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Legal tech for legal departments – what you need to know

From typewriters to AI, yellow pads to iPads, phone calls to video chat, the pace of technological change for in-house lawyers over the past few decades has been breathtaking. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the rigor you need to put into assessing your department’s technology and process needs. If you go about it the wrong way, you can end up with an expensive lesson and a piece of software no one wants or uses. Here are some key points to consider when buying and implementing legal tech:

Why technology matters to in-house lawyers

The right technology makes an enormous difference in department operations, including productivity and accuracy. Today, in-house lawyers are expected to be strategic partners in operating the business. To do this, you need timely, accurate data on-demand and efficient processes. Budget constraints make it hard to keep up, but technology solutions can help make the most of limited legal department resources.

Understand the use case

Usable technology is more important than cool new tech. Be sure to understand your use case for purchasing the technology. What problem are you trying to solve? What are your biggest pain points? Is it a logjam in providing services, lack of visibility into spending, the need to create better reports, cost savings, or trying to eliminate drudge work so your team can focus on higher-value work? Whatever the reason, understand the problem inside and out. If you don’t have a meaningful problem to solve, buying technology isn’t helpful. 

Consider:

  • What problem or gap needs to be addressed?
  • What is the current manual process to solve the problem?
  • Is there technology to both replace the manual process and solve the problem?
  • What is the cost? Will the benefits outweigh the cost, and how quickly?
  • Who, specifically, will use the tool?
  • Is there support through the organization for the new technology?

Know what you need

Draft a requirements document, setting out exactly what you are looking for, including a list of features necessary to solve your use case problem. Prioritize what you need vs. what you want. When assembling this document, ask your team to contribute, as well as any users outside the department.  

It doesn’t have to be very long, just clear. Regardless of length, it will be your guide as you analyze different products. 

Here are a few things to include:

  • Use case
  • Must-have features
  • Nice-to-have features
  • Budget
  • Which other systems or products must the technology connect to
  • Support needs and asks
  • User platforms (where can people use the technology, e.g., smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.)

Survey the market

Determining what’s on the market to solve your problem may be one of the more fun, but time intensive, steps in the process.

If you have a procurement department, consider starting with them to determine if there are approved vendors with products that may solve your problem. This can save time in the implementation stage, but you’ll still want to vet the products before signing on.

Another starting point can be a basic web search focusing on the use case and adding “technology” and “legal department” to the search. Asking other in-house lawyers you know (internal/external) about solutions on their radar can also be useful, including checking legal blogs. If they are using the solution, find out what they like and dislike about the product.  

Utilize free trials for any product you are interested in. If that’s not possible, get a full demo via webinar or in-person. Including multiple intended users in this phase can be helpful to spot opportunities and potential gaps. If possible, see if the demo can address real issues on your desk to ensure its capabilities.

Finally, remember to be flexible. Technology may solve problems in ways you didn’t expect, but if it does fit your use case, add it to your prospective list.

Moving ahead with a vendor

Find a vendor that stands by their products and will be a true partner in the implementation process, then build an internal plan for your department and organization to sign up and onboard the technology. 

Think about the following:

  • Who needs to be involved in the decision to buy? Don’t buy a major technology product on your own. Identify which other departments need to align.
  • Spend time with the people from your vendor who will be implementing your product and understand the customer service motion after the purchase. 
  • Make sure you understand the true cost of using the product. Is training and support included? What’s the cost to run the product on your systems? Will you need to customize it and how does this change the cost? How many users are included and what does it cost to add more? Do you need any special hardware? 
  • Make your technology decision based on what is actually available today. Do not rely on promises that products will solve your problem in the “next release.” It needs to solve it now. 
  • What happens when the contract ends? How easy is it to get your data back? Will the vendor help you transition away?

Create a project plan

Having a project plan and process is critical to success with a new piece of technology. If the product is small and easy to implement, you may have a very short project plan (if one at all). For a complex technology implementation, you should set up a steering committee comprised of members within and without the legal department. Their job will be to manage the implementation process, including both technology and change management. Be sure to include all aspects of the project’s start and upkeep, including milestones, responsibilities, budget, scope, data migration, training, and deliverables. 

Ensure internal onboarding plans are in place 

No matter how good the technology is, it will fail if no one uses it. This is why user acceptance is among the most critical tasks on your project plan. User acceptance is your process to ensure the technology is presented and works in a way that people will use it, along with the training program on how to use the tool. 

Begin with a communications plan outlining how you will communicate what’s coming and get users excited about the new tool. Let people know what to expect and when, and where to go if they have issues. 

Consider developing a handful of super users. These people you will train extensively on how to use the product, becoming champions of the new tool. Their feedback will be invaluable to tweak the tool throughout the implementation process so it becomes more user-friendly and attune with the actual department workflow.

Legal technology can be a tremendous time saver and problem solver – faster, better, cheaper. It’s easy to get distracted by a slick product demo and lots of tech-compliant buzzwords. Be skeptical, just like a good lawyer always is. 

A successful technology implementation requires a lot of work. Get it right, and you’re on your way to better productivity and happier lawyers. And always bring the human touch to every legal project. Technology cannot replace the one-on-one connection between lawyer and client.  And it never will.

About the author

Sterling Miller has spent almost twenty-five years as in-house lawyer, including three stints as general counsel, including currently at Marketo, Inc. You can read his award-nominate blog “Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel” at www.TenThings.net and follow his regular posts on LinkedIn or Twitter @10ThingsLegal. His second book, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel: Practical Advice and Successful Strategies was published by the American Bar Association in 2017.  A second volume will come out in 2019.