Managers of in-house legal teams often have a tough time making changes — introducing new processes, new technologies, encouraging employees to think differently. It’s even harder for managers of large departments. Updating attitudes and ways of working can seem impossible. That’s why William Pentney may have one of the most difficult jobs in the sector. He’s the federal government’s deputy minister of Justice and the deputy attorney general of Canada. His mission: Change how employees work throughout the Justice Department, a federal agency employing some 5,000 people, including about 2,500 lawyers.
This transformation is no easy job, yet Pentney sees some of the ideas he and his team have implemented making a difference across what’s sometimes called the country’s largest law firm. Productivity is improving. Costs are down. “The fact is we know our business better now than we ever have before,” he says, touting analytics and a renewed approach throughout the department: examine everything; fear no unknown.
It isn’t perfect. Certain process improvement and cost-saving measures haven’t worked. Nonetheless, the wide-ranging changes that the department is undertaking are valuable. They not only improve the organization’s systems and budgeting, they also stand as an example for other large in-house legal teams looking to enhance their operations.
Putting the brakes on cost
It’s no secret that Justice has had trouble. For several years, the organization struggled to contain costs. Attempted remedies included staff cuts, which reportedly quashed employee morale. In 2014, the department introduced a new billable benchmark of 1,400 hours, up from 1,300. That higher bar, during a time of employee attrition and layoffs, meant more unpaid overtime and inevitably an accelerated lawyer burnout rate, complained the Association of Justice Counsel, the union for government lawyers.
But Pentney, who became deputy minister in 2012, says the organization had to change. The budget wouldn’t budge, but costs were trending up. “In that environment, something has to give,” he says. “I have said to people, ‘I don’t want you working harder. We need to equip you to work smarter and better.’”
Dissemination is a significant problem for many large organizations. To address that, the department has introduced a new information-sharing system. Pentney believes this Wikipedia-style platform could help Justice share data better and profit from its collective memory. Lawyers are asked to upload any significant legal opinions, advice, documents, laws, annotated decisions and other material, so colleagues stationed at headquarters or embedded with departments across the country can access the information and learn from it.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in both the number of contributions to that and use of it,” Pentney says. “It’s a virtuous circle. The more people who use it and the more who contribute to it, the quality overall improves.” That is, the more it’s used, the more information it offers — information that could help employees get up to speed more quickly.
“We have 2,500 lawyers and we’ve been around since 1868,” Pentney points out. “Surely, somebody’s worked on this. If it’s there, the system will find it.”
The department is implementing a similar system for document management. This digital workspace is designed as a single data repository for any and all documents employees are working on, not including high-security information. Collaboration is the point. “If you have five people providing input on a legal opinion, they’re not emailing around five versions and trying to figure out which one’s the latest,” Pentney says.
Not all of the department’s legal service units have access to it yet, but they will soon. “We think that’s the start of a big win, because it also drives the culture,” Pentney says. He envisions a day when new hires are told to store information in the digital workspace, not their computer hard drive.
A third new program, perhaps the most important one, is document-search technology to help lawyers and paralegals through the discovery process. The system tirelessly sorts data, enabling staffers to find relevant information. It’s the sort of work that used to be the bane of every articling student. Now, trained paralegals steam through it. “We’re able to manage documents at about 10 times the volume every day,” Pentney says.
Technology is only part of the solution. Better business processes make a difference, too. One new process is meant to take advantage of the repeat work the department does. “If you’re doing a routine judicial review in the type of case where we do literally thousands a year — regular immigration and refugee cases, routine tax filer appeals — I want you to do those volume cases as effectively as you can.” So the department implemented benchmark time frames for routine work. The parameters are guidelines, not firm targets. Linked with the improved information-sharing and document-management systems, they help. “We believe we’ve improved the quality of the individual cases. People are working off the best of the precedents we have, and we continually improve those to work more efficiently.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Pentney admits that some of Justice’s efforts flopped. “We had worked with some [client] departments on initiatives. We modelled it out: If we make these changes, this is what we think will happen to our caseload and how quickly we can handle cases. We predicted the ability to gain substantial savings.” They didn’t materialize. “I can’t go into details given the type of work we do,” but Pentney says he confirmed a fact of experimentation: Just because you think something will work doesn’t mean it will. “Part of it for me is being humble about what you know.”
Getting the staff to embrace change is the biggest challenge. No wonder. This isn’t just one change. It’s many: new technologies, processes and expectations. “I’d say given the cascade in changes throughout government and the pressure people are starting to feel, certainly I hear some sentiment of change fatigue. People would just like to know, when is this done?
“It’s difficult for some people to understand that it will never be done.” Pentney aims to instill in the staff a sense that their work involves continual change — not just for the sake of it but with a purpose: to work better, provide greater value and serve the public as effectively as possible.
The department says it’s on track to have saved $52 million by the end of the 2016 fiscal year. Not everyone believes that will happen. Ursula Hendel, president of the Association of Justice Counsel, points out that too often in government, cost-saving initiatives backfire. For instance, Public Services and Procurement Canada introduced a new payroll system, Phoenix, in early 2016. It was supposed to save $70 million a year. Instead, the glitch-filled program is expected to cost an extra $50 million to fix.
Hendel’s also worried about benchmarking. “There’s a lot of . . . concern that it will be used as a tool to force us to do more unpaid overtime. We have ethical obligations. We have to prepare our cases to the point where we are comfortable as professionals knowing it has been fully and thoroughly defended.” She says mentors, not benchmarks, are the way to manage this.
Justice should pay more attention to its human resources, Hendel says. “They seem to have cut jobs. . . . So who’s going to put your book of authorities together? That’s just photocopying cases. It’s not legal work. That’s the sort of thing we were hoping we’d get out of doing when we were moving to the billable hours target. But if there’s no one there to do it and you have a filing deadline . . . you’re going to photocopy your own cases if that’s what it takes.”
Pentney says the department’s staffing quotient is down by about 330 employees, but Justice is also adding paralegals. He’s aware of those obligations Hendel mentioned. For his part, Pentney sees technology and business-process improvement as a way for the department’s lawyers to meet the requirements ethically and efficiently. “One of the harder things for many lawyers to accept is it’s OK to work differently. You can still meet your professional obligations and take great pride in what you’re doing.”
The transformation continues. The department plans to roll out the new technologies beyond the early user group phase so everyone across the organization can access them. Justice is also monitoring the artificial intelligence technology market for software and systems that can do even more to speed up the disclosure process.
“Value” seems to be the word that summarizes the department’s changes. Justice aims to be a place where lawyers spend as much time as possible using their high skills. That’s how the department can maximize its value to clients and to Canadians. As Pentney puts it, lawyers in this organization “didn’t join the public service to stand by a photocopier and waste time in meetings. They joined because they wanted to do great things for Canada. Supporting that is very important.”