Ken Crutchfield, vice president and general manager of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., talks about the shifting role of the legal department, the importance of tailoring your conversations to your audience, and how general counsel can use metrics and key performance indicators to help a company meet its business goals.
CCBJ: The role of the legal department has expanded significantly over the past 10 to 15 years. How do you and Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory support general counsel and other in-house legal professionals?
Ken Crutchfield: We provide information solutions to in-house counsel to help them with a number of different challenges they may experience. We work across different domains and practice areas – everything from the cerebral questions about something within labor and employment or intellectual property, for example, to very practical information that allows general counsel to be able to make decisions about where to complete specific tasks. These are all available on our Cheetah for Corporate Counsel product platform. Those are some of the broad ways that we work, but increasingly we’re also looking at workflow solutions, challenging tasks like multijurisdictional surveys, and other information solutions that support better outcomes for general counsel and the business.
We also have a contract, matter, and entity management software that supports small and midsize corporate legal departments called Legisway. It helps counsel to manage their contracts, their compliance matters, as well as their various entities, giving them a single source of truth when it comes to all of their corporate legal information. Legisway allows general counsel to easily create reports that help better manage the department, have access to key metrics, keep track of their risk, and to know what the corporation has when it comes to all of that critical information.
What are the metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) that general counsel should focus on?
Well there is a lot to cover on KPIs.
The first thing is to base them on business objectives and the company’s strategy. If a company is in growth mode, for example, it should have metrics and KPIs that are aligned with that goal. Here is another example. If a company is in a controversial industry and doesn’t want to have a high profile and doesn’t want to be in the news, the metrics, objectives, and policies should tie to litigation avoidance and early settlement to minimize publicity.
From a business operations perspective, counsel can consider reducing cycle time on new sales contracts or time-to-completion around tasks. Reducing the number of exposures and risks that they have with suppliers is a great KPI to consider too. And we’re starting to see some corporate legal departments creating KPIs around internal client satisfaction as well, in terms of things like approachability and willingness to help and ability to manage stakeholders and things like that. It’s starting to go both ways, which is great.
I will also say that I’ve noticed a tendency for organizations to want to measure what is easy to measure. But oftentimes those metrics that are easy to measure don’t really have much meaning or tie directly to corporate priorities (metrics that are easy to measure, but don’t tie to priorities are referred to as “vanity metrics”). As a foundation, companies really need to make sure that they’re measuring things that are important and not merely easy to measure.
One issue that is often raised that we talk with corporate legal departments about is risk. That means being able to create KPIs around risk – creating a corporate risk profile. That’s something that’s typically done in conjunction with the board, and in alignment with the company’s strategic goals, to make sure that the legal department understands, for example, the contractual risk. What are the company’s liability gaps? Where do its exclusions come in? Does the department have a process for things that may need to go outside of those exclusions? Is there an appropriate escalation path? Does the legal department have an audit standard in place where it can randomly sample compliance with policy? By getting visibility and control over risks and compliance to policy, general counsel can sleep a little easier knowing they are taking actions to effectively manage risk.
How can general counsel better communicate with the board and the C-suite?
The general counsel really needs to speak the language of the board and the C-suite. That means speaking in business terms more than legal terms. A general counsel does need to communicate legal issues, obviously, but it’s important to frame them within the context of the overall business goals. And ideally the conversation should be tailored to the audience. If general counsel is talking to the chief financial officer, for example, they should speak more in financial terms. If they’re talking to the marketing or sales leads, they should speak in terms of reducing cycle time, driving more sales, or speak about brand and reputational risk.
It’s also about helping solve problems to help move the business forward, as opposed to just being the cautionary conscience of the company. Highlighting risk is an important part of what the general counsel does, but it’s also important to make sure they are balancing that out with a can-do attitude that focuses on what is possible too.
During the pandemic, the general counsel’s office has been key in setting goals, policy and priorities – including dealing with human resources issues, office closings, personal protective equipment policies, supply chain management and fair pricing, among other things. What do you expect to be the long-range impact of this highly visible and critical increase in the general counsel’s sphere of influence?
This really has to do with shifting the perception of the general counsel’s role from being a cost center and a “necessary function” to being a value driver for the organization. Is it the “department of no”, or is it the department of possibilities? The truly successful general counsel can, more often than not, find ways to protect the business from risk and pursue its goals. To the extent that general counsel has been especially helpful throughout the pandemic, this is a great time to point to the creativity and support provided to get to better outcomes and better solutions for the business. The pandemic has required creative solutions. I’d encourage general counsel to point to the department’s role in supporting business continuity as a way to gain more credibility and influence with the C-suite.
What else do you think our readers should know about the ever evolving role of the legal department?
Legal departments are under a lot of pressure. We spoke about KPIs earlier, and that is a great example of how they are being treated more and more like other parts of the business. This extends to diversity & inclusion, hiring, and complying with supplier policies when selecting outside counsel. For example, an RFP process might be required to engage with counsel where a phone call to a reliable partner at a trusted firm would be all that was required in the past.
There is more work than ever and there are more laws to comply with as a business grows. One of the ways to address the avalanche of work is to apply technology (tools) to create more leverage and to automate more work. Technology isn’t always the first thing that general counsel may consider, but adopting technology solutions may be a great way to relieve some of the pressure.
I always recommend that a legal department start with a problem and then engage IT or the Legal Operations lead to help determine the appropriate technology to leverage. Finally, let’s circle back one more time to KPIs. We see some of our customers solving for productivity by creating self-help tools for the business to use. These can include different contract templates that staff can access themselves, different automated non-disclosure agreements, and other things like that. And if counsel can track the usage of these tools, the legal department can be confident that the more mundane legal work is getting done while freeing up precious attorney time to do things that are more value-add for the business.