Do lawyers speak the right language?


02-07-2021
graph showing attitudes to legal investment

How GCs can make a compelling case for legal tech by swapping legalese for data-driven thinking that aligns with wider business goals.

ThoughtRiver writes:

Lawyers are traditionally depicted as intelligent, articulate individuals. Of course it is wrong and dangerous to create stereotypes, but there is a certain truth to this caricature. After all, lawyers are by definition intelligent, educated and well-trained.

These are not honeyed words in an attempt to woo our legal audience. In fact, this stereotype is both a blessing and a curse. This is because it may put them at odds with colleagues in other departments.

Legal professionals are trained to look at and solve problems from a unique angle, and communicate in a particular way. Very few people in the business outside of legal will use similar arguments or express themselves in the same manner.

How does the business talk?

Again at the risk of stereotyping, let us assume that most modern companies broadly share two characteristics:

  1. They are data-driven, using statistics and analytics to inform their strategic decision making at the highest level.

  2. They are forward-thinking, using data to make predictions and forecasts, whether that be for sales figures, revenue forecasts or production timelines.

While the business is accustomed to arriving at meetings armed with data to plan ahead, legal is all too often reactionary in their work. They serve the business, and so have become accustomed to reacting to what the business needs from them.

In contrast to the company’s data-driven approach, the legal team typically lacks insights. This ranges from basic knowledge such as how many contracts the business has and where they are all stored, to more granular information around the obligations and opportunities stipulated within their contracts.

In our recent webinar, Paula Doyle, Chief Legal Innovation Officer at World Commerce and Contracting, and former Senior Counsel at IBM, spoke about this disparity. “When I started as a lawyer in industry, we were quite siloed. Management and legal work more symbiotically now. There wasn’t a means to gather management information (MI) back then. Technology is now helping us harness that information, but it’s not being used correctly. The next step is to educate the business – how can we use this information to improve business outcomes? GCs are well positioned to advise the business on this.”

This one-sided approach to MI impacts the nature of the relationship between legal and the wider business. The business is not used to legal proactively coming to them with requests, and when they do they do not always get their pitch right.

This is of particular importance at the moment, as GCs are being pushed to do more with less and are looking for legal tech investment to make this possible. According to an Ernst & Young report:

  • 87% of GCs say they spend too much time on low-value, routine tasks

  • More than half of GCs (59%) believe that greater use of technology can help them reduce costs

  • Despite this, 70% of in-house legal departments say they do not have adequate technology

  • 97% say that they are struggling to secure investment in legal tech

Graphs showing 87%, 59%, 70%, 97%

What is stopping investment?

Meera Ferguson, deputy GC at Adecco, illustrated this language gap during the same webinar.

She spoke about how lawyers and GCs are all trained the same, and will often lack the skills to articulate or visualise the meaning behind MI data. How lawyers talk and how the business talks is often very different. While lawyers are experts at technical language and logic, they may lack the soft skills of persuasion that other departments have.

As Meera points out, lawyers don’t come to meetings with spreadsheets and revenues and figures, even though CEOs and CFOs react more to that than esoteric prose. This is key to perfecting the pitch and having a much bigger impact on the board. Here she discusses how GCs can build a compelling case for legal tech:

“It’s all about key stakeholder relationships. It’s critical. Don’t go to your CEO or CFO and say ‘we’re busy’. They hear this all the time. Who cares? You still need to do more with less. I made my lawyers do a timesheet exercise for 6 months, which was really painful, no one wants to do it, but it really brought out where the waste was. If you can identify where the waste is and understand your department back to front, then go to the CEO and start talking about that business case for legal tech.”

Signatories will always ask for demonstrable proof that there is an existing problem, and that current solutions are not fit for purpose.

This line of thinking was commented on by Rob Dinning, EMEIA Legal Function Consulting Leader at Ernst & Young. He says that GCs should not ask for new technology without first proving that the tech you have is not capable of solving the problem at hand. So the steps should be to:

  • Attempt to find a fix with what you have available

  • Show that you have taken it as far as you can go

  • Then demonstrate what new technology would make possible above and beyond the current status quo

Talking a language that the business understands

GCs tell us that they understand precisely how legal tech can help them achieve more with restricted headcounts, move at a speed that meets the organisation’s needs, and better serve the business. They also admit that they are struggling to convince the board to invest in the technology that they know will deliver these benefits.

This is where GCs could benefit from being more streetwise in how they approach their board. One real-life example from our webinar tells the story of a GC who aligned the need for faster contracting and therefore contract acceleration technology with the company’s commitment to customer experience (CX). The successful argument was that contracting is the first touchpoint with every customer, and therefore an excellent experience is key to getting that relationship off to the best possible start.

This is the perfect example of how to link the need for legal tech with broader business objectives. By using data, demonstrating that existing technology is not up to the job, and showcasing the tangible value of investment, GCs can get the C-suite on board. This is the language that the company will understand.

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