Courage + Logic + Support = Eventual success as a legal innovator
Below is an excerpt of my forthcoming book, A Simple Guide to Legal Innovation (ABA 2020), which I am very excited to share with Legal Evolution readers.
Over the years I have had enough first-hand learnings about the challenges of trying something new that I wanted to pave the path for others to have an easier time. Specifically for law firm leaders, there is so much confusion on what corporate clients value and expect, coupled with sensational legal press, that it is no wonder there is disappointment and frustration on all sides.
I cannot emphasize this enough: A Simple Guide is intended to be a casual read. It is based on my personal experiences innovating how I did my own work as a practicing lawyer, mostly from the in-house perspective. This not a research book, but more of a ‘take it from me, you can do this too’ type of read. If this book can shed even a little light, then I will have succeeded at distilling some of the noise! — Lucy Endel Bassli
Chapter 1. My Innovation Journey
There is no better way to inspire others to change than to provide real examples of how someone else did it. [Thus, to show you how you can do it, let’s start with the humble origins of my own journey.]
I did not know that I was going to be an “innovative” lawyer when I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center. Actually, I had no idea what I would be anything but a litigator or practicing something that has its own set of laws (tax or bankruptcy). As it turned out, I went into Bankruptcy Law and was in court regularly. I learned three valuable lessons at my first real job as a lawyer that have influenced and inspired my desire to innovate:
- Confidence (or Courage). When a first-year associate is trusted to independently participate in a three-party negotiation mediated by a bankruptcy judge, there’s no choice but to do your best. Honestly, I was not intended to take that lead, but … all those senior to me had other commitments … . So, there I was, doing my best to not let my fear shine through. … To try something new and risk failure, you have to be confident in your ability to learn and adapt. To innovate, you have to risk failure and trust the process of learning from mistakes.
- Logic. The owner of the firm had forty-plus years of experience and was well-known among the community of bankruptcy attorneys around the country. He never acted as if he was constrained by conventional boundaries and norms of what “should” be done. He always led with logic and pragmaticism. … Learning to trust your logic and go with what makes sense has been a key foundation. Often, innovation comes from the need to do something better; where the current way just doesn’t make sense.
- Support. Having the support of the owner and the other two lawyers in this tiny firm, I always felt empowered to stretch and encouraged to push my comfort zone. … Though everyone talks about mentors and sponsors, you also need those who simply encourage and support your attempts, while teaching you along the way. …
[These are simple, personal examples. Yet, they are the basis for three themes that are repeated throughout this book: 1) have the confidence and courage to take action and learn through experience, 2) start with what is logical and makes sense, 3) innovation is hard work but made near impossible without the support of others–people and place really matter.]
Before I knew it, a real opportunity landed in my lap. …
After the small bankruptcy boutique, I was fortunate to be recruited by a mentor and friend to join him at a great regional firm where I began to work on commercial contracts.
As I was handling growing volumes of contracts for the client, I quickly realized that I needed to track huge chunks of work. Keeping track of legal work is not natural to the law firm lawyer, nor were the systems advanced enough at the time to enable good tracking of anything besides the billable hour. As the number of paralegals that worked on my transactions grew and the total number of transactions increased, it became necessary to understand how the workload was balancing. Who was working on which contracts? More importantly, how long did it take to review these contracts?
I began by creating a very simple table in Microsoft (MS) Word (before I learned to love Excel). Every lawyer reading this book likely knows how to use MS Word, but I bet its table functionality is not something that comes naturally to all lawyers. I used MS Word to create a tracking system for my own purposes, but more importantly, I shared the data with the client. It was important that they see the amount of work that we were handling and to understand the timeliness. It was one of my earliest lessons in realizing how something so simple could be helpful to the client. They didn’t ask me for it, but it just seemed obvious to me that they would appreciate it. When I started receiving positive feedback from the client, I began to notice that what seemed so logical and obvious was actually novel for them to get from their law firms.
Asking a Basic Question: Why?
… At work, we ask “why” because we are trying to understand the rationale for a particular approach and challenge if there may be a better way.
When I first went in-house to Microsoft, I adopted a centralized team of paralegals who were tasked with handling a certain type of work. I started asking them why they did certain things: such as starting with a particular template, or searching in a certain repository, or using sample language, and so on. In my efforts to explore how they accomplished their work, I noticed that every question was met with a very defensive response. They didn’t seem to trust that I was not looking to criticize their processes, but rather hoping that together we could find better ways.
It quickly became clear that everyone was doing things their own way, and nothing was documented. How was a centralized team, servicing an entire department, supposed to deliver a reliable, consistent service without documented workflows or shared information? Once I learned that there was no solid answer for why things were done the way they were, I set out to gather some basic information and share it with the team. This was the beginning of our journey to standardize processes. I didn’t know that process engineering was a “thing.” It just seemed logical to write down the process and gather common documents in a shared place. …
Aligning the Right Resources
As I evolved my commercial transaction practice, the volume grew. I began to have trouble keeping up with the people on my team doing the work. …. Everyone wanted to know how many contracts we did and how long they took. While we worked on our processes, I began to expand my team virtually and added external help from law firms and temp agencies. I ended up with a mixed bag of external resources, each engaged in a slightly different way from different service providers. Then the natural problems started with absences, unreliable schedules, and unmeasurable quality.
It was obvious that I did not have the right resource model. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a “resource model”—these were words I learned from program managers and operations professionals along the way. It was just not working well for me. I had to rethink how I was staffing this work.
That is when the idea of outsourcing came up. I had heard about it in legal and was very familiar with it in the context of finance, human resources, and information technology. After all, my day job was negotiating with some of the world’s best outsourcing companies. Surely, we could apply similar outsourcing principles to the contract review process that I was managing.
The outsourcing journey is its own story. I raise it in the context of innovation because it was a very logical step in resolving my staffing challenges. What makes it innovative is that I did not turn to a law firm or a temp staffing agency, nor did I ask for more full-time employees. I applied what I saw happening in other parts of the business to my own legal practice. I also took a leap of faith with a service that was accustomed to much lower complexity legal work (mostly in discovery and back-office work, like word processing or administrative support) and stretched it to do more complex work and replace the paralegals that I had strung together from numerous external resources. That leap of faith and some creativity is what made it novel at the time.
A Sprinkling of Technology
Prior to the fancy systems of today, we began with a fairly simple MS Access database, so we could track the volume of contracts. It was certainly a step up from my MS Word table at the firm, but even this was no rocket ship of a system. It was clunky, but it served a purpose. The reason I am proud of this system is that it was a first step in the right direction of data collection and automation, and it provided us with some great lessons learned when we set out to develop a more sophisticated system.
The real benefits of technology came when we automated the intake of the requests from our business clients. [See example to right] We moved from requests via email, instant messaging, and, heaven forbid, pop-ins into the office, to a fairly sleek system with a drop-down menu of help that they needed. Whether they needed a contract reviewed or had a general contracting question, they could use an online system and then track where it was in the process. At the same time, I was able to create reports on the data we collected. This allowed us to provide transparency to the business and have data to use with our external resources about the volumes we had.
We implemented a lot of other technology, and it all related to the workflow that was the most impactful to the business clients, and to our operations. The key message here is that technology is a part of the innovation journey—it is not the destination.
Sharing My Learnings
My journey over the course of thirteen-plus years at Microsoft was only the beginning. I learned so much and was eager to share my experiences with others. I was so inspired by so many other lawyers calling me for advice that I decided to start my own consultancy.
What makes this twist in my career relevant in a story of innovation is that it took exactly the same formula for innovation that I had learned in the start of my career, seventeen years earlier, that gave me the courage to leave the safety and comfort of a predictable job in one of the world’s best companies: courage + logic + support. … Most surprising was how many people approached me to ask how I had the courage to make this change. Frankly, I saw it as crazy at the time. Then I realized they may be right—it did take courage to venture into the unknown.
So, after leaving Microsoft, I worked with law firms, taught an online professional education class at a law school, consulted for corporate legal teams, advised a legal tech startup, wrote extensively across various legal press mediums, and spoke at industry events. I was fortunate enough to touch almost every part of the legal ecosystem. I learned and was able to influence other professionals to try new things among very old practices.
I only wish the influence could happen faster. I witnessed industry players dedicated to innovation asking me to print, sign, and fax back a document. I saw too many lawyers still saving documents to their hard drives. I still find too many printed contracts with handwritten editing. There is still so much work to do to influence our profession . . .
Chapter 7. Talking Points on Each Need-to-Know Topic
Need to Know #1: Definition of Innovation
“I have no idea what this innovation stuff is about. We have a group dedicated to it, but I don’t know what to do with them. My clients keep asking for change, but I don’t know where to start.” — Partner at Global AmLaw 50 Firm
I realized that something was terribly wrong when some of the brightest lawyers I know, partners at very prestigious law firms, would make comments that demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about what innovative practice is or can be. It is not a lack of interest necessarily, but definitely a lack of general awareness [caused, in part, by law firm business models that strongly incentivize billable work to the exclusion of learning new things. See Chapter 2].
It is overwhelming to take in all that is happening across the legal industry. The amount of change is unprecedented, and the pace is faster than ever, as it should be. … So, how is a law firm lawyer, buried under the billable hour demands, supposed to engage in creative conversations with clients if they are not quite sure what to say about “innovation?” What does it really mean to be innovative? …
So, let’s keep things simple. If a lawyer decides to deliver service in a different way, let’s call that lawyer innovative. The reality is that we have a shortage of innovative lawyers, regardless of how broadly the term is defined. Lawyers with some basic ancillary skills that they leverage to enhance their clients’ experience are exactly the types of lawyers the legal industry needs. These lawyers represent the needs of today’s market. …
There are a few easy steps that every law firm lawyer can do to demonstrate their willingness to innovate:
- Use the Data You Already Have. Law firms hold an incredible amount of valuable data about the work they do for their corporate clients. It is amazing how much value a client will derive from some basic data …
- Pre-empt Recurring Engagement … If there are repeat engagement issues that the law firm identifies, then the in-house team should know about it…
- Suggest Even the Slightest Process Improvements. …
Need to Know #3: Process and Efficiencies
Lawyer down the hall: “Don’t you just do that process stuff now?”
Operationally minded lawyer: “I do 20,000 contracts a year on a 1.2-day turnaround time. How many do you do?”
At a time when the legal industry is going through unprecedented change, it is no surprise that many attorneys still don’t appreciate the role that process plays in the legal practice.
Is the practice of law a special, unique craft? Some attorneys think so. They don’t think it can be reduced to a process that they see as associated with other disciplines such as engineering or business operations. By calling something a process, some attorneys say it makes their work less meaningful, or less impactful, or that the work does not require intellectual aptitude. Those beliefs are simply not true. Although there is craft in the practice of law that requires deep analysis and judgment, many aspects of it are amenable to process review and optimization.
It is long past time to train attorneys—new and old—to identify the parts of their practice that should be improved and made more efficient. But although the practice of law generally focuses on work that requires unique expertise and training, it is not entirely obvious how process fits in.
The way to contradict this “process stigma” is to demonstrate with basic data and logical analysis how certain functions of the attorney’s day job can be broken down into some process steps and how some of the steps can be completed faster.
A Simple Example
Process is part of every legal practice at its most basic level. Every lawyer receives work somehow, whether by email, intake portal, phone call, and so on. Those simple, seemingly passive actions, where work lands on the desk of the attorney, are the first steps in the process. For illustrative purposes, I’ve created the flowchart that follows of the process for supporting commercial contracts (Figure 7-1).
Looking at the chart from left to right, it’s sort of a decision-making guide. It is not rocket science, but it is something that should be done proactively. It should be done mindfully as opposed to how often we find ourselves working, which is way too reactionary. We react to the incoming work, which comes in at a fast pace and in high volume. An obligation to do something is felt. Attorneys especially feel an obligation to do what lands on their desk because that’s what they are there to do—to help the client. …
[O]nce the work comes in, decide whether it is work that needs to be done or not done at all. That’s a very big question and a tough one because the instinct is if somebody comes in seeking help, how can I turn them away? Is there a higher or greater value that a law firm can offer to an in-house team by saying, “You know, I’d love to do this work, but I don’t know if this is actually necessary work.” There is an opportunity at this point to drive a completely different conversation about value. …
Need to Know #7: Data
Imagine the optimal legal ops world where work flows smoothly to the right resources as its progress is tracked.
A piece of legal work arrives on the metaphorical desk (the email inbox) in-house. It’s then allocated immediately and automatically to the most cost-effective and efficient resource, whether that’s a legal assistant, a junior lawyer, the GC, a software platform, an ALSP, outside counsel, or even self-serve. That engagement progresses at the optimum rate, and afterward, reporting on its progress and success is delivered to key stakeholders.
This information makes the right-sourcing of work even more targeted next time.
The business gets maximum bang for its legal buck; the legal department as a whole is freed from the low-value flood of work that clouds its effectiveness every day; and business and legal are free to partner on high-value strategic work that takes the company to the next level.
The scenario just mentioned isn’t remotely possible without good data analytics. Similarly, all the mind-blowing benefits promised that will arrive with AI, blockchain, and any number of other hype-heavy game-changing tools won’t get off the ground without good data as the foundation. Without proper analytics, it is impossible to identify areas where new solutions would be truly beneficial, and we can’t evaluate the efficacy of new tools we implement. Gathering and deploying data is what every other rational, sensible business function does. If legal is to be a business partner, its time getting by without data is gone.
Fundamentals—Data for Better Relationship Management
Every attorney, whether in-house, law firm, legal aid, or other area can use data to improve the quality of the service or the relationship with the client.
I want to start with this concept because it is the easiest data to gather by the service provider. Basically, it is data that can be gathered manually at any point.
- Information about how many items of work or matters have been done by the firm within any given period of time (month, quarter, year). In data speak this is volume.
- Information about the actual work is always interesting to the clients. Even just being able to show the categories of work helps inform the client at a more macro level about the kind of legal work that the business is requesting. Think about the types of work and creating natural and logical buckets to align.
- Patterns about the work is the next level of the categorization of the work. For example, consider if there are seasonal spikes that would be informative for the business to appreciate why legal responses may be slower at certain times.
- The ultimate value, as perceived by the business, is data about the timeliness of the legal support. How long things take in legal is always valuable data when the business (inevitably) complains about how long legal review takes.
For firms not accustomed to tracking any data points at all, data harvesting and tracking can be a bit intimidating. Firms shouldn’t run before they can walk, and there are a couple of low-hanging fruits that can help them get accustomed to gathering, managing, and analyzing data that will help them make more informed decisions.
Bridging the Skills Gap
To become data-driven, and data-enabled, lawyers will have to overcome inertia and a skills gap in the profession. Although some progressive law schools are catching up and the number of law schools teaching skills like forecasting and data manipulation is growing, much progress is still needed.
Most worrying is the huge cohort of mid-career lawyers who were never taught any data skills as part of their training, and now face another twenty years of practice without them. To stay competitive in the job market, it’s crucial for lawyers to try to address this, and in a way that holds their interest. For example, a transactional lawyer might find a financial management class interesting; a more process-driven lawyer might prefer to learn Six Sigma. However it is addressed, it’s important to keep up with the kind of role that the twenty-first century lawyer is becoming—not just what it is today, but five or ten years from now.
To underscore a theme echoed throughout the book, please remember: change management is driven by leadership. The tone at the top needs to be mindful and proactive, creating and maintaining the kind of operational rigor where data tracking is natural. That might mean setting annual numerical targets, instituting client engagement metrics, or even enforcing a monthly reporting requirement.
The mix of carrot and stick required to make good data a reality will be different for each department and its law firms, but the key is to get started. … The legal profession must be part of the technological revolution and as a point of pride, collect and exploit data to enable a more efficient, digital future—or risk being left behind. Aren’t we all tired of the negative expectations that the world has of this profession: slow, old-fashioned, unpredictable, and so on?
©2020 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The Simple Guide to Legal Innovation can be purchased at shopABA.org.