By Patrick Johnson, J.D., SENIOR MARKETER, SERENGETI LAW - A THOMSON REUTERS BUSINESS
Attorneys in small legal departments ( "SLDs") face additional challenges not faced by attorneys in large legal departments ("LLDs"). Attorneys in SLDs are more resource-restrained and often have to do work that is done by administrators or paralegals in LLDs, such as processing documents and invoices and running reports. Also, these SLD attorneys must issue-spot across a wide legal landscape that often stretches beyond their area of legal expertise, whereas LLD attorneys are often brought in-house to focus on a particular area of law (IP, litigation, contracts, etc.). SLD attorneys' fragmented focus, coupled with the necessity of dealing with unfamiliar legal issues, leads to an increased danger of something important slipping through the cracks (not to mention an increased danger of waking at 3 a.m. wondering if something slipped through the cracks). Technology can help mitigate this risk by automating alerts for vital tasks so they don't "slip" through, as well as automating routine tasks so there is more time to focus on the important matters at hand. This Top Ten reviews ten ways SLD attorneys can use technology to manage their work better:
Automate Updates From Your Law Firms:
Something that has woken up many an in-house attorney in the middle of the night is the sudden realization that you have no idea what is going on in a matter. Sure, the firm sent the invoices, but what's actually happening with the matter? With matter management software, you can require that your law firms send updates on a regular and timely basis or they won't be able to submit their invoices. This gets law firms' attention quickly. Past updates can easily be reviewed without searching through emails; they're all stored in the matter in the legal software to which your outside counsel also has access. Furthermore, if there's a truly material development, you'll get an alert in the system to let you know there is an important issue in the matter. No more surprises. That's a good thing.
Automate Enforcement of Expense Guidelines:
You've done a good job and set up expense guidelines and sent them out to your firms. Now that they've all carefully read the guidelines, there is no need to look at the expenses in your invoices because the firms will clearly comply with their valuable client's wishes (here's where I give you time to stop chuckling before moving on). Instead what often happens in an SLD is there is no time to review invoices in detail, so outside of grievous violations that jump off the page, most expense guidelines violations slip through. This is one of those onerous daily tasks that can easily be automated using software. Input expense guidelines into the software and it will flag violations for you, which can then be reduced to be within the guidelines. No more violations, period. That's what poker players call easy money.
Automate Accruals Collection and Reports:
Nobody gets accrual numbers and reports out of curiosity. A legal department gets accrual numbers because somebody, probably finance, has required this report. Accruals usually include invoices currently being approved, plus time that the law firm has billed that has yet to be invoiced to the company. One item is in the legal department's control (unapproved invoices) the other is not (billed time not yet invoiced), which means this information must be extracted from the law firms in a timely fashion. Calling and emailing firms to get an accrual number to enter into an Excel spreadsheet is a laborious and time-consuming task that nobody has time for, especially in a SLD. Accrual features in legal matter management solutions can ensure the law firms enter their accruals in the system by not allowing them to submit invoices until they have. Furthermore, all of the invoices being approved are also in the system, so to get the current accrual number is as simple as pushing a button to run a report.
Automate Reviewing of Bills:
Even LLD attorneys have to review bills. SLD attorneys also have to process invoices (copies, filing, approval routing, delivery to the A/P department, etc.), along with reviewing them. What happens? Carefully reviewing invoices often takes a backseat to pressing legal work. Automate this process by using a SaaS matter management and e-billing software that automatically alerts you when a law firm posts a new invoice, routes the invoice for approval, and then sends the approved invoices to the A/P department. If outside counsels' hours need to be reduced, it can be done directly in the invoice, and the law firm will get an alert of the reduction through the system. Or, if there is a real problem with the invoice, it can be rejected back to the law firm, again, directly through the system. That's real time saved. And there's a record of everything in the system; no searching through files or emails - and no copying necessary.
Automate Legal Holds:
Managing legal holds in a way that is defensible in court, even if the organization is relatively small, is a cumbersome and not error-proof process if done manually. It's much easier, and infinitely easier to defend in court, to use an automated program that will notify record custodians of the hold, send follow-up reminders, and require a confirmation of receipt from the custodian. This type of software will also log all related audit trail information related to the legal hold notification process. Doing this manually (unless it's a 20-person company) could waste vast quantities of time and is simply a bad legal practice. If your company gets legal holds regularly, mitigate your risk, save your time - get software to handle the process for you.
Automate Necessary Reports:
The CFO, CEO, or Board of Directors often require reports from the legal department, such as spending reports, litigation exposure, liability estimates, spend trending, area of law work allocation, etc. Gleaning this information through invoices received throughout the year, putting it in a spreadsheet, and manipulating that spreadsheet to present the data can be a multi-day, multi-week, or longer project. If all the spending is in one system, the data is already there. A report needs only to be created once and saved to be run again in the future. The legal department can also create reports that show the value of the legal department's efforts (for example, ROI reports, invoice reduction reports, and decrease in exposure over time), rather than just showing how much it has spent.
Manage IP Work:
Think fast-growing tech start-up company. The company's big enough to need to hire a couple of attorneys, but for a company this size, its legal portfolio leans heavily toward IP matters. This type of software allows SLDs to receive automatic notices for trademark registrations due, implement structured processes for patent maintenance, and comply with IP developments to make payments on time. This software can provide end-to-end management of your intellectual assets, from R&D to filings, prosecution, grants, conflicts, and licensing. It will also allow you to file application and citation more easily with pre-populated forms.
Make the Case for a New Hire:
Once all of the legal department's spending is in one place, reports on matter type portfolio can be run. This allows a legal department to show a couple of important items. First, upper management will be able to see the workload of the department over time. Assuming the work continues to increase, this is a powerful argument for more headcount. Second, this type of report allows in-house counsel to show, for example, that they spent $300,000 on contract work or real estate work. If the fully-loaded cost of hiring a new attorney is $200,000, then the legal department would be saving the company $100,000 by hiring a new attorney. This is a much better argument than simply saying you're overworked.
Contract and Document Management:
We have all had the experience of rifling through vast metal cabinets looking for a contract or addendum. In-house attorneys get a lot of requests to see contracts and contract provisions within the legal department and from business units, so looking for these contracts can add up to a lot of time. Even if an SLD has an assistant, this is a waste of that person's time. If the attorney or attorneys in a SLD are doing this it's even worse. A document and contract management system will have search capabilities across all of your company's documents so they can be found quickly. This type of system should also have alerts for contracts so that expiration, renewal and/or cancellation dates are not missed.
This virtual library may be a part of a document management system, but this would be a custom section created by your department. If a company is in a heavily regulated industry and has a lot of contract work, it will save a lot of time to have best practice contract forms updated with the most current regulations on file so you don't need to recreate the wheel every time. Additionally, keeping research memos, whether done internally or by your law firms, in a research library so that you can search for this easily if and when the same question comes up again a year from now, will save your department both time and money.
Being in an SLD means that you have got to be agile, efficient, and able to track potentially dozens of legal issues at any given time. Help your legal department do a better job by using technology that saves time and keeps the important items on your radar. You may even sleep better at night.