Innovation: It’s one of those things that you hear about so often that its real meaning gets lost. Everyone’s an innovator, right?

The dictionary is pretty specific. It says innovation is “a new method, idea, product, etc.” Its example: technological innovations designed to save energy.

On first blush, that example seems terribly inadequate, or perhaps way too specific. Then again, as I write this, maybe it’s completely appropriate. We’re talking about legal departments here, and departments are under constant pressure to shave costs, to do more with less—to save energy, as it were.

Our winners this year certainly do that. Part of the impetus comes from corporate dictates. Companies are always demanding that their departments squeeze every penny from their budget, get more value, and do more. Legal departments are, by and large, cost centers. Necessary cost centers, but often costly ones in our litigious society. The other part comes from the types of lawyers that thrive in corporate settings. We can comfortably call them process wonks. They love to streamline; they love to come up with automated procedure. They like to save energy—not just to spend less, but the conserve mental energy for important tasks.

So we have our winners, 10 fine, smart departments that think deeply about what they do and how they can improve it.

A few short examples (you can turn the page and read the complete stories). Archer Daniels Midland Co. builds custom apps for its clients, to routinize and automate, so that lawyers can concentrate on legal matters. The apps provide transparency, so that ADM’s employees can see where contracts are, who’s signed what, how their projects are doing. They don’t have to bother their in-house attorneys for simple matters.

The Hartford’s lawyers realized early on that digital work was moving to mobile devices and changed their workflow accordingly. They know how people work in the field; rather than fear new technology, they embraced it.

Did anyone mention apps? Ford Motor Co.’s lawyers wanted to spead the compliance word. And rather than forcing employees to sit at a desktop computer to watch a bunch of canned videos, with questions afterward, they came up with a smartphone app. Employees can find answers to their questions whether they’re in the office or working with a supplier in Brazil.

Ford calls its app “The Right Way.” And we applaud it, and efforts like it in this year’s roundup of thoughtful people making their workplaces work better. And often, work right. Turn the page to find out.

ADM’s customized solutions mean legal can sweat the complex stuff

Archer Daniels Midland Co. casts its seeds widely. An $81 billion agricultural company, “ADM has facilities in thousands of locations in more than 140 countries,” says David Cambria, global director of operations for legal, compliance and government relations.

“Our challenge is serving a globally dispersed set of clients on a wide array of legal issues with varying degrees of risk,” he says. “Some of the issues are very complex and unique, as we move food around the world in an ever-changing political landscape. For example, the rules recently changed on whether we could send grain to Ukraine—with almost no notice.”

Much of this work is straightforward. Rote, even. “The trick is figuring out how to focus on the truly complex and strategic issues, while still delivering on everyday legal needs,” Cambria says.

To that end, “we have asked our clients to interact with the legal department in a way that allows us to quickly get the information we need, so we can deliver advice in programmatic way more quickly and efficiently—or realize that the issue is too complex and act accordingly,” he said. “Put another way, we have figured out how to share the lawyers’ knowledge across offices in a way that’s timely to the client and scalable for the law department.”

That entailed identifying repetitive tasks like nondisclosure agreements, disclosure of inventions and shipping claims.

“Second, we built custom components and apps tailored to the different business needs, which allow employees, vendors and clients to operationalize these types of tasks. In some case, such as NDAs, there is an element of self-service. If the need matches the requirements for the standard NDA, the client need not interface with the legal department at all. For other matters, such as shipping claims, the interface is a form that provides Legal with all the information we need, allowing us to follow up only if necessary.”

Finally, the platform is easy to use, featuring a web portal, a link and email. “Usually, the employees don’t even realize they are in the law department’s system.”

Cambria is pleased with the results.

“Our clients get served faster. Standard NDAs take seconds. Even when the legal department gets involved, cycle time is much quicker because the key issues are isolated automatically,” he says.

“Our clients get improved visibility. Clients have dashboards; they can always see where their request is, who’s approved it and get an instant status report. The general counsel and law department operations team also has more visibility, with snapshot views of project completion rates, status, cycle time and more. All this was previously buried in emails.”

The system frees ADM’s lawyers to concentrate on more complicated and strategic problems, Cambria says. “And the company benefits by better policy compliance, as more issues are handled properly and get legal review when necessary.”

Above: David Cambria, Global Director of Operations for Legal, Compliance and Government Relations

The Hartford embraces technology of the mobile kind

The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. has embraced mobile technology for use by employees and customers. But the legal department isn’t blind to the risk these devices present.

What if proprietary or customers’ private data are lost or stolen? What rights do users hold to data these devices generate? How to make sure employees follow company guidelines, and to respond if the worst happens and these data are breached?

“For a highly regulated company in the insurance and financial services space like The Hartford, the stakes are high,” says David Cunningham, vice president and assistant general counsel. “How does a highly regulated company support a volume and variety of strategic initiative requests that involve new technology, including mobile innovations?”

The Hartford, an $18.6 billion company, early this year devised a mobile risk-identification and mitigation program. The aim is to gather proposals to use new technology, including mobile tools, in a central database where stakeholders including the department’s 160 lawyers can track them and assess potential risks. The process, Cunningham says, can take “anywhere from a day to two weeks.”

The tool allows the company to keep records of proposals, guiding employees to fill in required information, including the names of key administrators and legal and compliance overseers.

The tool notifies members of the legal department and other stakeholders of each proposal, including those named in the request, and provides a central “rallying point” where they can share information, Cunningham says.

Next comes a gathering of those stakeholders.

“The meeting is highly interactive and engaging, enabling the requesting team to offer live demos, as well as field questions and challenges from the key stakeholders regarding various facets of the request, all in order to best identify and assess key risks associated with the request,” he says.

“With a customizable dashboard that reflects the most current status and input from each stakeholder, a requestor, its team and the enterprise can view the current status and details of any request in real time,” Cunningham continues. “Once each stakeholder marks its risk assessment and mitigation measures as complete, the risk assessment becomes a component part of the record as a whole and an executive summary is produced.”

This document is a digital file that memorializes the process and is available for viewing via the central database.

Cunningham judges the initiative “a complete success.”

“It allows project sponsors of employee technology to efficiently identify and mitigate legal risks in a one-stop-shop solution where all the risks and mitigation steps are properly documented,” he says. “The overall legal review time has been streamlined and substantially reduced.”

Among the projects already approved are mobile hot spots for company field representatives, customers and the public in disaster areas; guidelines to allow employees to securely use personal mobile devices on the job; and a “show and tell” tool that lets customers and claims representatives report and assess damage in real time, speeding the claims process.

Moreover, the department “has created an important database repository of documented legal risk mitigation solutions that can be searched and leveraged in future risk assessments,” Cunningham says. “The MRI methodology and tool has allowed those new technologies to be implemented faster and with substantially reduced legal risk.”

Above: David Smith, Assistant Vice President and Counsel (LEFT) and David Cunningham, Vice President & Assistant General Counsel (RIGHT)

Ford spreads the word on ethics “The Right Way”—with an app

The challenge for Ford Motor Co.’s legal compliance office was this: How to communicate ethics policies and expectations to 187,000 employees across the world? Or, as compliance director Raphael Richmond puts it, “How can our compliance and ethics program cut through the clutter and guide employees to choices that are compatible with Ford’s corporate ethos?”

The answer was a phone app. The office released its “The Right Way” application for iPhone and Android phones in March, following a six-month development collaboration with the information technology group and beta testing by 300 employees in different jobs and locations across the world. Thousands of employees have since downloaded the app, and Ford plans an upgrade featuring translations into the languages spoken at its facilities.

The idea was to provide ethical guidance to employees when they need it, wherever they are—“literally at their fingertips,” using “a tool that brings the scattered masses together: mobile phones,” Richmond says.

“The app includes brief, easy-to-use summaries of key policies, and FAQs that help employees identify and avoid potential pitfalls,” she says. “The app includes a decision tree with a ‘Can I…?’ function that provides answers to some of the most commonly asked questions with just a few clicks of the dropdown menu.”

It also includes an email function allowing workers to pose questions quickly to the compliance office—and to report wrongdoing.

“Ethics challenges, after all, often arrive when employees are out in the world rather than sitting at their desks,” Richmond says. “The advantage of our app is to allow our employees to find answers wherever and whenever they need them.”

The compliance office comprises a dozen attorneys—six in corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, the rest monitoring operations overseas. The broader legal department has more than 200 attorneys.

“The app progresses Ford’s philosophy of ‘less-effort compliance,’ by making it as easy as possible for employees to do the right thing and more difficult to go outside the bounds and do something we might all regret,” Richmond says.

Above: Key members of Ford Motor Company’s legal team

Gordon Food Service gives workers a self-service portal for legal needs

Gordon Food Service Inc. is the largest family-owned food distribution company in the country, competing with giants like Sysco Corp. And to oversee the legal needs of the sprawling business? A four-member legal department.

“Providing training on legal issues in a fast paced environment proved challenging,” general counsel Alisha Cieslak says. “Additionally, with 24 locations and divisions across U.S. and Canada, with a small team, we couldn’t be everywhere at once in a reasonable timeline without incurring additional cost in travel and external counsel fees for work we couldn’t manage while out of the office.”

The $7.7 billion outfit, headquartered in Wyoming, Michigan, distributes food, ingredients and beverages to restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions. And it operates a network of wholesale stores.

Cieslak’s team devised a legal service center website—“a self-service portal where people can access five-minute YouTube-style videos, as well as voice-over PowerPoints, forms and templates, slideshows and other interactive media,” she says.

Workers can use the platform 24-hours a day, from anywhere. That means less lawyer involvement in what Cieslak calls “easy tasks” like standard-form nondisclosure agreements.

She reports “a steady traffic flow to the site where individual clients have been able to learn about various legal topics at their convenience without experiencing business drag or delays.

Above: General Counsel Alisha Cieslak

Marsh & McLennan get social when the department chooses outside counsel

Yelp is a fine way to choose a butcher shop or bistro to visit on Friday night. At Marsh & McLennan Cos., the legal department uses a similar platform—presumably minus the trolls—to hire outside counsel.

The project was part of the solution to two big challenges facing Marsh, a $12.9 billion international insurance brokerage, says Allison Brecher, senior litigation counsel and director for information management and strategy.

“Our global legal department needed a cost-effective way to collaborate and share documents and other information,” she says. And it needed “a way to better manage contracts and improve efficiency in handling contract matters for our businesses.”

The legal department comprises 250 people, including 175 lawyers. They devised an intranet featuring social media and other tools to help its lawyers collaborate. Second, “we created a self-service portal for lower-level risk engagements with playbooks and FAQs that allow colleagues to handle contract negotiations without involving the legal department.”

“Our attorneys and support staff have made our intranet a daily part of their work,” Brecher says. “We routinely share templates, research memos, CLE videos from outside counsel and more. We have discussion boards where attorneys can pose questions to others in the department, an interactive directory to find colleagues with subject-matter expertise in certain areas, and we even created a ‘Yelp’ for our department where we review and rate outside counsel and other providers.

These tools have proven “remarkably successful,” Brecher said.

“Traffic on the legal department area of our global company website has increased over 400 percent since we launched these tools. This also allows our attorneys to devote more time focusing on higher value and more complex work.”

Above: Allison Brecher, Senior Litigation Counsel and Director for Information Management and Strategy

Silicon Valley Bank: They went global by fine-tuning processes and using one portal

Silicon Valley Bank needs to stay as nimble as its customers in its namesake high-technology hub—which gets complicated, considering the bank does business around the world. But when the in-house lawyers began to streamline its document flow, they discovered the bank’s internal documents were sometimes obsolete.

“Eliminating these sections required legal- and business-team input to ensure that their removal did not elevate risk or cause any business interruption,” senior counsel Rafael Petrone says. “The prospect of reviewing hundreds of different forms across multiple business units promised to be a heavy drain on resources.”

The bank, headquartered in Santa Clara, California, controls $42 billion in assets and operates in high-tech centers internationally. Overseeing its activities is a legal department with 18 people, including 15 lawyers.

The answer was an organized workflow to scrutinize those documents.

“The workflow prompts the business unit that uses the form to provide key factual inputs that track to assumptions set forth in external counsel’s guidance, Petrone says. “From there, the workflow routes to the attorney who covers the business to provide targeted legal analysis based on the inputs provided by the business team. Finally, the workflow routes to our form-development team, indicating that they can remove the provision and archive the input from the business team and Legal.”

Attorneys document everything.

“The decision to remove a section from each form is archived along with the business and legal inputs upon which the decision was based,” he says. “The archive will help provide context to our auditors and regulators should they inquire about our revised forms and procedures. It has also increased the efficiency of the legal team, the business teams we support and our operations teams.”

A second project entailed development of an extranet to tighten coordination with the law firms working on the bank’s international business. They now go to a single source for the information and documents they need.

“Given our increasing globalization, including in China, Hong Kong, Israel, the U.K. and E.U., the Cayman Islands as well as the Americas, we were in danger of being overwhelmed with requests by phone and email from our counsel who need information, documents and guidance on a 24/7 basis,” assistant general counsel Stephan Eberle says.

“We developed a secure extranet, managed through our company’s website, which enables our legal team members to upload current template documents for transactions across all our geographies, communicate with our counsel relating to our business practices and strategies, deliver training materials for our counsel to use to train their team members as well as train our company’s business team members,” he says.

“This has enabled the legal team to be more efficient in how we manage counsel, enabling us to deliver critical materials and communicate with all of our transaction counsel through one core website. This has helped the legal team coordinate internally and externally better than [they could] prior to launching the site. It has also helped us create consistency in how our outside counsel approach key business issues during the documentation and negotiation process.”

Above: Key members of Silicon Valley Bank’s legal team

To streamline, Discover’s lawyers detail their jobs and focus

Discover Financial Services is best known for the Discover credit card, but the $9.6 billion company also provides direct banking services, including student and personal loans and mortgages. The legal department needed a streamlined, yet comprehensive, way to advise the business units about complicated and constantly evolving banking, operational and public company oversight.

The 105-member department focused on three approaches, according to a joint statement by David Oppenheim, vice president and assistant general counsel, and Suzanne Smits, vice president for legal risk. It was a multiyear process.

“We had to redefine roles and responsibilities in a way that did not create redundancy or inefficiencies,” they say. “We had to obtain buy-in and support both from within the law department and externally from our colleagues in other departments.”

First, the team identified and documented the company’s legal and regulatory obligations in detail, aiming for transparency and clarity. Second, it assigned responsibility for overseeing those legal requirements to appropriate business units and risk committees. Third, it wrote uniform legal-risk statements for each business, detailing potential exposure and unifying the risk-reporting process business-wide.

Additionally, the department created a “center of excellence” that provides subject-matter legal expertise and a coordinated approach to risk. The center monitors legal task forces intended to foster collaboration and information sharing between departments.

“We adjusted course throughout the process and considered contingency plans to ensure we achieved our vision for success,” Oppenheim and Smits say.

“The ongoing legal-risk program establishes clearer, well defined connections between legal requirements, business units and management oversight. This allows us to better respond to the evolving legal and regulatory environment. The center of excellence enhances our ability to optimize legal risk management for high-risk areas of law that affects multiple lines of business.”

They add: “Innovation requires a willingness to take risks and the perseverance to keep moving forward no matter the challenges.”

The Gates Foundation creates a portal to measurable progress

Bill Gates didn’t become a billionaire by throwing away money. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation takes pains to measure results and share good ideas generated by its grantees and partners.

To that end, the foundation requires them “to commit to making the products and information generated by foundation funding widely available at an affordable price, in sufficient volume, at a level of quality and in a time frame that benefits the people we’re trying to help,” says Connie Collingsworth, who as the foundation’s general counsel presides over a 32-member legal department that includes 23 lawyers.

The foundation, with an endowment of $41.3 billion, calls this concept “Global Access,” and it includes management of intellectual property arising from those education, health and development programs.

Keeping track of all of that information, naturally, became complicated as the foundation grew.

“We challenge partners to formulate their own sustainable strategies to ensure achievement of Global Access,” Collingsworth says. “The end result was often highly nuanced histories known only to the individuals involved. This has the potential to lead to a lack of institutional knowledge and the inability to view the foundation’s Global Access commitments in the aggregate, and the associated lost opportunities to recognize trends, learn from challenges and increase efficiencies.”

Also naturally, the foundation hit upon a tech solution—a portal to replace the static Word template foundation partners used to submit proposals and reports. Launched in September 2014, it connects to the foundation’s internal IP management system—“a cloud-based solution traditionally used in tech transfer offices, but highly customized for the foundation’s unique needs,” Collingsworth says. The system eases communications and allows “cross-foundation aggregation and reporting.”

The benefits are manifest.

“For our partners, the portal increases efficiency by providing a collaborative space that only asks applicable questions and provides the ability to quickly update past responses as needed for ongoing reporting,” she says. “The connected internal IP management system is providing a lens to look beyond the Global Access commitments of individual investments and will help preserve valuable institutional knowledge and highlight opportunities for improvement.”

Above: General Counsel Connie Collingsworth

AEP: Automating the future

For large corporations like American Electric Power Co. Inc., tracking monthly expenses can be a nightmare. Columbus, Ohio-based AEP, with 2014 revenues of $17 billion, is one of the largest power generating and distribution companies in the United States.

“On a monthly basis, companies are required to gather information about spend for that month over a certain value that will not be billed until a future month,” said Julie Richer, technology program director in AEP’s legal 80-member legal department.

“This is a manual, time-consuming process for many, but is vital to the budgeting process of companies,” she says. “Many companies today are still managing this process on spreadsheets. On a monthly basis, accruals from corporate legal departments are in the millions, so accurately tracking the dollars is critical to the overall corporate forecasting and budgeting process.”

AEP devised an automated accrual matching process for its matter management and electronic-billing system that reduced the manual work.

“The standard invoices that are submitted now automatically match to previously submitted accruals when appropriate, which allows for quick searches to be run to identify which accruals are still pending, rather than manual invoice matching and comparing,” Richer says.

“Reports have been created that allow us to track vendors who have not submitted accruals but should have, as well as an over-under report that reflects how far off vendors were with their accruals,” she says. “These reports help AEP ensure vendors are following our accruals process and taking care with what they submit as their accrual so we have better budget forecast information n for management and accounts payable.”

Above: David M. Feinberg, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, American Electric Power

Target’s lawyers boost productivity by targeting specific cases that need help

Target Corp.’s legal team was being squeezed—outside counsel costs were rising, but the budget was not. In fact, there was pressure to reduce spending.

So the team built a WAL—a workload allocation list. It is, says Sheila Thompson, senior group manager for law operations and strategy, “a simple, yet creative, way of increasing the output of the law department, while providing development opportunities for attorneys and other legal staff.”

The $72.6 billion company is the No. 2 discount retailer in the United States, operating nearly 1,800 stores and offering it’s own credit card. The legal department comprises 130 people; the company headquarters is in Minneapolis.

Practice groups with heavy workloads can post projects on a SharePoint-based table list. Staff with experience or an interest in a legal area, and who are willing to put in extra hours, can sign up—“often with minimal oversight by the submitting attorney,” Thompson says.

“These short-term projects build bench strength, encourage development of staff and promote knowledge-sharing and socialization across the department while reducing work that would otherwise be sent to outside counsel,” she says.

Some groups have been slow to embracing the concept, but “those that have used the tool have found their practice groups to be better positioned to manage increasing workload,” Thompson says.

“Paralegals have been perhaps the greatest beneficiary, as they have taken on more interesting and challenging assignments while expanding their knowledge and their profile across the department as attorneys recognize their levels of skill and talent.”

Above: Key members of Target Corporation’s legal team