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General counsel as innovators?

In-house Coach
|Written By Fred Krebs
General counsel as innovators?

I closed my previous column about the ACC Report on skillsets for the future general counsel with the thought that general counsel have a significant opportunity to help lead corporate innovation.

Recently I attended the Reinvent Law NYC 2014 Conference, which provided both encouragement and doubt about whether this observation might come true. The program’s unusual format brought together over 40 speakers from across the spectrum of the legal community. The presentations included “reinvent law talks” (10 minutes) and six minute “ignite talks” (PowerPoint slides automatically advanced after 20 seconds forcing speakers to be succinct and stay on topic).

The audience received a deluge of insights on a wide range of issues affecting the entire legal profession; indeed, at times it was difficult to process and keep up. Twitter aficionados should check out #Reinventlaw for a sense of what happened.

The sheer number of innovative ideas and examples about how technology is changing the practice encouraged me. But the fact remains we have been talking about how to use technology and our legal skills to better serve clients and the changing profession for some time, yet the cost of legal services continues to rise, the billable hour remains a dominant fixture, and widespread client dissatisfaction remains.

One consistent, underlying theme: If you want different results you must change behaviours and how you do business. Not surprising when you consider that old line about one definition of insanity — keep doing the same thing but expect a different result. Unfortunately, many in-house counsel keep doing business the same way while expecting (hoping?) for better outcomes.

Mark Chandler, the general counsel of Cisco Systems Inc., described the difficulties in changing behaviors and transforming the delivery of legal services by the Cisco law department. He noted 80 per cent of the work undertaken by his department is on matters that provide Cisco “competitive differentiation.” They try to automate as much as possible the remaining 20-per-cent routine work.

According to Chandler, the tools exist to change how work is done and the underlying economic realities for both clients and law firms are clear but, as he notes, the pace of change is unclear.

My former colleague at the Association of Corporate Counsel and now legal consultant, Susan Hackett, called out the in-house community in her six minutes noting many learned in the law firm community before moving in-house so they now have difficulty changing their behaviour. She called it the challenge of doing what you know versus what you could do better.

Hackett also mentioned another key point too often forgotten, namely, the role of the in-house lawyer is to solve business problems and not legal issues. She also recognized an unpleasant truth — many general counsel are slow to innovate and the legal market will not move without pressure from them.

Jeff Carr, general counsel of FMC Technologies, offered perhaps the most searing indictment of the in-house community. He believes the slow pace of change in the legal community results in large measure from the lack of leadership by general counsel and the failure of the in-house legal community to change their own behaviours and demand change from their legal service providers. He takes the Nike “Just do it!” approach to innovation.

Carr contends the “single most important step” you can take towards innovation and improvement is an “after action, lessons learned” process. After you complete a major project, review, analyze, and then implement necessary changes. He implored us to “stop thinking like a lawyer” and offered the following suggestions about changing how you perceive issues and, ultimately, your behaviour:

•    It’s about business — not winning;

•    It’s about prevention — not firefighting;

•    It’s about simplicity — not complexity;

•    It’s about the business — not interesting questions.

The conference ended with keynote remarks by Richard Susskind, author of Tomorrow’s Lawyers, who wryly observed as information technology and the Internet transform all parts of the economy it seems unlikely the legal industry will remain exempt — change will come.

So I return to my original observation — the general counsel as innovator. Will we take advantage of the opportunity to lead (demand) change in the legal profession? I would simply note Carr closed his remarks with the following quote from an army general: “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

The in-house community can assume this role. The technology, people, and processes are available. For those general counsel who wish to be corporate innovators the logical place to begin is the legal profession. So let’s get started.

  • former GC

    Magnus Steen
    Here is my thoughts:
    - few legal departments have the size to scale any innovation. Ideas will die before leaving the drawing board.
    - most GC are not trained for this. They are ”old school” and lack skills in many areas needed to drive innovation.
    - However, the GC is sitting in the position to foster innovation but needs to reach out to industry / peers / facilitators to make it happen. I hear people saying that they are ready to change and accept innovations but I am not really seeing any major trend in this direction. But I am sure it will come.
  • Chief Counsel

    Jim Holiber
    This topic couldn't be more relevant to what I believe makes a corporate attorney an "asset" and not an "expense" in the eyes of senior leadership. The general counsel needs to encourage his/her staff to think more about "how can I add value to the bottom line" rather than chasing a legal issue with little or no consequence to your company's financial success. When handling a legal issue, the general counsel needs to tie in the legal strategy to business objectives, otherwise your efforts will be on the "expense line". For example, I recently recognized a pattern in some employment law cases that could have been avoided had management been better trained. I then developed a management training program to teach them how to handle this particular issue. Our case load in this area decreased significantly and I was able to show hard money saved by taking the extra step to protect the bottom line. What else would the CEO, who focuses on making profits day in and day out, want to hear?
  • EVP/GC

    Sara Lee Keller
    I agree. I recently negotiated a contract where the lawyer on the other side told me he couldn't make the changes I asked for due to the formatting of the document. Ridiculous, yet it is how our customers often see us. No imagination, no willingness to push up our sleeves and make things happen. We learned in law school to painstakingly identify all the risks and in private practice to lay out all of these risks telling our clients the outcome is based on, well "it depends". In the corporate environment, our clients want results and they want those results now. As lawyers we need to parse through all the risks, quickly and effectively identify those that really matter and provide real solutions, not possibilities or probabilities. This means we need to be okay with taking risk and being bold.

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