For too long in-house counsel has been the poor relation of private practice when it comes to accessing legal technology. But that should all change as of now, says Andrea Foot, General Manager of Tikit Australia.
Doing more with less is a bit of a worn out cliché, I know, but in my experience it still applies in spades to what’s happening with in-house counsel in Australia. The in-house lawyers I speak to tell me that they’re increasingly expected to take on work that in the past would have gone to external firms. They’re increasingly expected to deal with an ever-wider range of legal issues. And they’re increasingly asked to take on a range of legal-adjacent tasks as well, such as risk, compliance and strategy. Yes, it’s true that in-house teams are tending to get bigger. But that doesn’t necessarily help when the demands lawyers are put under are multiplying even more quickly.
At the same time, in-house lawyers are working in a new climate of unprecedented budgetary constraint where every cent has to be seen to count. Not only are you being asked to do more work, but you’re also being asked to do it with fewer resources.
APPROACHES TO IT
All of this could make a person long for private practice where you at least are far more likely to have access to legal technology. Astonishingly, recent research shows that 17 per cent of in-house counsel teams utilise absolutely no legal technology at all!
Of course there are historic reasons why legal tech is still relatively scarce in-house. One reason – not a good one – is that in the setting of a large corporate organisation, the legal team – usually a handful of people – struggles to get the attention of corporate IT, which is generally more preoccupied with its laptop (or whatever) rollout, to 20,000 staff. Hand in hand with this lack of visibility is the fact that corporate IT is not in the habit of allocating budget to the legal team – they simply don’t think of it. Meanwhile the legal budget may well be prohibitively tight.
As well, corporate IT, more than likely, are not hugely aware of the specialist legal technology that’s available. Although to be honest, the same can often be said of the legal team – people struggle to keep up with what’s out there. It can lead to unwarranted IT concerns around training requirements, support and compliance issues, and technical compatibility. It can also lead to IT recommending, or palming legal off with generic solutions – like Sharepoint – which while being perfectly adequate for the generalist – require significant time and effort to answer the unique needs of group legal.
A final reason – and here’s the nub of it – is that while a big investment of time and treasure has traditionally made sense in private practice where: a) law is all you do; b) the firm is owned by lawyers; and c) there are maybe hundreds of lawyers who will benefit – the same rationales did not hold true for a small team of in-house lawyers adrift in a corporate sea. It just didn’t make financial sense to provision you with legal technology. Until now.
A VIEW FROM THE INSIDE
Tikit spoke to Dan Cootes, Head of Legal at BT Australasia, to get his views on where IT is at for in-house counsel in Australia at the moment. His take is that most corporate counsel in Australia have a lot to gain from legal technology – basically because it’s under-used at this point. “I think the level of technology can be surprisingly limited,” he notes. “You find a lot of in-house teams using very basic tools like single user spreadsheets.”
Even those who do use legal technology are, for the most part, using a document management system – in reality, often a fairly basic file management tool – and then maybe some simple contract template automation. The next level up includes in-life contract management applications, complex contract building tools and e-signing programs – little of which is used widely or comprehensively in Dan’s experience.
The point of legal technology is to increase corporate counsel’s productivity, driven by the need to do more with less. It’s about technology taking the strain so that humans are freed up to do more high value tasks. This is already helpful, but Dan envisages that technology can go much further. “We need tools that make legal more visible, accessible and useful to the business,” he says, “as well as more efficient. Then you can spend your time on more high value and strategically important work.” He concludes, “Legal needs to keep out of the weeds, and I think that’s where technology can help in the long term.”
THE DIFFERENCE THAT THE CLOUD MAKES
What’s changed is the dawn of cloud computing. This is now well-established, well-proven and offers a number of intrinsic benefits. Pretty near the top of the list is that the cloud model makes applications affordable and therefore accessible to all.
As you know, cloud is light, remote and flexible. There’s no more need for great IT projects; for staff to be long-windedly trained; for servers to be provisioned; for an implementation that ‘goes-live’ with a fanfare and goes dark every time there’s an update. Those days are gone.
Instead users typically login on any internet-enabled machine and pay a per-user subscription fee. Because there’s no implementation as such, there is no provisioning of servers, little training is needed. There are no more economies of scale, so it no longer matters if there are only six of you. Forget CAPEX, this is OPEX all the way.
An historic objection to cloud in the past was the perception that it’s not secure. That’s really not the case. On the contrary, cloud applications these days are safer than anything any IT department could conjure up in-house. For instance, the cloud-based legal technology I deal with – NetDocuments (document management platform) and Tikit Carpe Diem (time recording software) – comes with its own extensive security accreditations. NetDocuments, in particular, is used by many of the world’s most security-conscious organisations.
A final added bonus of cloud is that users can login anywhere, anytime on any machine, so cloud enables and complements remote and flexible working.
THE DIFFERENCE THAT SMALL STEPS MAKE
For all the virtues of the cloud, it wouldn’t make sense for in-house counsel to use legal technology if it didn’t have an impact. But the good news is that it does. And I’m not talking here about software that does extraordinarily fancy things. You might have seen eye-catching articles about automation and artificial intelligence and robotics. That’s not what I have in mind. I’m talking about small, practical steps that you can take that will just make life better; about tried and tested toolsets that enhance efficiency and increase productivity in basic ways.
For example, here are three of the simple things that a cloud based document management system, like NetDocuments, will deliver:
- Email filing – did you know that 75 per cent of stored documents are now emails? NetDocuments files emails in one, slick step because it’s no longer good enough to copy them into a shared folder or leave them in your inbox. This way you, and the whole team, can always see who said what to who and when. This is a big help for efficiency and it’s important for compliance and risk management too.
- Secure document sharing – talking of risk and compliance – corporate information has a real value and emails are not secure. NetDocuments stores files in a secure system and lets you control access to them: for how long, by who, and what they can do with documents e.g. read only access. You can collaborate on documents, but still maintain version control.
- Searching – did you know that lawyers spend 20 per cent of their time looking for things in documents? That’s one day a week. NetDocuments supplies an industrial grade search capability across everything in the DMS, so that what you need to find can be found quickly.
So right now, I’m recommending small steps. Those that take little effort in terms of the time and cost of deployment, but which will deliver a disproportionately large return on your investment. Think of it like this. Before cloud came along, everyone – no matter the size of their budget – had to, in effect, buy a customised Aston Martin to get to the shops, or walk. Now you can get where you need to go by using a car share app. So now you can ride in style. That’s the difference cloud based tech can make to in-house counsel.
Andrea Foot is the General Manager in Australia of Tikit Ltd and opened the Australian branch of Tikit in 2015.
Prior to this, Andrea held a number of management and consultancy roles. With over 20 years of experience working in the legal technology sector – which has involved dealing with many of the worlds most recognised legal and professional services firms
Andrea has an unrivalled understanding and an in depth knowledge of the of the legal tech landscape. This extensive knowledge means she understands the business of law and the changing landscape of the professional services world and appreciates the part that technology has to play in helping firms meet new demands from clients. Andrea is particularly interested how business can make a shift to a genuinely client-centric mode of service delivery from the traditional task based transactional approach.