New Zealand Law Society - To automate or not automate legal in-house? That is the question

To automate or not automate legal in-house? That is the question

To automate or not automate legal in-house? That is the question

Foodstuffs’, New Zealand’s hundred-year-old grocery Co-op, provides insights on their journey to automate in-house legal. And LawTalk asks LawVu, a New Zealand-developed software platform for automating in-house legal teams, how their product approaches the challenge.

When Mike Brooker, General Counsel at Foodstuffs – New Zealand’s hundred-year-old, kiwi-founded grocery co-op – began to think of automation of parts of their in-house legal function, it was three years ago. The process has taken quite some time. But it’s been worth it. And the journey is not yet done.

The in-house team of seven (four lawyers plus one Juno lawyer) is now on the way to tackling larger parts of the business’ legal services, having realised considerable success thus far.

Mike and offsider Julian Benefield, Associate General Counsel, say Foodstuffs realised some time ago that they had “less than perfect systems” for dealing with contracts.

Mike Brooker

“Foodstuffs deals in a huge number of contracts,” says Mike. “Some of them are quite significant in scale.”

They looked for a way to streamline and make those activities more efficient.

“We were looking to get the absolute most efficiency out of a legal team,” says Mike.

“It was about identifying where a small team can be made more efficient, essentially augmenting our capacity and allowing us to spend more time on more valuable things,” says Julian.

They chose to focus on some of the least complex documents to automate, where there was less requirement for negotiation with third parties, and therefore less need for bespoke solutions. They also looked for documents that were high volume and repeatable in order to realise the benefits.

Non-disclosure agreements provided a simple opportunity, and they seized it.

“It was about focusing on those documents and transactions where there is sufficient volume to justify the work in actually setting up the automatic processes,” says Julian.

The result has been that more than 300 non-disclosure agreements have been automated; and (later) over 100 service agreements from the property team have been.

“These agreements are relatively simple and before being automated they would take 30 minutes to an hour or longer of drafting and discussion, when you include the backwards and forwards internally and externally,” says Julian. “If you extrapolate that out over 300 – 400 times, it’s a significant time saving for the legal team. By automating this, it means we spend that time doing more valuable things.”

Choosing a vendor

While it is technically possible to get off-the-shelf software, Mike says they chose LawHawk, a New Zealand company that they felt would focus on understanding the problem before they found the solution. LawHawk, both Mike and Julian agree, understands legal department needs and legal technology.

For document automation, the team originally looked at HotDocs. They rejected it because it only permitted the legal team to fill in the template, which defeated the purpose of what they wanted to do. In conjunction with LawHawk, they chose U.S. based Cognito Forms.

Julian Benefield

Essentially, they created their own template form, to be filled in by users who would proceed through a few steps. By restricting fields and what could be changed, by providing instructions and descriptions, users could guide themselves through these simple documents. Foodstuffs had to work out the things within the template that could be changed. They had to develop ‘automation flow’ on the Foodies intranet site, so all questions that should be asked, were asked. The descriptions provided to users, and instructions, had to be framed and thought through. Plain English and user-friendly instructions for business users were a cornerstone. Once the form was completed, and a PDF was generated, the legal department had to provide instructions on where to send it, and what to do with it when it came back – where to file it so the legal team could find it.

Both agree that it was hard work, but worth it in the end.

“Because the template is pre-approved, and the automation means that business stakeholders can’t change anything we don’t want changed without coming to the legal team for advice, it’s very efficient and we can manage risk appropriately.” Says Julian.

Onto bigger things

The team has also looked at putting in place automation of other contracts and implementing a contract management tool, in terms of holding, managing and scheduling renewals for key contracts – the ‘full life cycle of the contract’, they say.

In a process Mike says is “all starting to link together”, they have been moving down the path of electronic approvals, internal approvals, electronic signing. The first leg of that was creating appropriate internal policies and education.

“Over time we’ve put in place processes where contracts go through a number of steps of approval, whether that’s the manager of the contract, their GM, then the CFO, then legal and finally the CEO,” he says. “A lot of that in the past was done in a paper form on the front of the contract and it was walked around the room. With automation and use of legal tech, we can do that electronically. It travels from one party to the next, as soon as approvals are given. If people haven’t signed within a period of time, it sends out reminders and can escalate those. It makes things very efficient.”

“It used to be all paper based,” Mike emphasises. “A lot of (the contracts) hit my desk and I’d literally get a foot deep of paper and have to wade through it physically. Now, it comes to me electronically. I get a message saying: ‘this document has been approved by so-and-so’. I put my electronic signature on it, and it’s off to the next person who has to sign. In Covid-19 times, this has been like we’re all in the same room at the same time. It’s a game-changer.”

The audit trail is worth its weight in gold, and storage of digital documents is space and cost saving.

“It’s safe, and it’s easily retrieved,” says Mike. “The system is reliable. You know when you’re pulling out a document it’s final.”

A strategy for innovation

A key piece of advice from both Mike and Julian is: have a plan to innovate that backs up the legal strategy and that aligns with the company strategy.

“Innovation has helped us become more productive,” says Mike.

LawVu – automating in-house legal from a different angle

LawVu ( is a New Zealand-founded company taking a different view of automation for in-house legal teams. The founders Sam Kidd and Tim Boyne approached the management of legal practice in-house first from a project management or matter management perspective, rather than document templating perspective.

Former General Counsel Matt Vaughan worked in-house at Xero and saw how game-changing such a software could be. He is now adviser and investor in LawVu.

“LawVu is a platform designed specifically for in-house legal teams,” he says.

“The day-to-day of a general counsel or an in-house team is a series of asynchronous tasks across a broad spectrum of matters, some of which that team has never seen before. These can be tasks involving many different countries, and different areas of law. It can be hard to separate what’s important from what’s not, if that work is coming at you fast from many different angles.”

Matt Vaughan

“Funnelling that work into a pipeline can allow you to separate the signal from the noise, so you can work on what’s important – that is central to LawVu’s platform. It frees the lawyer up to do more of the human stuff – the interaction with the business, getting out into the business, and talking to their stakeholders.”

As a platform or pipeline, LawVu has a number of capabilities which allow the team to have oversight and input on any matter they need to consider.

“It has matter management at its core,” he says, “which is how, and in what form, the legal team receives instructions from the business. That then connects to a ‘single source of truth’ for the in-house team’s documents, records, contracts, and a way for them to collaborate together, connect to the wider business, and other stakeholders in their world.”

Other capabilities include: contract lifecycle management; knowledge management; and proactive ‘insights’ which give data and reporting analytics to the team.

“All of these capabilities are designed to optimise the team’s performance,” says Matt.

“Manual, repetitive tasks are removed, such as automating your matter intake, getting rid of the unnecessary back and forth of the business asking the same questions to get to the core of the matter. Automating a contract template removes the manual time to draft it each and every time. Automating reporting and analytics removes the need to ask your team what they’re doing because you can see it.

“The future is: automation of numerous manual parts throughout the entire end to end workflow. That’s the possibility with a platform like this,” he says.

“LawVu also allows in-house teams to instruct and collaborate with an external firm.”

A lot of the tech market previously has done this the other way around, he says: “through private practice software looking to connect ‘down to their clients’.”

If you’re automating your work-flow, you give yourself a bird’s eye view of your day, your team’s day....It gives you the data to see what is a hotspot, and what is not

“But if you attack the problem from the in-house team’s side, they are the bill payer and should be driving how that interaction occurs. Law firms connect into LawVu to receive instruction in their version of LawVu and collaborate on a matter right to the end, when they push their invoice into LawVu.”

Matt says that LawVu also gives a picture of risk immediately at hand.

“If you’re automating your workflow, you give yourself a bird’s eye view,” he says, “of your day, your team’s day and you have reporting around that. It gives you the data to see what is a hotspot, and what is not.”

LawVu is available internationally – and Matt is actually based in the Cayman Islands. Two kiwi users are Airways and the Dunedin City Council.

“In an increasingly global team world, you still have to have connectedness,” he says. “What should replace the water cooler? Tech has a critical role to play here: the likes of Zoom and systems of record like LawVu. It’s that connectedness that is at the heart of what LawVu does.”

Tips for Automation for In-house Law – from the Foodstuffs Team

  1. Assess your needs in detail: what’s the low value work you’re spending time on that’s not delivering efficiencies or productivity in terms of your team? Can this be automated?
  2. Get the best vendors: there are many out there. You need the best solution-focused help you can find to see if your service can be automated effectively.
  3. Get started: to do so, don’t tackle the biggest bits first; tackle it in bite sized chunks. Start with a smaller project. Get momentum. Once you’re successful, you’ve proven to yourself, your team, your leaders that you can innovate and still manage legal risk at the same time.
  4. Get other stakeholders on board: work with the IT team to integrate your project safely and securely into your company network. Use your comms team to communicate it. Find some in-house champions who like what you’ve done and leverage their experience.
  5. Money matters – so small is best: by biting off small chunks of innovation, you don’t stretch the budget. Incremental is the way to go. Prove the success to the business, sell the value, then you can do the next bit.
  6. There’s a payoff: In addition to the productivity gains, it can be good for your brand internally and externally if you automate in this way. It shows you can think outside the square, find ways of improving processes.
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