Embracing Technology Can Help A Law Department Do More With Less

Sunday, February 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Jill A. Goldy, Vice President and Director Labor & Employment Law, Motorola, Inc.; and Gerry Kenney, Vice President and General Counsel, NEC America, Inc.

Editor: What is the biggest challenge facing your law department?

As a law department, we are continuously challenged by a rapidly changing business and legal climate and limitations on resources. My team of labor and employment lawyers and paralegals is responsible for all of Motorola's labor, employment, benefits and immigration matters. We deal with large volume of often complex and very interesting legal issues that we may be seeing for the first time or where it is simply challenging to convert our legal advice into sound, practical business practices.

Kenney: Like Jill's and most other law departments in these tough economic times, we are continually challenged to do more with less.

Editor: How has technology helped you to do more with less?

Early deployment of technology has been one key to our law department's success in doing more with less. Because we found that it would not be cost effective for us to maintain a home-grown matter management system, we use Bridgeway's eCounsel matter management software and iManage product for organizing and storing documents. We continue to assess emerging technology tools, particularly as web-based solutions advance to provide the security required to safeguard the attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine and confidentiality of the company's trade secrets when sharing electronic documents with outside counsel.

Goldy: Like Gerry's legal team, we have taken great advantage of technology tools. They have helped us a lot. We also use a department-wide matter management system. In addition, we have made tremendous use of shared databases and extranet-type arrangements to communicate with our clients and share case-management information with outside counsel in litigation matters, corporate transactions and in managing our patent and immigration portfolios.

Editor: What does your company look for in your law department budget?

The critical factor is whether the company is getting full value for the budgeted amount. Value typically is determined by looking at whether the resources are being used effectively to proactively address the company's business objectives.

Benchmarking can help show that the law department is effectively using its resources. For benchmarking our expenditures with other law departments, we have found the annual survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in conjunction with the Association of Corporate Counsel to be a valuable tool.
As well as showing that expenditures are reasonable within the context of the marketplace, it is critical for corporate counsel to understand where current and future legal issues will arise. For example, in light of the highly publicized ethical debacles of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson and others, it is incumbent on every corporation to ensure that it not only has a code of conduct, but also that it is enforced.
Understanding where legal issues will arise requires not only understanding industry trends, but also staying ahead of your own company's business curve. One of the best ways to understand the needs of the business is to maintain communication channels with your company's managers. Invite yourself to meetings, make occasional calls and take an interest in how things are getting done.

Editor: Does your company encourage your legal staff to participate in professional activities?

Yes. As well as participating in such organizations as the American Bar Association, the Association of Corporate Counsel and certain general counsel organizations, we are actively involved with trade and advocacy groups in our respective areas of expertise. Members of my team, for example, collaborate with our Washington, DC government affairs office and participate in organizations addressing legislative and regulatory initiatives in the benefits, immigration and other labor and employment practice areas.

Kenney: Yes. We have found that organizations like the Association of Corporate Counsel provide valuable resources. We found the greatest benefit comes from not just attending meetings, but also from contributing to panel discussions and leading seminars. I also benefit from sharing ideas with my peers in the Texas General Counsel Forum.

Editor: Do you look for law firms that support professional and pro bono activities?

I won't tell you that it is our most important criterion, but it is certainly a strong factor in our selection process. We find, especially in the labor and employment area, that firms with diverse outreach activities tend to have a handle on the latest breaking developments and are good at anticipating future "hot" issues.

Kenney: Yes. I find that the law firms that support professional and pro bono activities tend to be those that are the most proactive in knowing who we are and what we are about. Because they understand our objectives better, their services are the most attractive to us.

Editor: How can relationships with outside counsel be best managed?

As with any other relationship, the key is communication, communication and more communication. A recent survey reported that something like 50 percent of corporate counsel do not express dissatisfaction to their outside counsel until a matter has been completed. A good relationship is built on letting outside counsel know there is a problem as soon as the problem arises.

It is obvious that a critical element of good communications is prompt review of outside counsel's bills. We are currently looking at a billing module in Bridgeway's eCounsel product to assess the efficiencies of automating portions of our review.

Goldy: Like Gerry, I believe the key is having good communications. At the outset of a matter, the in-house and outside lawyers should set clear expectations with each other. As the matter progresses, we stay actively involved in its management. This does not mean micromanaging outside counsel. We hire them in large part because we trust them to do a good job. But we stay very engaged with outside counsel and with our internal clients in setting the strategic direction for each matter, to help ensure that it is being managed in a way that makes good business sense as well as legal sense.

Editor: What resources help you to keep up to date on legal issues?

We are very pleased that law firms are becoming more and more proactive in understanding our needs and offering seminars, sending newsletters and publishing articles in newspapers like The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel to help us keep up to date on legal issues. In addition to the resources made available through professional organizations, like the Association of Corporate Counsel and the local bar, we use websites such as FindLaw.com and other valuable resources that are becoming more and more available on the Internet.

Goldy: Our department is very good about providing periodicals and other resources - including many online resources - we may need to stay current. We also stay in touch with colleagues at other companies, either informally or by attendance at professional conferences and law firm seminars, and talk to outside counsel about issues they face with us and other clients.

On my team, we try to leverage the conferences and seminars team members attend to maximum advantage. We have different people go to different ones. When they come back, they share their learning with the rest of us. Of course, some of our education always is from new issues that just come over the transom, ready or not.

Editor: What tips can you give to help in-house counsel effectively manage their time, energy and resources?

Begin by looking at how you do things today and assessing how things can be done better tomorrow. This will help you to find the technology and other tools that will work for you. In the long run, you will be better served if the tools fit your law department than if you have to change the process of your work to fit the tools.

Goldy: I recommend standing back to see what resources you have to apply to the work out there. Then priorities need to be set so that you are devoting the most amount of your time to the most important work. Do not be distracted by time consuming things that in the greater scheme of things are not the most important issues for the company to have lawyers spending time on.

Editor: How can a corporate counsel evaluate whether her or she is spending time on the most value-added activity?

In a word, "ask." Start by asking yourself what is important and then ask your clients what they think is important. Maintaining dialog by asking the right questions can give you insights that will help you to make your work more personally satisfying and professionally rewarding, as well as helping to make sure that the dollars your company invests in legal services are well spent.