Analysis: why are lawyers buried in low-value work?

David Wang, 26 August 2021

Our 2021 Tech GC report revealed that 69 per cent of in-house lawyers still feel buried under low-value work. Wilson Sonsini's Chief Innovation Officer, David Wang, explores why. 

This is a chapter from our 2021 Tech GC report, which reveals the biggest challenges for legal teams at the world's fastest-growing companies. Download the 2021 Tech GC report here.

When answering the conundrum of why lawyers find themselves buried under low-value work, I think it’s important to emphasize that there’s no correlation between legal work that needs completing and the value of the work. There’s always going to be a high volume of work, and “high-value” work is often wrapped in layers of process that’s hard to untangle.

Sometimes you don’t even detect the high-value legal issue because you do not have the resources to handle the low value work needed to “unwrap” the problem. And that’s the main challenge for GCs at fast-growing, venture-backed companies. The leadership isn’t thinking about risk, but rather about the next funding round and how to scale.

Since legal is often under-resourced relative to this quick pace of growth, if it is there at all, you can’t “unwrap” enough of the high-value work to this type of scaling. Therefore, it is primarily an exercise of strategically triaging risk and accumulating a “risk debt,” much like how technical debt works in software development.

“Low-value” and “high-value” work are both impacted by lack of digitization 🤖

Legal’s problems are not unique. To support and enable the wider business I encourage all our clients to engage deeply with both the substantive and operational elements of the other parts of the business. These days this almost always involves understanding what the digital ecosystem looks like for other departments, and proactively thinking about how legal can interact with digital systems on the same level.

What you will often find will be widely-adopted digital platforms for essentially every other area of the business, with legal’s work mostly confined to a more analog, “PDF-driven” process, with no way to automatically understand the data being generated by other business processes. Your external counsel is often even further behind the digital curve.

People often start with automating to get beyond the stack of “low-value work” keeping them from the “high-value work”. The reality is often that the lack of digitization for the legal function both prevents automation of routine work, and the proper organization, articulation and data collection to enable other “higher-value” tasks, such as understanding the nature and scale of the risks being accumulated in the business.

“When lawyers prevent something bad from happening, they can’t demonstrate a scenario in the multiverse where the risk unfolded. It’s hard to explain the impact of something that never happened to business stakeholders”

What’s stopping legal from embracing digitization? 🤔

Due to this lack of digital maturity, the legal department often can’t interact with the tech stack other departments use day-to-day. Add onto that the fact that there are different tools for different teams, legal often ends up working in different digital spaces that are totally outside of their control and not built for their needs; be it Salesforce for sales teams, Workday for HR teams, or any of the other core systems of record.

Other functions are working in those environments, and legal can’t pry them out of it - and at the same time, legal doesn’t have its own core legal software, leading to high fragmentation.

There’s a big rush-to-market now of people trying to solve this problem from multiple angles, but the more fundamental problem is that the value of legal doesn’t manifest up front like it would for sales, or product, or customer success.

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When lawyers prevent something bad from happening, they can’t demonstrate a scenario in the multiverse where the risk unfolded, so they can’t explain to the business the impact of something that never happened. This is the ROI demonstration problem that prevents investment in technology - and in people as well.

Tools for legal must therefore enable legal to show that there was risk they prevented and what the downside was going to be that they prevented from happening, if it has the hopes of demonstrating real value. Demonstrating this value is what I think all lawyers, especially regulatory, privacy, corporate, compliance and so on, suffer from.

“The transition to remote work meant more and more had to be digitized; before it was an option, if lawyers wanted to take it. Now it’s a necessity”

Looking ahead: what can we expect of legal in 2022? 🔮

Returning to the office will be the biggest focus for lawyers, as well as dealing with regulations, COVID, and employment law. These will be higher on the priority list for GCs over the next year than before, as they help facilitate this return to office for the company.

In terms of tech, we’re going to see continued acceleration, partly because of the impacts of working from home. Wilson Sonsini was one of the first firms to broadly adopt electronic signature automation across our practice, and then the first firm to introduce Neuron, our end-to-end automated digital platform for startup clients, and we’ve seen a huge uptake in adoption, partly as a result of these trends. The transition to remote work meant more and more had to be digitized; before it was an option, if lawyers wanted to take it. Now it’s a necessity.

Even now, though some colleagues will be returning to the office, teams will still be distributed, so there’s a need for teams to digitize anyway in order to communicate and collaborate. Both in-house legal counsel and external counsel need to digitize and ensure they’re plugged into the wider digital ecosystem so we’re not left behind.

This is a chapter from our 2021 Tech GC report, which reveals the biggest challenges for legal teams at the world's fastest-growing companies. Download the 2021 Tech GC report here.

Topics: Legal operations

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