Login to MyACC
ACC Members

Not a Member?

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

Join ACC

Suburban Propane’s Journey to Innovation

The Suburban Propane legal department had a desire to improve its processes and increase efficiencies to better serve its organization. The team, dependent on manual processes to perform functions of the department related to billing, matter management, legal holds, and contract drafting, was ready to implement change, and new General Counsel Bryon Koepke was eager to support and champion that change.  

A transformation begins   

“The beginning of our transformation, of our journey, really started when I joined the company. It created an opportunity, as new leadership often does,” says Koepke, who had previous experience transforming legal departments. That said, the GC didn’t walk in and implement changes, instead focusing on building dialogue and relationship with the team and key stakeholders, asking them to identify challenges and present suggestions for improvement. “I took the time to get to know everybody, to talk to them and find out their thoughts in terms of what wasn't working, which created space to identify opportunities.”  

Leveraging that experience and team insight led to exploring technology-based solutions, including the implementation of an automated platform that streamlined processes and increased efficiency.  

Legal Operations Manager Christine Taenzer emphasized the partnership between Suburban Propane and doeLEGAL, stating that the team truly began its transformation via the service provider’s Ascent ELM platform. “This was an obvious area in the department that needed to be transformed,” says Taenzer, referring to the cloud-based platform that monitors spend and outside counsel activity. “It was a 100 percent manual process of managing our invoices, from receipt to review, to approval and even payment. It really was a team effort with our co-champion doeLEGAL, from implementation, to training, to launch.”  

What’s even more impressive, is this transformation got off the ground in 2020, when many people, including the Suburban Propane team, were not in the office due to the onset of COVID.  “We launched from home,” explains Koepke. “I would have never thought we could have done that in a million years, but we did.” Taenzer credits both teams with staying focused and committed to a process and transition she called “almost seamless” during a time when we all were reinventing ourselves and the way we work — an interesting parallel to the transformation happening within their legal department.  

That “holistic” change as described by Koepke emphasizes consistency and team engagement. “If we look through the mosaic of what we’ve performed in terms of realigning our own legal operations and how we’re structured as a department; rolling out new technologies, I think the catalyst and the ingredient that ultimately made the transformation successful, was the amount of engagement we were able to generate, both within and outside of the department,” he says. The team reviewed its lines of communication and structure, as well as how it was currently servicing clients. “Our team was highly engaged; everybody had thoughts on how they could become more efficient and better utilize their skill sets, ultimately better servicing our clients. We tapped into that internal knowledge and expertise; engaging them to do a better job, which rubbed off on our clients.”  

Realigning teams and focus  

The successful takeover of contracts by Associate General Counsel Bill Ferreira is an example of an operational change and restructuring that yielded great results and increased client value. Before the transition, Ferreira was considered a generalist who had responsibility for half the country. “Bill took over all our contracts from coast to coast, creating efficiencies across the board which resonated well with our clients; everything was being negotiated consistently,” says Koepke. Taenzer had a similar experience, with her role transiting from more of an office manager to the manager of legal ops, which enabled better organization of departmental projects, as well as those requiring legal representation from outside the department. She coordinates efforts and creates alignment between teams. 

“It’s been challenging and rewarding,” says Taenzer, referring to growing the department’s legal operations function, noting a familiar tool that’s helping them assess the maturity of their efforts. “I've been using the ACC Legal Operations Maturity Model to gauge where we are along the way. And since we’ve started on this journey under Bryon’s leadership, we’ve moved from the very early stages, into intermediate and advanced stages of maturity.” 

Creating synergies across departments and teams, in essence creating an engaged culture of innovation throughout the organization, is a goal of the GC. Deputy General Counsel Sheri Hecht Leonard points to another area of improvement resulting from this focus. The Ascent platform and billing guidelines has helped identify inconsistencies throughout the business, including manual rate checks for outside counsel services, the elimination of paper bills, and the replacement of a previously hand-to-hand process with an automated one. “Now, when I review invoices through Ascent, my clients, HR for example, can redirect requests to negotiate rates with firms directly to me. Whereas before it was literally a piece of paper the client would have sent via office mail or handed to me. It’s just a more efficient and consistent way to serve the client.”  

“Those synergies and the type of engagement described above have sparked the whole initiative and our success,” says Koepke.  

Engagement leads to buy-in — and success  

The development of new strategy for your legal team — including similar restructuring, realigning, process changes, and technology-based improvements — involves generating interest, gaining buy-in, and encouraging dialogue from the beginning. Building credibility and involving key stakeholders early can be instrumental to your success. An example of this is the working group of end-users the Suburban Propane team engaged to provide feedback on the technology providers under consideration. “Our department has a long history of rolling up our sleeves, diving in, and showing our clients that we’re willing to solve problems at every level across the board,” says Ferreira. “We’d established credibility within the company, so when we rolled out these projects and initiatives, they were on board right away. They were interested, because we involved them early in the conversations about what we wanted to build, and they had input into its development and the final product.” A similar process was used for the invoice management system involving the IT department. “It’s important not to work on projects in a bubble,” says Koepke.  

Central to the Suburban Propane legal team’s innovative approach to law department management is embracing new technologies. A significant outcome of the changes implemented over the last three years includes a 50 percent reduction in legal department spend annually, which is largely attributed to Ascent and the introduction of the team’s Outside Counsel Guidelines in 2020. Further, introducing the Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) platform reduced the team’s workload and created transparency and company-wide engagement with contract negotiations; investing in client education via its “Ask a Lawyer” sessions made staff feel more empowered and engaged with the department; and reorganizing the department and realigning team members according to their expertise allowed for appropriate allocation of workload and resources. The goal of better serving the department’s clients was met. 

Koepke attributes the success of the strategies employed to the culture and the people within their legal department, noting the importance of assessing the needs of the business and to seeking external support before embarking on any major project. “Engage key decision-makers and stakeholders throughout the process to maintain support and avoid roadblocks.”  


Suburban Propane