Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Embracing the Future

It seems like every aspect of our world has been touched by technology. I no longer have to lift my arm to hail a cab, I can click Uber or Lyft; I get my coupons and shopping discounts automatically with HEB and Dosh.  The kids' school updates me on their grades and daily progress with Bloom and online portals.  We can even keep in touch with family with video calls on our Alexa.  So why then is it so hard to get legal departments to efficiently embrace technology in their legal operations?

I've been delving into this issue for awhile, largely because I'm a tech geek at heart and I strongly believe that the in house legal community need to get a better handle on legal operations if they want to stay relevant in a world with Watsons.  And I'm not alone.  I've recently chatted with a few other GC's about how they are setting up their teams to compete in the new world.  One conclusion we keep returning to is that there is a lot of technology out there, but very little that is specifically focused on internal legal departments. 

But just because there isn't a perfect tool yet, shouldn't stop the in house lawyer from embracing technology.   I can almost guarantee that your engineering/IT team use some sort of ticketing system, most likely Jira based.  They probably also use some sort of collaboration tool like Slack.  Many are embracing Google docs or other online collaboration tools. Your sales team is probably utilizing Salesforce and probably a calendaring tool.  Your accounting team is using some tool, be it Quickbooks or SAP.  To set up these technologies, each team had to start in the same place - an assessment of how the work flows and what could be done better, or made easier by process and technology.

I know, it's overwhelming to think about mapping out the entire functionality of the legal department.  While outside counsel may think all we do is sit in meetings and hand out work to them, and our friends may think all we do is negotiate contracts or argue in court, we know how varied the typical day is for in house legal.  Mapping out all of the current processes for negotiating contracts, managing litigation, managing outside counsel, product advice, employment matters, general business advice, etc. is a huge task.  Analyzing the result and identifying areas of improvement is even more daunting.  This is why more and more companies are hiring a dedicated legal operations professional. 

Although that's not an option for everyone given budget constraints.  Other options include hiring a short term consultant to do the mapping and analysis for you, or taking it one process at a time.  The former being a larger up front cost, but by looking at the whole picture sooner you can achieve efficiency (and cost savings) sooner.  The latter requires incremental improvements which may have to be re-worked as additional flows get added to the map.  While it's no fun to do something twice, this option will still generate efficiency in the department.  I suggest starting with the workflow that most dominates the team's time. For some that would be contracts, others litigation management or regulatory compliance.  The point is to get started wherever you'll get the most bang for your buck.  Most likely the subsequent flows will have to revolve around this one by nature of the workload, so you'll minimize the revisions needed.  By focusing on one flow at a time, I was able to reduce time to revenue by 60% (focusing on contracts), reduce outside counsel spend by about 10% (adding a corporate compliance module), and reduce litigation by monitoring the trends and being proactive (tracking root causes of complaints).  I was also able to report on these efficiencies to my leadership team with some pretty eye candy charts.

Embracing technology and legal operations will allow you to accomplish more with less. After all, isn't that the mantra we've been hearing from our leadership for the last ten years? 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Grow or go?

One of the largest responsibilities any leader has is to grow their team – not in headcount, but in development, capability and responsibility.  A good leader, regardless of the department, should have an idea of where her people want to be in the future and how she and the company can help them reach that goal –while also benefiting the company. So it behooves her to have frank conversations and encourage everyone to do honest assessments of where they are at and where they want to be, including the quantity and quality of the workload they currently have and the bandwidth to take on more.

Ideally, this conversation starts in the interview process.  Beyond the, “where do you see yourself in five years” question, every candidate should be asked about their long term career goals. In a small legal department hiring a second (or third) lawyer who one day wants to be a GC isn’t a bad thing – so long as one day is far enough in the future and the skills they need to develop in order to get there are skills that can be developed in your environment.  On the other hand, hiring someone who is ready to be GC now, whether in skill set or mindset, to be the third lawyer in the department is going to make a bad fit, regardless of personality, niche practice or anything else that makes them glow on paper.

Once you’ve hired the right person, you have to provide opportunities for growth.  Let them work on a project that is a stretch.  Provide opportunities to lead discussion and interact with the leadership of other departments. Provide training and resources when available. And most of all provide encouragement of the growth.  You’ll never get the best work out of someone if they don’t think that you’re on their side.

As a result, you need to be prepared for when your best employee outgrows you or your organization.  After doing an honest assessment of where they’re at in their career, and what your organization has to offer, allow them to determine if they’re happy where they’re at, or if their personal growth requires them to move on.  Provide support for whatever decision they make.  This doesn’t mean allowing someone to search for a job on company time or begin to deliver less than their best work.  But it does mean providing references, introductions and opportunities to be in the “right place” to find their next role.

And most importantly, allow yourself the same freedom.  Even if you’ve reached the top in your organization, you may find yourself unhappy or unsatisfied.  You may need to reach for a bigger organization, or ask for a more complex role.  I know a few GC that have moved to operating roles and are quite happy.  I know others that have moved to public policies and politics.  And others still that have taken on business development responsibilities in addition to their legal role.  At least once a year, assess your situation.  Are you still growing?  Do you have the opportunities you need?  Or is it time to go?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Budgeting 101

The first time I was asked to prepare the legal department budget I had no idea what I was doing.  I’d inherited a budget made by business people with little to no experience in managing legal matters.  I’d only started a few weeks prior, so had absolutely no insight into the priorities, strategies or cadence of the business. I really could have used a Budgeting 101 crash course.

This isn’t unusual when you’re taking over (or starting) a legal team.  But it is a challenge.  The budget you inherit may or may not be reasonable; if it was created by business people it most likely leaves out operational costs they’re not used to having, and will almost always under-estimate outside counsel spend. Unfortunately, you won’t be in a position to determine any issues with your budget until you’ve lived with it for a few months.  By then you’re having to justify deviations from the budget, getting approval to add expenses that weren’t complicated, and if you’re really lucky you may even save on some line items.

The real fun begins when you enter the next budget cycle (this is especially true if it’s your first time creating a legal budget.)  You’ll rack your brain to think of everything that should be included and how to value the contingencies that you should reserve for – and those that you shouldn’t reserve.  Depending on the size and maturity of your organization and the industry that you’re in, the average legal budget ranges anywhere from 1-5% of the company’s revenue. So if you’re a small to mid-size private company in a reasonably regulated area with $50MM in revenue, you should expect your budget to be around $500k.  Larger companies, more regulated industries, or companies with a history of complicated litigation or major intellectual property issues, you’ll be closer to the 5% mark.  If you’re a startup just out of stealth mode, expect your budget to border on non-existent and ‘I can barely pay you, please don’t spend anything else.’ 

Now you know what your ceiling is expected to be, don’t forget the important things.  Salaries go into the budget – marked up with the fully loaded cost. That’s usually your biggest cost. Legal software like contract management, matter management or IP docketing also need to be included.  Although depending on the use and integration you may be able to allocate some of this cost to other departments. For example the cost of a contract management software that plugs in to SalesForce may be shared with sales if they use it to process all sales contracts.  Registration fees for IP or other licenses are generally going to be allocated to legal.  Immigration costs may fall under legal, HR, or may be allocated to the hiring department.  And don’t forget professional development – your bar dues, CLE expenses, conferences, etc.  If they’re not in the budget, they're coming out of your pocket.

The harder part of the budget it’s the contingent expenses.  No matter how good of a lawyer you are, you will need outside counsel or other outside advice.  The trick is budgeting for it.  If you know you’re involved in litigation, that’s easy.  But how do you plan for potential litigation, the patent registration fee for the idea that hasn’t been disclosed yet, or that tricky corporate matter that only comes up because of something a board member says or does?  There is no right answer to this one.  If you ask ten GC’s how the account for this, you’ll get ten answers.

Because I work in technology companies, IP has always been important.  I work with the engineering, marketing, and finance leads to come up with an estimate of how many applications we can reasonably expect to file in the year.  As a startup, that is generally in some type of fundraising all the time, I always add a small amount for the random corporate question.  And my CFO and I typically agree to treat new litigation as extraordinary expense that doesn’t get budgeted until it’s reasonably likely to happen. 

Even with all of that planning, you’re likely to need to make mid-year adjustments.  This is why it’s important to know the business side of your business. Knowing the cycles, the priorities, the business risks, and the company strategy will help you to more accurately predict the costs of the legal services it will need.  Knowing the personalities in charge of the departments most likely to generate legal work is also critical.  Maybe most importantly, being on good terms with your CFO and finance team will help you to navigate those unbudgeted matters in a way that best protects the business.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Things We Say

Five years ago when I started this blog, I made a short post about words uttered in the work place that I never imagined when I graduated from law school.  While I can’t believe I’m still fooling around on this blog, I can’t resist the opportunity to update this list (with a little help from some other legal type friends):

“What is the justification for seeking reimbursement for the beef jerky and condoms as a business expense?”

“No, stupid isn’t a disability. I’m not even sure how you would reasonably accommodate stupidity if it were.”

“Sorry, but dependent benefits does not cover doggy day care.”

“Canada is a different country (from the US).  Alaska, however, is not.”

“Bob, why are you wearing a football helmet to our staff meeting?”

“No, a patient cannot redline the notice of privacy practices.”

“No, just because someone put it on the internet doesn’t mean that you can freely use the code in proprietary software… Please don’t make me explain ‘proprietary’ again.”

“Putting in a pool isn’t a valid business expense, even if you invite everyone over for a party.”

“Should someone go in there and break that up?  Oh hell, do I need to in there and break it up?”

“Don’t get stressed, they’re just like toddlers but not as malicious” – when talking to a young paralegal nervous about dealing with engineering.

“No, you don’t have to reasonably accommodate a millennial by allowing her mom to come to work with her.”

To the infosec guy in the office below – “knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.”

To the board while explaining how targeted behavioral ads work, “ever wonder why you keep getting ads on Viagra?”

“I’m sorry about her cat, but you are within your rights to deny the bereavement leave request on that one.”

“How long has he been standing on top of the file cabinet?”

“Joe, do you know where I can get a piñata?”

“No, use the plastic mini-liquor bottles in the piñata, not the glass ones – they’re a hazard.”

“I don’t want to call your mother, but I will if I have to.”

“Yes, marijuana at work is still a drug issue.”

“No, you can’t not hire her because you have a ‘deal’ with your wife not to be alone in the room with another woman.  Seriously, you do that not every woman wants to have sex with you – right?”

“Our department motto has become, ‘I need a drink’.  I don’t think that’s healthy.”

“Sure, you can put ‘Master of the Universe’ as your title on your business cards – but you still won’t have signing authority.”

 Although sometimes you get to say something like this – “We aided in saving the lives of 19 girls out of sex trafficking today.” (Courtesy of Christine Jones). 

Monday, April 3, 2017

1 in 68

It’s that time of year again.  April is Autism Awareness month.  I’m sad to say that even though we’re at 1 in 68 kids being diagnosed with some form of Autism there is still a lot of misconceptions about it.  So, I do my small part and share some of how Autism has effected myself through my professional life.  I’ve previously written uplifting lists of how my autistic son has influenced the way I see the world.  And all of those things are still very true.  Learning how to navigate the world with LG has broadened my perspective on a lot of the day to day interactions in the workplace.  Just like relearning the golden rule when your kid goes to kinder, there’s something to be said about taking a step back and re-evaluating how you respond to your environment.

However, there is another impact to my professional life that doesn’t get mentioned as much. As the parent of a special needs kid, my career choices tend to be more conservative than they may otherwise be.  When interviewing with a potential employer I have to ask about things like benefits, and what type of coverage for autism services are included.  I have to explore the flexibility of office hours. I have to reserve a few of my PTO days each year to deal with ARDs, neuro appointments, and pre-visits to new places he’s going to be required to attend in the next few months.  I have turned down job offers because it would require me to move to an area that didn’t have enough therapists within a 30-mile radius.  And I let another opportunity go because the insurance benefits didn’t cover ABA therapy. 

I am extremely lucky.  I work in a field where I am well compensated and typically receive good benefits. I am senior enough that I can require flexibility as a part of negotiating a new position.  For the most part a contract doesn’t care if it’s reviewed at 3 pm or 3 am, and execs often exchange texts or phone calls late at night or early in the morning depending on their work style - so my work product isn’t materially impacted because of my need for flexibility.  In house lawyers are generally on call 24/7 anyway, so having my butt in a seat from 9-5 doesn’t impact my earning potential. 

Unfortunately, autism doesn’t just effect the children of highly paid professionals.  And as much as we protest as employers that we’d never hold it against an employee, if you’re working in a call center it’s a lot harder to be flexible when your kid has a 2-hour meltdown and refuses to get in the car. (Sure you could force him, but he’s almost as big as you now and is really hard to physically pick up - even if that was a healthy way to deal with a meltdown.)  It’s harder to demand great insurance benefits from the minimum wage job you had to take so that you could shuttle him to the several therapy sessions a week that he needs - for which you now rely on grants and Medicaid to pay.  And if your employer only allows 5 PTO days a year, you reserve all of them to deal with the kid and his needs.  All the while, you pray that you never get sick or need a day for anything else. 

None of this addresses what the child goes through himself, which is exponentially harder than the administrative stress that parents go through.  So while we thank you for the sentiment of “I don’t know how you do it,” please don't start comparing us to real martyrs. Instead, please take a moment to think of how you could support the autism community.  Maybe it’s just a supporting look when a kid is having a meltdown in the middle of the school hallway instead of the judging of parental skills because he’s shouting some choice words that shouldn’t be in a second grader’s vocabulary.  Maybe it’s donating money or time to one of the many organizations that are working to make life easier for the community – Autism Society of Austin is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s cutting one of your employees some slack for coming in late when their kid has a bad day, or if you’re senior enough fighting for policies that make life just a little easier.  Maybe your company can employ someone with autism, giving that person a chance to make a living and the rest of your employees some exposure to and hopefully empathy for a real autistic person, not some cute kid on a poster.  If nothing else, go learn something about autism and share what you’ve learned (unless you’re going to say it’s caused by vaccines, then just shut up.)

Light It Up Blue, or Tone It Down Taupe – either way spread awareness so that instead of forcing these amazing people to conform to our rigid society, we start thinking of how our society can be more accommodating and accepting of them.