Most of us are familiar with Google’s moonshot projects that span everything from self-driving cars to AIs that can beat world champion GO players. Less well known are the ways that Google is re-inventing how it designs and optimizes its own internal operations.
Let’s be honest — ‘disruptive innovation’ and the legal profession are not two ideas that frequently hang out together. However the role of the general counsel has changed quite dramatically over the last few years. Rather than just risk managers, they are increasingly business advisors to the CEO and to the board.
A little while back I interviewed Mary O’Carroll, Head of Legal Operations at Google to understand how a quintessentially 21st company runs their law department.
Here is what I learned:
#1. Scaling up requires an operations team
Google has one of the world’s largest and most active internal legal departments with about 1,000 people, dispersed across the planet. Daily they have to deal with everything from requests for confidential information to patent applications, complex tax structures to the regulatory implications of cutting edge technologies.
Mary O’Carroll was brought in about 8 years ago to head up a team known as Legal Operations, with the goal of running legal more like a business. In Mary’s view, law departments have not had the same level of scrutiny over efficiency, budgets and value that their counterparts in HR or IT have had to endure.
So while Google’s legal department handles the actual legal issues, the operations team focuses on vendor management (outside law firms), legal technology (tools and platforms), and internal operations (process design and efficiency).
The concept of an ‘operations team’ is becoming more common in many companies, and across numerous functions. Google has a talent operations team that supports HR, for example. Many companies will also have a marketing operations team that manages customer data and their engagement platforms.
#2. The best way to disrupt the legal industry is through standardization
In many ways, the legal industry has been relatively resistant to change. Every company does things differently, which means that law firms also customize their solutions, contracts and advice in infinite different ways.
In addition to her role at Google, Mary is on the leadership team of a group called CLOC, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium. When members of the group started talking to each other, they realized that this level of customization was often unnecessary. They had the same goals, and only came up with different approaches because there was no standard playbook for getting things done.
Standardization, for CLOC and Google, is one of the ways they plan to challenge the highly bespoke, tailored nature of legal services today.
#3. Machine learning can be used to automate internal legal enquiries
Mary’s legal operations team uses self-service tools based on decision trees to help internal clients get the answers that they need. These tools either remove the need for a lawyer, or facilitate the collection of all the necessary data that a lawyer needs to help the client in a much faster way.
The legal operations team also uses contract analytics and machine learning to pull out metadata and clauses from contracts that would otherwise require a lot of reading. Machine learning is also used to automatically tag attributes of patents, so that they can quickly look at entire portfolios without a lot of manual work done by humans.
#4. Dashboards are a powerful tool to manage external providers
Google uses a dashboard to manage their outside law firms. They extract all the data from their electronic billing systems to show spend by region, with analytics around how much spend differed from budgets.
For Mary, the dashboard is a platform for transparency. Her general counsel is always asking her questions like, ‘Are we getting good value for money? How much are we spending on average, on discovery? How much do we spend to get to this certain phase of a patent? How much do we spend in this country or with this law firm?’
With the dashboard, she not only has the answer to such questions at her fingertips, she also has a useful drill-down capacity to probe deeper.
For example, once they know what their total billings are, her team is able to have an informed discussion with providers about the nature of their activities. They can drill down into what is driving their billings, which particular matters, how many people are on the case, and the seniority of the people assigned to their team.
#5. Google wants their partners to automate too
A market is only as efficient as the least efficient participant. For that reason, Google is keen for their partners to also take a more automated, data-driven approach to legal work.
In Mary’s view, lawyers are knowledge workers. They want to work, and their clients want them to work, on interesting, high value activities, rather than re-creating the wheel. She encourages her legal partners to design smarter knowledge management and collaboration systems and to automate routine activities.
Easier said than done, of course. But when you consider the use of Blockchain by groups like Ethereum for smart contracts and completely decentralized autonomous organisations — it is pretty clear that the days of opaque, bespoke transactions are coming to an end.
The legal profession will either have to embrace a data-driven, transparent mindset, or be a spectator to their own disruption.