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LegalMarch 04, 2021

Insight from the field: Key legal industry initiatives for 2021

While 2020 showed that the best-laid plans can be quickly thrown for a loop, it also proved that there is an adaptability in the legal industry that few believed really existed. We don’t want to jinx 2021, but we’re starting to feel like it’s “safe” to start making plans again, taking the lessons learned and changes made in 2020 and applying them to strategic efforts.

To get a sense of where the legal industry is focused for 2021, we took some time to talk to professionals in various roles to hear what their strategic plans include for this year. We learned of three major initiatives that organizations across the legal industry will focus on.

Defining value

2021 will be the year corporate legal departments (CLDs) define their roles in their organizations. Long known as the department of “no’s” focused on mitigating risks, legal teams will have the chance to re-position themselves as facilitators of commerce. In doing so, it is critical that CLDs define and communicate to their firms what service and work are valuable to the department and the organization as a whole.

Of course, this cannot just happen; it requires many conversations with people within the organization and across firms that support the CLD. The insight gained will result in the need for teams to change their existing operations to deliver services that are defined as valuable. Defining value will also help CLDs use law firms more effectively. CLDs will have better insights into the type of work these highly paid, highly experienced professionals should be doing and help them ensure it is also being done efficiently. This opens the door for more conversations about building law firm relationships that move beyond transactions and truly drive value.

Aligning functions

Once the value of a task is defined, organizations will be able to look at different ways to accomplish those tasks. Sourcing optimization—looking for the most efficient ways to accomplish tasks or projects—is key to defining value. Some of this has been done already by automating “commodity” work, such as routine document drafting. Moving forward, organizations need to look beyond this commodity work into other areas that may benefit from using technology to facilitate today’s digital workplace.

One way is through alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), which offer a wealth of different options. As Brad Blickstein, Principal at Blickstein Group, pointed out, today’s ALSPs specialize in onshore and offshore solutions, powered by process and technology. CLDs have been able to shift “everyday” legal work – a level up from commodity work – to ALSPs, many of which started as eDiscovery service providers. Now that model can extend to using outside vendors for contract management, IP prosecution, and more.

More than ALSPs, sourcing optimization is about taking a look at all of the resources available. This includes insourcing, robotic process automation, big law firms, regional law firms, smaller law firms and then deciding which method is best suited for that work. When a group of humans is chosen, attention should also be paid to what specific humans (partners, associates, etc.) should be doing the work.

Applying AI

While ALSPs will prove highly beneficial in 2021, there is a growing realization that many things that move to ALSPs could be partially automated for even more efficiency. eDiscovery is the first realization of this automation shift. In looking at moving functions to ALSPs, organizations should also consider if that function might be better served in the long term as an AI-enabled task handled by software in-house. Ken Crutchfield, Vice President & General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., mentioned, “You may put in so much upfront work into documenting instructions and workflow to prepare for outsourcing that you may have written a playbook that can be used to build an automated workflow in-house with technology like robotic process automation (RPA). That may be a more efficient way to handle the process.”

As CLDs look to leverage AI in 2021, they should keep in mind that it does not have to be introduced in grand sweeping changes. AI can be used effectively for tasks as simple as pre-populating a timecard for easier time tracking. Ken also remarked that AI can make a huge difference in the contracts arena, providing a new way to inventory and compare sales contracts to get a better sense of risks by looking for special language or exceptional clauses.

To move the efficiency and efficacy of the corporate legal function forward in 2021 a value mindset is critical. This will mean having important conversations with firms and committing to making real changes to “the way we’ve always done it.” Building on the “roll with the punches” changes we had to undertake in 2020, now is the perfect time to take the investments made in digital solutions and use the technology to transform how work gets done and the value gets measured.

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