Mind Your Business

5 ways to scale in-house resources in the face of an economic downturn

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Shana Simmons headshot

Shana Simmons.

After years of unbridled hiring, a growing number of tech companies recently have made headlines with layoffs and recruiting slowdowns. In-house counsel jobs, especially at tech companies, are not exempt.

A one-two punch of technology and process improvements can help in-house legal organizations, which typically run lean and rely on broad expertise, to preemptively shore up against layoffs by promoting significant efficiencies. Additionally, effectively scaling limited resources can free up more time to focus on internal clients’ most important and complex questions. Here are five ways to leverage technology to achieve consistency, repeatability and scalability—the cornerstones of a highly performant legal operations foundation.

1. Templatize contracts to maintain focus on business relationships

Any contract memorializes a business partnership. As such, a contract should be easily digestible by both parties and conform with industry standards. Templatizing contracts is an effective way to attain operational efficiencies and launch a mutually successful customer journey. When developing templates, keep these key points in mind:

Contracts should never be lawyer-to-lawyer. It’s important for the contract to be written in plain English, to make the terms clear to the customer, as well as salespeople and procurement professionals.

Make options clear. What’s negotiable? What can be left on the table? By making terms and options clear, in-house teams can reduce the amount of contract questions they receive, which are often urgent and almost always a repeat of previous inquiries.

The contract must be fair. Investigate industry standards and benchmark your contracts’ key terms against other industry players; most vendors publish terms online, so this information is readily available. Again, by having the template specify which points are negotiable and which aren’t, you are reducing friction and getting the client business relationship off to a positive start.

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2. Gain control and insight from a contract management system

Emailing contracts back and forth internally is a prime example of operational inefficiency. Contract management systems can solve this problem and many more. In addition to automating workflow and making the contract development process much more efficient, these systems can provide searchable enterprise-wide contract metadata. Here, users can query the metadata to assess past performance and guide future contract development. Ideally, contract metadata can illustrate how templates are being used and thus can be improved, answering questions such as:

    • Is a provision being negotiated more than it should be?
    • Are the contract assumptions starting at the wrong place?
    • Are there portions of the contract that are not understood? Should they be clarified?

Furthermore, contract management systems can automate key processes, deflecting lower-value tasks from the legal team by:

    • Making routine contracts self-service, allowing business users to proceed confidently and compliantly without intervention from in-house legal staff.
    • Embedding status emails into the contract document, speeding development with all details consolidated in a central, document-specific repository.

Finally, contract metadata fuels metrics that can provide invaluable insights, bringing transparency to the contract process. By storing all contracts in a single place, instead of on local drives or emailing them around internally, both the legal team and internal clients can gain an objective view into how contract development and approval processes operate. Contract documents should be encrypted for maximum security.

3. Build a playbook of best practices

While the core content of enterprise contracts likely does not change significantly over time, legal teams frequently need to pivot to address urgent one-off needs. Again, these deviations tend to fall into a well-defined set of categories. A legal playbook that covers a full range of potential issues, organized under topics such as limitations of liability and indemnification, payment terms and data use, can help in-house teams field requests nimbly and with confidence. The playbook becomes a living resource, updated as new issues arise and best practices evolve. It can be an invaluable reference in assessing risks and gains associated with specific decisions, particularly in time-pressured situations.

It’s possible to operationalize the playbook by programming scenarios and fallbacks into contract templates. For example, if a client is in a regulated industry such as financial services, the template can be programmed to repopulate all necessary areas to ensure the contract is in compliance. This level of functionality is bespoke, but attainable by technically savvy members of the legal team.

4. Elevate basic technologies to simplify the day-to-day

There’s far more to in-house legal departments than managing revenue-producing contracts. Every day inside counsel is asked to handle a cornucopia of legal issues, all critical to the business. To help ensure consistency, repeatability and scalability across generalist teams, in-house organizations can harness workhorse systems such as:

    • Email: Incoming questions should almost never be addressed to individuals, but instead aliases such as Legal_Contract@[domain].com or Legal_Employment@[domain].com. Aliases can be easily set up in Gmail-based email systems, with access granted to all members of the in-house legal team.
    • Spreadsheets: Build spreadsheet “cheat sheets” for contracts, containing formulas that spell out the impact of any changes that may be considered. This is especially useful for salespeople considering alternative deal structures that will impact their compensation.
    • Zoom: Post-pandemic, video meetings can still play an important role in bringing people together, efficiently. Instead of one-on-one lunches, new hires and mentees can be gifted restaurant food delivery coupons and enjoy sharing a meal with a senior team member. By using technology to focus on moments that matter, senior legal staff can effectively scale their presence, interacting with others near or far.

5. Make compliance a priority

Integrity is of paramount importance to in-house legal teams. Having operational systems in place to support that integrity, by making clear what the legal organization can’t and won’t do, is essential in building customer trust. Whether the customer is external and buying a product or service from your company, or internal and counting on your counsel for their success, building trust is ultimately more important than any “sale.”

Simply put, efficient operations allow lawyers to focus on what they do best: mitigating risk and facilitating growth. Without the right systems in place, being responsive can often equivocate to swatting flies. Smart, efficient legal operations allow lawyers to maintain integrity, work smoothly with all clients and fluidly scale lean teams.

As always, economic headwinds can accelerate the drive for operational efficiencies; now is as good a time as ever to think more strategically about how we use the tools of our trade. By operationalizing technology-driven approaches that are repeatable, consistent and scalable, in-house legal teams can protect their corporate footprint and remain focused on building rewarding business relationships.

Shana Simmons is the chief legal officer at Everlaw, a cloud-based e-discovery platform that unlocks the collaborative power of litigation and investigative teams. She leads the legal department and is responsible for all legal, regulatory, privacy and governance, risk and compliance issues across the company. Previously, Simmons was head of Google Cloud’s go-to market legal department after starting her legal career as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Stein & Hamilton in New York and London.

Mind Your Business is a series of columns written by lawyers, legal professionals and others within the legal industry. The purpose of these columns is to offer practical guidance for attorneys on how to run their practices, provide information about the latest trends in legal technology and how it can help lawyers work more efficiently and strategies for building a thriving business.

Interested in contributing a column? Send a query to [email protected].

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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