Tanya Vasilev, senior manager of Cisco's legal department
Tanya Vasilev, senior manager of Cisco’s legal department

Discussions about innovation in the legal department are often centered on technology, but the ideas and attitudes that support the selection of cutting-edge processes or promote creative approaches to tough problems are just as important as a shiny new technology solution itself.

“Predictive coding [and] technology-assisted review (TAR) might currently be the big thing, but you don’t win an award because you purchased a TAR for your legal department,” says Alvin Lindsay, a partner at Hogan Lovells LLP and an expert on technology and litigation.

The experience that allows a team to determine that a solution is a poor fit is much more important than snapping up a new solution for novelty’s sake. Likewise, a cultural attitude of openness can potentially give legal operations an edge.

For the past decade, the IC10, chosen by InsideCounsel, has honored law departments that have been successful in the implementation of technologies, processes or attitudes that have improved and innovated their operations. Culminating with the announcement of this year’s IC10 in December, InsideCounsel will seek to more thoroughly understand what innovation in the law department truly means. Over the course of next few months, we’ll revisit some of our previous winners and tap industry experts to explore the concepts, technologies and attitudes leading the legal industry.

Industry-leading thoughts

In 2013, Cisco Systems made the IC10 for its Legal Global Center of Excellence (GCoE). The project was designed to reduce the amount of time Cisco’s legal staff spent on high volume/low complexity legal requests such as reseller contract management or nondisclosure agreements. While work like this is often outsourced, Cisco was able to achieve its efficiency goal by establishing a team of professionals around the globe to handle frequent requests. Because this internal team retained the context and access to knowledge systems that external help tended to lack, they were able to save time and money in the process.

Steve Harmon, Cisco’s senior director of legal services, explains that while the implementation eventually required the selection of compatible technology, the genesis of the project came from Cisco’s culture of problem solving.

“Cisco has a long history of using our own and other technologies to make our department as productive and efficient as possible,” Harmon explains. “The focus is to use all of the tools that we’ve propagated throughout the legal department. Implementing the GCoE as an internal function, rather than outsourcing, preserves our ability to standardize around a common toolset and, perhaps most importantly, we have commonality throughout the entire department on our knowledge management tools and resources.”

Now when issues arise, employees and contractors throughout Cisco’s network input requests via a company portal. Those reqeuests are automatically routed to a GCoE team member on duty. This has reduced wait time and allowed the team to better serve its users and be more aggressive in the facilitation of business.

“What we realized is, for a company like Cisco a ‘follow the sun’ model is of critical importance. Our attorneys work on a very flexible schedule; some of them submit requests just before they go to bed, others very early in the morning. What’s important is for us to support them and their requests in real time,” explained Tanya Vasilev, senior manager of Cisco’s legal department.

Users, both Cisco employees and customers, have consistently rated their experience with the system high. “Our customer satisfaction is currently 4.98 out of 5 and has consistently gone up,” Vasilev adds.

Lightning in a bottle

Cisco’s success with the GCoE is an example of what’s possible when an established set of tools meets a culture willing to think creatively about a problem. While the solution may be custom-made to fit the needs of Cisco, the company’s attitude is one that plenty of other organizations might benefit from. Vasilev says the first step to adopting that attitude is to slow down and simplify.

“De-mystifying the legal profession is our advice. Get clarity on where the efforts should be spent. I think Einstein said, ‘things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ That’s what we do with GCoE, but it applies more widely. We focus on a specific set of matters, identified as a priority, and work to understand them first.”

True innovation is a function of true understanding. Knowing a problem, and knowing the frequently used solutions to solve it, may allow a legal department to rely on already available industry standards, a hybridized solution or a totally new option.

Regardless, focus and planning are still paramount to the process, even when creativity is of potential use.

“Lawyers are not always comfortable taking risks and because of this, they are sometimes wary of change,” says Carol Sabransky, managing director of Huron Legal Consulting. “Given the complexity of the business environment in which companies now operate, law departments must meet the challenge and demonstrate their ability to keep up with the pace of change. Those law departments that are unable to adapt will lag behind.”

Though risk aversion and the priorities of the businesses that legal departments serve may seem like a constraint, the latter could potentially offer a new space for innovation.

Priming the pump

Often, innovation is expensive. While the legal department may be receptive to an out-of-the-box idea that could work, failure, and a potential loss of capital, is not an option.

Sabransky says, “Aside from the substantive legal challenges they have to deal with, the greatest challenges law departments face include demonstrating their value to their organizations, since they are generally perceived as cost centers.”

But while the concept of the legal department as an expense rather than an asset has killed plenty of innovative plans, Cisco’s Harmon says that could be its greatest strength.

“If you start with the baseline principle that the legal department’s objective is to allow the business to sell its products in a legally appropriate way, then there’s a lot of compliance obligations and mechanical work that does not create a competitive advantage, it just had to be done. Being the best at compliance issues does not create an advantage for me over my most ardent competitor.”

Harmon says that because of this, there are opportunities for standardization in the legal world that would offer a net benefit to all parties involved.

“If you look at the way we do business elsewhere, it shouldn’t surprise you. We all need to agree on how our wireless Internet connects, so we can all connect together; trying to create a closed environment creates competitive advantage for no one. It’s like being the only person on your block with a fax machine, and it’s a pretty lonely environment when there’s no one else to send a fax to,” he explains.

While knowledge sharing exercises like the one that Harmon suggests could offer advantage, there is always the risk of freeloaders, which he says explains why the standardization movement has yet to pick up steam. Think of that notorious group project in high school where one person does all the work but everyone gets the credit.

In order for these types of engagements to gain momentum, the early adopters have to be willing to share in a disproportionate amount to what they get back, Harmon says. But those willing to prime the pump of innovation could potentially survive droughts the risk averse may not survive.