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Taking control of workflow in-house

Law Department Management
|Written By Jennifer Brown
Taking control of workflow in-house
Peter Nguyen, general counsel, and Margaret McKee, legal operations, Resolver Inc.

Like many solo legal officers in-house, Peter Nguyen is inundated with requests to review agreements and oversee work coming from the team he works with at Resolver Inc., a fast-growing software-as-a-service company that provides integrated risk and security management tools. 

As the person in charge of providing legal advice on a global basis for everything from mergers and acquisitions, litigation and commercial agreements, Nguyen’s email in-box was overflowing with requests from people, often wanting to know where their matter was on his list of things to do.

“It was the typical scenario of a GC in a small legal team where anything and everything that is a contract or a legal matter gets dumped on to me in a very ad-hoc way with no way of tracking what the requests are or where they are coming from other than tracking in email and writing it down on a list,” says Nguyen. “It is kind of a startup culture — run with it and get things done,  but I had no way to track the work.”

As the business has grown over the past three years, the other challenge became managing requests from different time zones. “I would miss requests that came in during the middle of the night from the U.K. because by the time I got to my desk all the emails were already at the bottom of my screen or I would get pulled into the North American time zone. We also have business in New Zealand and folks on the West Coast, so requests are coming all the time and I didn’t have a good way of staying on top of things.”

His desire was to have a triage or in-take system where his business unit clients would have to first submit a request for legal work to be done and it would be tracked and visible to everyone involved. It would also be assessed as to the level of risk involved.

In his previous GC role, Nguyen had got to a point where he had created a Word document everyone had to fill in as they were submitting legal requests, but now he wanted to take it a few steps further.

“I often joke that the legal department is sometimes a bit of a black hole — it’s not how I want to work, but it inevitably ends up being that way. Demand for legal services is so high and there was no way to properly triage and determine what I should be working on,” he says.

Creating the solution

Nguyen partnered with one of the company’s developers and created an application that requires a request be submitted to him with certain fields filled out first. It is then reviewed by legal operations co-ordinator Margaret McKee, who acts as the frontline of all matters before they are routed to Nguyen.

The tool was built on Resolver Core, a SaaS-based integrated risk management platform that  services more than 1,000 customers around the world.

The form asks for simple information such as who is the contracting party? What is the proposed due date? What division is it for? What is the type of request? Supporting documents can be attached through the app and submitters are asked to complete a risk assessment based on established terms. 

Now Nguyen and McKee can generate simple dashboards that provide updates on matters Nguyen is working on in real time. It can also connect with third-party platforms such as Salesforce. Nguyen can also provide the executive team with a chart that shows the type of legal request by division to assess who is using his time the most.

“The pain point was really what am I working on? What should I be working on? And, ultimately, what is the priority? There are multiple sales deals going on at the same time with different value of strategic importance,” he says. “There was no good way for someone to tell me what I should be working on. It was usually whoever was screaming the loudest or first in first out. No one really knew the status of a matter at any one time.”

There was also the expectation of the fellow members of the executive team who all come to meetings with reportable data on what they were working on. “I have always believed in being a self-serve department whether making templates or documents available, and now with the app the status of matters is available, so no one needs to ask me to check the status of a file. That drives the accountability of the person asking and gives complete transparency to the legal process,” he says.

A triage system to deal with workflow is something members of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium are always talking about, says Nguyen, who is a member. “It’s the first step that teams looking to become more operational in nature look to do because it’s the number one pain point — the amount and number of requests and determining who is the best person to be working on something.”

Nguyen had looked at some off-the-shelf solutions that offer complete systems for law department management, but at this stage, he was only interested in the front end.

“In a perfect world, I would have used the entire suite I looked at, but it just didn’t meet my needs,” he says.

He says contract lifecycle management is something he would want to do,  but he currently manages it through Salesforce. “The organization is very much a Salesforce company in terms of tracking the status of sales deals and being a document repository.” 

Nguyen was also working on a limited budget and would only have used a fraction of the larger tool he looked at purchasing.

At this time last year, he saw Resolver’s main enterprise risk management software tool as an opportunity to leverage its technology to build something that would work for him. 

“It is strong in permission-based roles, strong in notifications and strong in workflow and that’s basically what I needed. In an enterprise risk world, you look at a risk, set the risk and assign it to someone to go deal with it with an overall picture of what needs to be done,” he says.

Nguyen sat down with the junior product manager at Resolver and talked with her for about an hour and a half and showed her his basic workflow as to how he thought it should work in terms of triage. She then built the app in a couple of days. 

“I needed to have a relevant voice at the executive table in terms of talking about data and metrics — we are very data driven and make decisions based on data, but we were flying blind when it came to legal,” he says. “I go to meetings where I expect finance to have their decks and spreadsheets and charts of how we’re doing from a financial perspective — same with sales and marketing. HR also has metrics on how long people are staying. The page I submitted in PowerPoint was fairly bare. I am a team of one and didn’t have time or bandwidth to track. I needed to be on the same level of my peers — they understand data and I should be able to speak their language.”

Now everyone can see who is putting work through to the legal department and have a full appreciation of who is putting requests through.

McKee conducts the first level of triage of all requests. In fact, the app launched on her first day at Resolver in the legal operations role. She verifies all the information and if she needs other information she can route it back to the requester or to a subject matter expert. 

“All of that can be done before it even hits Peter,” says McKee. “Everyone has been pretty reasonable with their request. Everyone is good about seeing where it is in the queue. There was some training involved, but four months in and everyone understands now this is how work gets done at Resolver.”

For the most part, McKee, to whom everyone must first submit their request, says the system is working well.

“It’s been pretty smooth sailing. The tool is very easy to use. The first week was training the team to get them used to it and now it’s very smooth,” she says. “Being able to operationalize this legal department is amazing. I don’t have to spend a lot of time on how we deal with email because it’s been operationalized. No one is communicating through different channels.” 

The form can be completed through a browser on a tablet or phone. It renders and adjusts based on the size of the screen on which the requester is working. A salesperson could send a request to Nguyen to look at an agreement via their phone in the field.

“This has solved the number one pain point I have had for the last eight years. I’m so excited about it because I think other people could benefit from it,” he says.

Nguyen showed an early prototype to a few other general counsel back in the spring to get some feedback and they were all impressed. 

“My team and I were most impressed with the analytics and reporting,” says Vivian Leung, general counsel at BlueCat Networks. “We have no way of quantifying, and sometimes qualifying, the work that we do so the analytic capabilities would be very helpful. Right now, we only have this information ancedotally. The  difficulty would be to impose workflows and intake procedures company-wide.”

Now, Nguyen is looking to sell the app through Resolver to other legal departments.

“I’m not sure if it is a function of who we are showing it to — mostly solo in-house — but the minute they see it they say it’s amazing. They like the transparency and accountability and that it can drive reports and show graphs and statistics about matters. They like that it gets them out of their email and generates a list of tasks they are supposed to work on.”

Legal also now has a standard service level commitment to its business colleagues — an NDA is one day, everything else is about three days.

“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t even see now because I shouldn’t have seen it in the first place,” says Nguyen. “Whatever makes it to my task list are the critical things I should be spending my time on and Margaret can do the non-disclosure agreements now and high-level triage.”

Metrics

For Nguyen, knowing how long requests are sitting in legal was critical. Up until recently, the company didn’t really appreciate how long things were taking to get negotiated. 

“Now we can start to see how long is it actually with us and how long is it with the other side. Is it the industry, is it the rep, is it the form of contract? It’s a way to start doing some analysis to see if we can start improving our process and drive efficiencies.”

Like most sales organizations, they’d like to see the time frame be shorter, but they can’t say it needs to be shorter without knowing how long it takes in the first place.

The next step for Nguyen is getting the same kind of tool in place for working with external counsel. 

“In a perfect world, I would have a tool where I could submit a request to the law firms themselves to actually know if a) a request has been received, b) has it been triaged and what lawyer has it been assigned to it, so I don’t have to call the relationship partner or other partner in charge of it,” he says.

Much like the Resolver sales reps do, Nguyen would like to log in and see that his request for legal work at a firm has been assigned and on what day and see any notes and have correspondence with them in real time. That would give him the ability to be more accountable to his internal clients.

“Someone internally may come ask me the status of a file. If I’ve outsourced it to external counsel and they’re on a mediation or on a deal all day I may not be able to reach them. Why should I have to speak to someone to see where my file is? I should be able to log in to a tool and see that it’s been assigned,” he says. “In a perfect world, firms would start matching their docketing system to the matter, so I can see in real time how much time is being spent on it and what is actually being done on the file, assuming a billable-hour model. Otherwise, I just care that it has been looked at and have some sort of update.”

Nguyen has also shown his workflow app to a small law firm that acts as a virtual GC for an organization and it is considering using it for its own clients.