Law departments that use workflow automation to complete manual, repetitive tasks can become more efficient and improve their overall operational excellence
Operational excellence includes the disciplined approach to getting work done, so that completing tasks become faster, smarter, and more efficient. In this installment of In Practice, Rose Ors, CEO of ClientSmart, spoke with Emily Teuben, Senior Director of Legal Operations at Paypal, about how workflow automation uses process and technology to automate certain types of work that traditionally has been done by lawyers and other legal professionals.
Rose Ors: Let’s define “workflow” and “workflow automation.”
Emily Teuben: A workflow is a sequence of steps involved in taking a piece of work from initiation to completion. Workflow automation puts that repeatable, manual process into an automated system that delineates what steps must be taken, who performs those steps, and how the work can be performed as efficiently as possible. The system identifies where a particular item is in the process, provides reporting on the work completed, and serves as a centralized repository for related documentation. Workflow automation simplifies the process and provides consistency in how the process is performed.
Rose Ors: How do you decide what legal workflows to automate?
Emily Teuben: Although there are no set criteria, high-volume, low-risk workflows usually are the first candidates for automation. Beyond that, any process that is repeatable is a good candidate, especially if it involves email approvals, manual spreadsheets to track forms, or the same standard questions being asked every time.
Rose Ors: Is there some work in which the risk is too high to automate?
Emily Teuben: I wouldn’t say so. I have automated some very complex workflows involving high-risk and sensitive information. Of course, those applications demanded stringent controls over the system and information security.
Rose Ors: How do you start?
Emily Teuben: We ask everyone involved to describe the manual process today. Who performs what steps? Who are the users who interact with the process? What information do you see? What happens to a document before it reaches your desk and after it leaves? I’ve found it helpful to provide users with a list of questions they need to answer before automating.
Understanding the current process is necessary, but you never want to automate an inefficient process. You want to improve the workflow before you automate it. That involves identifying common errors, bottlenecks, and other pain points. For example, if the manual process requires sending constant email reminders to get X done, that headache can be relieved by having the system send automated reminders at specified intervals.
Rose Ors: What are the benefits of workflow automation?
Emily Teuben: Workflow automation transforms the way we approach legal work. It takes the noise off of our legal team members’ plates and frees them to focus on higher-value work. Automation also typically shortens cycle times and often increases collaboration by providing transparency and visibility into each step of the workflow, making it easier for individuals and teams to work together.
Workflow automation also reduces the legal department’s workload by providing self-service solutions that users of our services can employ without the legal team’s involvement. When work goes to the legal department, the legal team has all the critical information it needs because the automated system immediately provides it.
Rose Ors: What are examples of workflows that benefit from automation?
Emily Teuben: Contract formation and review is a prime example. NDAs [Non-disclosure agreements] are contracts that fall into the high-volume, low-risk category. Automating them reduces the cycle time from creation through approval, and they can be a good starting point for people to begin visualizing how they can leverage technology to their benefit.
When I was at NetApp, we increased our efficiency and service quality by rolling out a contract management system that automatically alerted our sales team and us 90 days before a contract expired. The automated alert system replaced a time-consuming manual process that required inputting each contract into a spreadsheet and periodically tracking expiration dates and other critical data. Automation made the process faster and far more reliable and accurate. The 90-day notification also eliminated the risk of continuing to do business without having a valid contract. Similarly, the 90-day window gave us time to evaluate the pros and cons of renewing or revising our agreements before they expired.
Yet, contracts are just the tip of the iceberg — any manual process is a great candidate for automation. Compliance approvals, travel approvals, matter intake processes, M&A disclosure notifications, and escrow sweeps can all be automated.
Rose Ors: What hurdles do you encounter in adopting workflow automation, and how do you overcome them?
Emily Teuben: Change management is everything in legal operations. First and foremost, we need to understand with whom we’re working and communicate “what’s in it for them.” Why does this matter? How will this improve their day-to-day? How will this help up-level their work so they can focus on the most complex legal issues rather than the daily voluminous tasks that come across their desk?
Workflow automation transforms the way we approach legal work. It takes the noise off of our legal team members’ plates and frees them to focus on higher-value work.
What we do first is communicate with people early and often. As I previously mentioned, we start by asking everyone involved what the process is today, their pain points, and what problems we’re trying to solve. Seeking their input gives them a sense of ownership while identifying possible improvements and starts them focusing on the benefits of changing the process.
Before rolling out a new automated system, however, it must undergo User Acceptance Testing. This testing gives the users insight into exactly how the process is changing and how it will improve. It also gives them a unique opportunity to provide feedback and identify where the process can be further enhanced before we go live. Those who offer positive feedback can become evangelists for the project within their group.
Rose Ors: How do you quantify the benefits of workflow automation?
Emily Teuben: Before starting workflow automation, it’s helpful to have metrics quantifying the volume of work performed, how long it takes to do that work, and who is doing it. This is much easier said than done, as many of these processes are fully manual. That said, it’s okay to put metrics together based on anecdotes if that’s all you have. Something is better than nothing. Comparing those metrics after the workflow has been automated determines how successful a project was and that can help shape future projects.
We remind people regularly that they won’t always see “hard savings” from automating workflows. The goal of workflow automation is not headcount reduction. The goal is to allow the legal team to focus on impactful legal work. However, there should be “soft savings” as the legal team increases the number of matters it handles without increasing headcount.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a legal department beginning its workflow automation journey?
Emily Teuben: Just start. The best way to learn is to get hands-on experience with the technology and the experience of redesigning a process. Choose a single manual workflow as a pilot to test the initiative. Starting with a single process allows you to get exposure to the technology, learn what works and what doesn’t, and enables you to iron out the kinks before rolling it out to the larger organization.
The goal is to get a quick win, refine and standardize your protocols, and apply them to the next automation challenge.