Machine learning, artificial intelligence, and digital transformation have disrupted nearly every industry. Although it might seem relatively untouched, that same transformation is no doubt coming to the legal field. In fact, lawyers have already been beaten by machines and more and more technology geared at disrupting the legal industry is on its way. Instead of fearing these developments, legal and compliance departments should embrace them. Particularly in the often resource constrained non-profit environment, these developments will allow legal and compliance departments to better serve their organizations at lower cost.
If you want to be prepared to take advantage of technology (“digital transformation” is the current in vogue term), then the first thing you need to do is avoid being a luddite. This does not mean you have to be on the cutting edge of the tech sphere, start driving a Tesla, make Alexa your best friend, or go to a two week coding boot camp, but you do need to feel comfortable understanding concepts like “the cloud” and be familiar with the most common office related software. While you may prefer to work from a desktop (as I do), you need to recognize that most employees are using mobile phone apps for work-related activity. As you design solutions consider a mobile first approach. Legal and compliance departments do not have to become software developers. But, it sure helps to have some technically savvy people on your team, or at least to have an excellent relationship with your IT department.
Even if you do not feel completely comfortable with emerging technologies, you can still easily identify the areas where technology may be the most helpful. Look for cumbersome processes and areas where your “clients” are complaining the most. Is your contract process slow, unwieldy, or hard for you to manage? Perhaps basic contract management tools may be helpful. Are you having trouble fostering a culture of transparency and ethical decision making? Consider a hotline. Are you worried that your vendors may be on the OFAC list or less than scrupulous actors? Maybe an investment in software to help run compliance checks would be in order. Or, your problem may be even more basic. Many areas where technology can be helpful center around organization and project management. Even just better ways to sort and categorize email messages may be the first place your department could look to begin its digital transformation.
There are likely many areas where your department could improve. You will not be able to tackle them all at once and one technology solution will not instantly make everything better. So, start with a quick win. Find a pain point for your organization and fix it. It’s even better if that pain point touches on those not in your department but whose work is impacted by yours. In our case, our agreements were taking many days or even weeks to be signed. Contracts were being sent by email, printed out, signed, scanned, and sent back by email only for the next signatory to have to do the same. This was a major pain point. We were able to institute an electronic signature platform in just a few weeks and we saw our time to signature drop across the organization. Documents that used to take several weeks to be fully executed were now being signed, on average, in less than 24 hours with many even being signed within 1 hour. This quick win garnered our department a lot of trust within our organization and established us as a department willing to use technology to facilitate our organization’s work.
All of this may sound great in theory, but you might be wondering what you should do if you have no budget for digital transformation. In the resource constrained environment of the non-profit world this is a common problem. However, there are still ways to start a digital transformation on a shoestring. The first thing to do is look at your existing technology platforms and see what you can do to leverage those tools. Most standard office software, such as Microsoft’s Office 365, have functionality that you likely aren’t using, but which can automate tasks or streamline processes. For example, we have successfully used Microsoft Flow to automate some of the email notifications that get sent out when people certify attendance at a training or when a compliance check on a contract partner is completed. If you need better communication or project management tools, you may already have access to them amongst the software you are paying for and not even know it.
In addition to using tools you already have, you can also manage a tight budget by implementing technology solutions in an iterative process. You may not need an entire contract lifecycle management solution right away but could instead start with contract storage or electronic signature tools. Many software products are now being designed to allow for this type of phased implementation and this can have a less jarring impact on your budget.
As you begin or continue your digital transformation be aware of the challenges of change management and the potential for change fatigue. Change is always difficult. Change that makes things more difficult should be avoided and even change that makes things better needs to be carefully considered. Build into your plans opportunities to gather many, if not all, of the people that will interact with your new software and systems. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Digital transformations are changes and letting people know what’s happened, what is happening now, and what is going to happen as you go through a change will increase your odds for a successful transformation. Lastly, if your organization has already experienced a lot of technology changes in the recent past, consider very slowly easing into your digital transformation.
The technological disruption of the legal field is coming fast, if it is not already here, and you can take advantage of it. Embrace the opportunity to learn about new technology and spot the opportunities where you can leverage it to make your department a leader in digital transformation in your organization.