Customise or Standardise? You Need Both From Legal Workflow Automation
By Ben Bogin, Mitratech
There’s a strong argument for standardising legal operations processes using legal workflow automation software tools.
On the other hand, there’s an equally strong argument for customising Legal Operations processes, as Legal Ops departments want to be able to implement their own exact use case.
It’s important to be able to accomplish both. So here’s a topline exploration of how using workflow automation to balance both helps Legal Ops improve performance, efficiency, and client service. Which are, after all, among the main reasons for implementing Legal Ops in the first place.
Every legal department ‘owns’ its workflows
An in-house legal department already ‘owns’ its workflows and processes, because they’ve developed them over time. They may result from precise planning or ad hoc implementations over time: This is just the way we do things around here.
Whether it’s matter management or securing copyright, processing an NDA or using a CLM, a corporate legal department has some notion of its pathway for getting from Point A to Point B and, eventually, all the way to Point Z. Some of those may be diagrammed; some are still ‘institutional knowledge’ carried around in peoples’ heads.
Workflow automation is uniquely suited to driving efficiency and responsiveness since it automates routine processes, accelerating them and removing human error. A legal workflow that’s automated can be standardised by applying a tested, optimised, best-practice-embedded workflow template. That ensures that, for example, the very first NDA in Q1 is processed identically to the last one executed in Q4.
Hooray! That’s a big point on the board for workflow standardisation. The best practices and built-in compliance you use on your first successful workflow can be infinitely repeated. With nary any hands-on oversight, in many cases.
We all know the ‘but’ that comes next, right? In embracing the miracle of workflow automation we have to avoid excess standardisation that puts a legal team in a situation where their quality of service is jeopardised.
Client service demands customization
Every company is idiosyncratic, whether it’s because of their industry, strategies, products, personnel, or their own home-grown procedures. The legal services workflows that are a fit for a global petrochemical corporation aren’t going to work at a mid-sized pharmaceuticals research lab.
Within either of those companies, different units will have various requirements, further shaping the services delivered by the in-house legal team. Matter management workflows for HR may be entirely different from those for R&D, for instance. Plus, there’ll be (many) times when a workflow has to be customised around a very specific, one-off legal task.
This means Legal Operations has to be able to customise workflows to produce outcomes that precisely match the needs of the legal department and its company-wide clients. At the same time, Legal Ops will want to retain the efficiency and responsiveness enabled by automation. Working up a wholly original workflow for every intake chips away at that.
Preserving what’s proven in practice
As I mentioned above, traditional manual processes can be too ‘customised’, organic, and seat-of-the-pants. Managers supervising them have to prevent people from veering too far outside the lines. Yet it’s practically impossible to have real-time visibility into multiple manual processes.
Those old, hands-on processes have one huge virtue, though: They were devised around proven ways of meeting known needs. Replacing them with standardised workflows, no matter how well-automated, should never impose ways of doing things that are too rigid and not somewhat native to the organisation.
Who’s servicing who?
Jules Verne once wrote that ‘in consequence of inventing machines, men will be devoured by them’. When they’re too inflexible, some workflow automation ‘machines’ may wind up dictating a legal department’s culture and client service.
A Goldilocks conundrum faces Legal Operations leaders exploring workflow automation products: Which delivers the just-right balance of standardisation versus customisation?
Earlier generations of workflow automation, DTM and BPM software suffered from that lack of flexibility and adaptability, mandating adherence to set process models. Customization, when possible, was slow and expensive, with too much costly need to bring IT and coders into the loop.
A Legal Operations workflow technology solution ought to, first and foremost, serve the human beings concerned, not vice-versa. The balance point here? When CIOs and CTOs find a legal workflow automation solution that delivers flexibility and customisability just as easily and efficiently as it does standardisation, governance, and compliance.
So why own your own workflows?
The workflow automation solution a Legal Ops team should really desire most? It’s the one that lets them simply and most easily ‘own their own’ workflows, letting them design, publish, store, and repurpose them at will. Why?
- To digitise existing workflows that already meet their needs: A best-in-class workflow automation tool with an intuitive design interface allows Legal Ops users to digitise and optimise existing workflows and forms and centrally store them as standardised templates for everyone to use. This lets them capture and improve established processes and documents – and not impose ill-fitting external templates.
- To easily design new workflows:Those same intuitive UI/UX design and publishing features will let users quickly design and test all-new workflows from scratch or base them on stored templates.
- To enjoy a full spectrum from standardised to customised: Using templates, common processes are standardized. Anyone deploying a standardised workflow can rest easy knowing ‘standardisation’ means it’s tested and anxiety-free. But when customisation is in order, it’s easy to create need-specific forms and workflows.
- To protect compliance: A standardised workflow can have best practices and compliance ‘baked in’ – but those can also be built into the design dashboard and toolset for drafting all-new workflows. So any published workflow will always follow corporate compliance rules.
- To optimize performance:A key way for Legal Ops to hit some of the KPIs being imposed by their companies? By continually optimizing workflows to maximize efficiency and savings and minimize errors and delays. Thus, a software solution should give managers the analytics and centralized overview they need to fine-tune those processes.
- To maximise agility: Having an arsenal of ‘contingency’ workflows on hand, and the ability to swiftly design and publish a new process, helps if/when unexpected situations pop up, such as regulatory challenges or other crises.
- To deepen collaboration: More than ever, collaboration must include the wider legal ecosystem and people outside the legal department, including (but not limited to) other corporate units, officers, stakeholders, outside counsel, and vendors. A well-designed digital workflow can include them at the appropriate points and use notification tools to drive timely participation while incorporating role-specific safeguards on data and document access.
- To lift morale and job satisfaction:Lawyers deal with unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, and Legal Ops staffers have to face complex and often repetitive workloads. By freeing all of them from manual drudgery and poorly-designed processes, legal workflow automation can be a godsend for workplace engagement. There’s greater job satisfaction when legal professionals can apply their intelligence, expertise, and creativity within smarter processes that are built around their own knowledge and expertise, helping them do a better job.
We can’t forget that a workflow, and the technology used to create it, are only tools. Good tools serve the user, not vice versa. No matter how standardised or customisable or feature-rich, any legal workflow automation technology has to honour a simple rule: The process should never compromise the professional.
About the author: Ben Bogin is Senior Product Manager for TAP at Mitratech, and has been working in the legal operations space throughout career. He has a passion for making people-focused products. He also likes to bike, bake bread, and travel.
[ Artificial Lawyer is proud to bring you this sponsored thought leadership article by Mitratech. ]