Jason Atchley : Corporate Law : Six Ways for GCs to Do More With Less

Jason Atchley

6 Ways for GCs to Do More With Less

From the Experts

Christine Helwick, Corporate Counsel

February 12, 2014, 01:11 PM    |0 Comments
The legal department in every organization is being asked to do more with less. Below is a checklist of six practices employed in a university general counsel’s office that may be helpful to make your office more cost effective:

1. Regularize the Routine

Common questions that come up repeatedly consume precious time that could be used by attorneys more productively elsewhere. That wasted time can be recaptured if clients become accustomed to consulting a manual, handbook, form, FAQ sheet or other resource with information that responds to these common issues. Preferably posted on an intranet, where it can be accessed any time day or night, the responsive information can also include broader background about the subject matter to educate the clients more deeply and help them understand the reasons for the responses. Clients can return to this information over and over again, as questions recur and responses are forgotten. Of course, the website should also remind clients that they are welcome to pursue more complex questions directly with the legal department. But this practice will ensure that follow-up questions are more deserving of attorney time. Getting clients trained to refer to the general counsel’s website as first resource for most legal issues will not only save time, but allow the website to develop into a broader communication tool.

2. Encourage the Office Network

All legal offices store information for future use, whether in hard copy or an electronic matter management system. These systems can be great references when the same legal issues arise in different contexts. But no matter how carefully created and indexed, old-fashioned office networking should never be underestimated as an additional means to access information quickly. The lunch dates or hallway conversations in which attorneys casually share with each other the projects they are working on, or emails circulated throughout the office such as, “Has anyone dealt with ___?” are practices that should be encouraged, as they can sometimes provide quicker access than researching the files. If not, of course, the traditional files are always still available.
Encouraging the office network also builds a broader spirit of generosity, where attorneys become true colleagues and are willing to assist each other in their work. This spirit can be broadened, and individual attorneys formally assigned responsibility for particular topics; they can then become the office specialists, relied upon to keep the office current as new developments arise. Collaboration inevitably improves the overall office work product and also results in greater office efficiency.

3. Protect the Office Mission

There is a temptation in every organization to “borrow” the lawyers for nonlegal work. It happens for a lot of understandable reasons—the lawyers are smart, they are respected, they are efficient and logical, they are good writers and/or they lack turf. Sometimes it is efficient and useful. Often it is not, and instead is the product of individual lawyers making decisions about their own work boundaries, wanting to be liked or not trusting those to whom the work is assigned to do it “right.”
Lawyers can end up doing many tasks that are better done by employees with lesser training—e.g., investigations, minor administrative hearings, performance reviews, disciplinary charges, government forms and so on. It is in the best interest of the office to have systems in place to monitor work assignments to protect the office mission, and to make certain that lawyers are only “borrowed” when it is useful and meets the highest-priority goals of the organization.

4. Make Training Strategic

Proactive training of the workforce is important and one of the functions of the general counsel’s office. No matter how important the subject matter, however, when it is provided gratuitously across-the-board to all employees, it is rarely useful. Carefully assessing where the weaknesses that could profit from targeted training are within the organization will not only save time, but will be more effective and appreciated by clients. Of course, it needs to be presented in a supportive and helpful way, and not experienced as punitive.
Once the audience and subject matter are identified, the time necessary to plan the training, however, cannot be shortchanged. Every meaningful training requires significant advance planning and usually calls for skills that lawyers did not learn in law school—e.g., working interactively with an audience, preparing captivating visuals or even being funny. Talking heads are generally a flop. Videotaping an effective training for future use may help recoup some of this necessary preparation time.

5. Develop Litigation Strategies Early

Litigation can only be cost-effective where there is a big-picture strategy developed at the outset, when the facts are fresh and the relevant players are still available. It is important to set aside time to do this, as soon as the complaint comes in, rather than allowing the case to lapse into the myriad legal activities that can feel like progress but don’t genuinely advance the case.
The most important issue to be addressed at the outset is whether the desired endgame is trial or settlement. The activity in the case will be different, depending on the intended goal. Most cases settle, in which case there is no advantage to delay. An immediate phone call or letter can sometimes surprisingly end a dispute before it even gets off the ground. Where motions or discovery work are necessary to improve the settlement environment, or get the plaintiff to the table, they should still be strategic and selective. A partial deposition, for example, starting in the middle and skipping over the full chronological development of facts, may be enough to get the necessary information; it can always be completed later, if that becomes necessary. An early mediation may help shape the plaintiff’s expectations, even if it does not settle the case in the first round. Many summary judgment motions can be filed long before all of the discovery is complete.
The initial choice of strategy may need revision as the case unfolds, but without a clear focus and an intended goal at the outset, litigation will always meander, cost more and produce a less satisfactory result.

6. Make Maximum Use of Office Paralegals

With technology, today’s secretaries can do much of what used to be considered paralegal work. Similarly, today’s paralegals can do some of what used to be considered the lawyers’ work. Paralegals can certainly perform the traditional tasks of retrieving and organizing documents. With a little training, most can also interview witnesses, develop written factual statements, dispense routine advice, draft preliminary opinions, write letters, prepare routine motions and keep the general counsel’s website up to date. Under supervision, paralegals can even be assigned full responsibility for office response in a particular subject area.
They should not be limited just to litigation assistance tasks. It can be an interesting (and sometimes surprising) exercise to ask a paralegal what additional work s/he believes s/he can take on to save the lawyers’ time. Making good use of office paralegals on every project will inevitably save lawyer time that can be used elsewhere.
The pressure on the general counsel’s office to be more productive, and contribute meaningfully to the bottom line, is not likely to subside any time soon. These six practices can contribute to trimming costs by ensuring that the time and talent of the lawyers is used most effectively.
Christine Helwick is of counsel at Hirschfeld Kraemer in California and former general counsel for the California State University system. She can be reached at CHelwick@hkemploymentlaw.com or via the firm’s website.

Read more: http://www.corpcounsel.com/id=1202642692393/6-Ways-for-GCs-to-Do-More-With-Less#ixzz2tDqyGpXm

Posted by at 11:05 AM 

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