At Allstate, the Future Is Now: One GC set out to create nothing less than the law department of the future

Friday, July 1, 2016 - 13:59

Four years ago, Susie Lees became general counsel at Allstate. She had been with the law department for 24 years, and she saw that it was time for major change. Costs were too high, and operations were inefficient. Thus began an odyssey as Lees set out to create the Law Department of the Future (LDF) as one of her highest priorities.

In previous columns, I have noted that the transformation of a law department is difficult whether it has 20 attorneys or 100 attorneys. Imagine the challenge of engineering and implementing the transformation of a department of 1,400 people and 700 attorneys. That’s what Lees faced.

She retained a consulting firm to help her scope, analyze, design and implement her vision. They quickly recognized that there were three distinct areas to address: structure, employee development, and process and technology. Some of the benefits she sought, and ultimately obtained, were

  • having the lawyers in the department become more strategic;
  • creating more opportunities for professional development;
  • materially reducing outside counsel spending;
  • having more satisfied clients who would say, when asked, “My lawyer knows my business”; and
  • improving deployment of attorneys and staff to create efficiencies and improve job satisfaction.

This is how Allstate achieved these and other benefits.

Inherent Inefficiencies

As we all know, a successful in-house lawyer needs to develop a special relationship with her/his internal clients. This takes time and effort. Lawyers at Allstate have always been very good in this respect. Prior to the LDF project, however, when a lawyer moved to another area, she might take that relationship and the work that she was doing with her. Over time, that resulted in what Lees calls “carpetbagger syndrome.” The department morphed and became “squishy.” When new work came in, it wasn’t always clear to whom it should go. There were inherent inefficiencies.

Lees decided to rethink and restructure her department. She combined several areas to better align with the company’s business lines and needs, and cross-trained lawyers, so the team could back up one another, as needed. The resulting structure was shaped like this:

  • Investments/Business Transactions: Since investments and business transactions included similar legal work focused on contracts, this was a natural combination of business needs to be supported by a defined group of lawyers. This resulted in efficiencies in the work being done.
  • Life & Retirement/Property & Casualty: This combination gave the assigned lawyers the ability to work as teams in both areas, as well as ensuring that internal clients had more than sufficient coverage as a result of the cross-training.

In addition to clarifying for the internal clients who handled what and how new matters should be assigned, the restructuring delivered these significant benefits:

  • More lawyers are learning more business lines, which allows them to be more strategic in their day-to-day work and more invested in the success of those business lines.
  • More opportunities have opened up for talent development. As Lees says, being a single-subject expert doesn’t help with your overall development because your exposure is too limited. The new structure gives the in-house lawyers greater breadth, in large part because their in-depth exposure to more business people is enhanced through the combined business lines they now support.
  • From a staffing perspective, her professionals were exposed to more substantive areas thereby giving them greater ability to address ebbs and flows more effectively.

Smoother Processes

Lees notes that lawyers are generally not process driven. Rather, they are focused on issues and client service. But she rightfully determined that process needed to be a key piece of the LDF. This portion of the transformation addressed

  • Intake: how clients would access the law department;
  • Workload: how projects would be assigned and adjusted to even out the work done by the lawyers, paralegals and staff; and
  • Work level: who should get the more, or less, sophisticated work, making sure the right work is done by the right person at the right level.

The result is a more consistent and streamlined intake system. Work is more evenly distributed, and ownership of projects by paralegals and attorneys has increased substantially. An additional benefit is that job satisfaction has increased across the legal department. The paralegal staff has increased, resulting in cost benefits. And as paralegals perform higher-level work, the lawyers can focus on the work that requires the level of training and strategic thinking that they bring to the table.

Technology and Analytics

The Allstate law department had a billing system for receiving and paying outside counsel, but it did not have a matter management system, or even a timekeeping system. Analytics were nonexistent. As a result, the LDF project required investment in systems to provide crucial analytics around need and spend. The department now has a an integrated matter management, timekeeping and billing system that can produce reports and provide more information to help manage the department.

Lees has several examples of the analytics in action. While internal costs remained level, spending shifted to paralegals and other staff professionals, increasing the total legal department head count without increasing costs. Also, and most critically, the needle on client satisfaction moved in a positive direction. Client surveys show improvement in “my lawyer knows my business” and more strategic thinking by lawyers. Not incidentally, outside spend has been reduced significantly because more work is being done in-house. 

This evolution is not over. There is still much room for improvement, with at least two more years before things are fully up and running. That’s because most of the data within the department is unstructured and difficult to manage. As analytics improve, quantifiable data will be available to increase the ability to predict trends and stay ahead of client needs.

Challenges Ahead

With anything new – let alone transformational change – there will always be some degree of resistance. In that vein, what were some of the challenges that Lees faced?

  • Inertia: The department had a good reputation already, so why change anything.
  • Technology: In an area where lawyers are generally not experts, deciding what to adopt, integrating it into the workflow and getting people to use it were critical.
  • Process: The lawyers needed to understand that their legal work involves a process and, as such, could be streamlined.

Lees says that there are three things she would do differently. First, she would communicate more. She underestimated how many times she needed to communicate a message before it was heard. People are busy, and this project might be low on the list of priorities. Second, it may have been better to roll out one area at a time, wait for the roots to take hold, then move on to the next one. Third, the process could have been more iterative.

Additional advice from Lees: “Don’t break anything – continue to do the day to day.”

Are We There Yet?

Finally, Lees talked about success meaning these things:

  • When I’m no longer having meetings to talk about these initiatives.
  • When ideas are bubbling up from the team rather than coming down from the leaders.
  • When discussion about litigation is about analytics, not legal theories and briefs.
  • When we have robust adoption of technology and process

Four years into the transformation, Lees says that the structure is furthest along, while they are still “dipping their toe in the water” from a process and technology perspective. And more work is needed on analytics.

If you want to know when the future has arrived at Allstate, she concludes, ask her in two years! 

Lloyd M. Johnson Jr. is chief executive of Chief Legal Executive LLC, a company that brings together thought leaders in the legal industry to discuss critical issues at conferences and events.

Please contact the author at lloydj@chieflegalexec.com with questions about the article.