Julian Benefield: Managing the low value and high volume work through legal innovation
LawFest organiser Andrew King talks to Julian Benefield on how Foodstuffs’ legal team tackle their challenges by implementing successful innovation initiatives.
LawFest organiser Andrew King continues a series of interviews with key legal professionals with their innovation and technology stories.
I have just been internally promoted into the role of General Counsel and Company Secretary and Head of the Legal Team at Foodstuffs (or 'Foodies'). In the role of GC I will be responsible for the delivery of Legal, Company Secreterial and Governance functions of the Co-operative. Foodstuffs is the Kiwi Supermarket Co-op behind iconic NZ grocery brands New World, Four Square and PAK'nSAVE. I have worked for Foodstuffs for the past 7 years, although I actually started working for Foodies as a teenager at the local supermarket growing up in Taupo. I started out my legal career at Bell Gully and then worked overseas at major law-firms and in-house at international tech companies.
Like most NZ in-house legal teams, we have an increasing workload with generally the same level of legal resources. This is for several reasons including a growing business and increasing complexity with our business and the external environment (e.g. regulatory, COVID, supply chain challenges), and due to the increasing profile of our team within the business. We are also increasingly seeing our assistance or work needing to be delivered urgently. This increases pressure on team members and it also means we spend less time on more impactful strategic work which is where the Legal Team can add the most value for our Co-op.
For the past few years we have been coming up with ways to try and cut through our workloads and do things differently. We have been particularly focussed on identifying lower value high volume, repeatable work which we can eliminate, minimise or automate. After some trial and error, we have managed to implement some successful innovation initiatives - including reducing some of the lower value work coming into the team, and automating hundreds of low value high volume contracts (e.g. NDAs and services contracts). This contract automation that we have delivered on has saved us over 300 hours of time in the Legal Team - allowing our lawyers to spend that time on more valuable/strategic work. These successful automation projects have now given us the momentum to start 3 more valuable and complex contract automation projects, as well as a trialling matter management/data collection tools and the launch of a CLM solution.
We could have got more momentum faster if we broke things down into manageable chunks from the start and took a more iterative approach. We started out by targeting bigger more complex projects initially but struggled to make progress - and so after some 'stop-starts' we decided to change our approach. By breaking things down into smaller, more manageable chunks - such as an NDA automation trial - it would've enabled us to get some runs on the board and momentum. This helps show the legal team that what you are doing is worthwhile and it motivates you to do more. It also helps demonstrate the value of legal innovation to the wider business - getting you more 'buy-in' that you can leverage to target the larger and more complex initiatives.
Although the Foodies Legal team were progressing legal innovation initiatives prior to COVID-19, the pandemic has resulted in a faster take up of some of our initiatives, such as electronic signing. Usage of NDA automation by business stakeholders within Foodstuffs has also increased during COVID-19 given prevalence of remote working. To me this means the opportunities and benefits of legal innovation have grown as a result of the pandemic.
To me, the focus on legal innovation should be on the problem you are trying to solve for your organisation and not necessarily the technology - for example increasing productivity by automating a high volume repeatable process, or reducing workloads. It is not always tech which solves that problem, but in many cases legal tech has some fantastic advantages to help Legal Teams innovate and be more strategic and impactful for their organisations. Contract automation technology can help you automate all or a substantial part of high volume common contracts such as NDAs, services agreements or SOWs. Contract Lifecycle Management solutions can significantly improve an organisation's governance of contracts and contract revenue; and In-House Legal Operations software can enable Legal Team to get valuable data on the productivity of their team, improve matter management and legal workflow/intake.
I see alternative legal service providers (such as Juno) continuing to grow as in-house legal teams want senior legal resource but flexibly or on a project basis. These alternative legal providers will also continue to be attractive for external lawyers who want to work more flexibly or experience a greater variety of projects. I also see the need for all in-house legal teams to increase their use of legal technology and innovation, as teams will likely need to deal with increasing workloads with the same or less resource (which can also impact the mental health and stress of in-house lawyers). Legal tech, automation and innovation enables you to use your finite resource more effectively, helps you cut through workloads to reduce the feel of ‘overwhelm’ – and enables your legal team members to spend more of their time on strategic, higher value and more impactful work.