time commitment from 3,750 hours to 1,500, resulting in an 60% time savings.
  3. Fewer Internal Meetings (31,500 hours saved).  Throughout the legal department, the numbers of internal meetings was widely viewed as excessive. As part of a LIF initiative, internal meeting where categorized as either “decision making” or “information sharing” meeting. For decision making meetings, organizers were told to only invite people they needed and to make the decision points explicit in advance. For information sharing meeting, each attorney was limited to 2.5 hours per week. Across the 220-lawyer department, this resulted in a drop in internal meeting hours from 60,180 to 28,680 (52% reduction).
  4. Reduce Legal Review of Internal Communications (1,008 hours saved).  A careful triage of the type of internal communications subject to legal review revealed that a substantial volume of review was unnecessary.  Better workflow criteria resulted in reduction of attorney hours from 3,470 to 2,462 (29% time savings).

Telstra’s internal time saving target for these four initiatives was 27,000 hours per annum time.  Yet, they overshot the mark by achieving more than 40,000 hours.  This is the type of ROI available when lawyers use people, process, and technology to “do less law.” See Ron Friedmann, Do Less Law — A Taxonomy of Ideas, June 11, 2015.  It was also enough for Telstra to win the 2017 ITLA award for legal department innovation.

Lessons learned

As noted above, as of August 2017, Telstra had eight workshop/sprint iterations, which is the basis for an enormous amount of organizational learning. What are the key lessons?  Sheehy offers several:

  • Data.  “It’s critical to measure your baseline and know your starting point so you can tell a data driven story so people can understand all the effort you’re putting in is driving results.”  Cf. Post 008 (data makes innovation more observable and thus more likely to be adopted by others).
  • Not reinventing the wheel.  “The problems we’re solving are not unique to Telstra legal department and may be faced by other law firms and departments in the company. Having an outward focus rather than an inward focus is critical.” Cf. Post 017 (noting openness to external ideas and influence as key determinant of organizational innovativeness)
  • Not waiting for perfect; avoiding options paralysis. “We have a tendency to overthink problems when we sometimes just need to get started. Jeff Bezos had a great point when he said that if you’re waiting for more than 70% of the information to make a decision you’re probably waiting too long, and getting something wrong is less expensive than being slow.”
  • Communication.  “All of this has a degree of behavioral change and behavioral change is really hard. We had to focus on the communication. The reduction in meetings was difficult and to get people to think differently on that – a lot of it was down to communication.”

Below is the last graphic from Telstra’s ILTA presentation.  Note that in its original form it was a series of sticky notes generated by team members during the Forum debriefs. In other words, a simple low-tech process is the engine that is powering tremendous organizational efficiency and learning.   Per Sheehy and his Telstra colleagues, the blocks in red are particularly important.

A special thanks to Mick Sheehy and Ali Caldicott of Telstra for making the ILTA slides and presentation script available to me.