Many leaders in the in-house legal circuit have emphasized the need to take the universal question of exhibiting value head-on and creating new processes to increase efficiency, but few have embodied that into action as Brian Dunn - former VP, Legal at Property Finder.
4 years ago, when Brian left private practice to join the Prop Tech giant - Property Finder, he was the only legal professional in the company.
Today, Brian is a recognized legal thought leader and leaves Property Finder with its own full-stack legal department. He innovated within the company, improved the delivery of legal services, and transformed them from a notional back-end unit to contributors in revenue generation.
One of the key reasons we wanted Brian to kick-off the LegalMatters by SpotDraft series is because he remains a massive proponent of legal technology usage to unlock human potential. In a previous podcast, Brian talked about Property Finder’s own DNA of innovation and how the legal team’s role changed from a support function to that of an ‘enabler.’
The following is an excerpt of our conversation, where he discussed how he leverages technology to generate and exhibit value within the company, and how organizations can utilize this opportunity to get the best out of their in-house teams.
Even in your previous discussions, you have always talked about the importance of leveraging technology, for lawyers. I’m sure we can all agree that lawyers haven’t been the most tech-friendly professionals, but the needle is moving. What motivated you to be one of the early adopters?
When I shifted from private practice to begin my in-house career at the Property Finder Group, the notional difference between the two professionals were immediately visible.
Lawyers, by nature of their jobs, would have developed the ability to interpret complex situations over time - this leads to insights that can help major decisions in business. But unlike in private practice or at big law firms, the world outside isn’t quite acquainted with the idea.
The way we do what we do is far different from the way our peers inside the corporate world operate. This lack of subjective clarity about a lawyer’s skillset, often finds lawyers stuck doing work that is not adding immediate or visible value to the business.
When I took a step back, I realized that technology could kick in and automate a lot of these low value-add tasks. That frees up both the time and the bandwidth of in-house legal professionals to focus on working strategically. Legal technology helped me personally both add value at work and display that value within the organization.
Displaying real value has forever been on the in-house legal’s bucket list. What do you think are the hurdles that deter them from crossing it off? And how exactly do you solve them with technology?
The most unfortunate part is the lack of common KPIs between legal teams and their friends in, let’s say - marketing, sales, or any other team. This makes quantifying your work and achievements and upholding them in a manner that most others would understand even more difficult. There is no clear dollar value to the work that you are doing as a lawyer.
Also, since the notion is that lawyers are risk mitigators - there is also a significant lack of communication between them and the other teams. Lawyers are not often involved in strategy meetings or the usual day-to-day life of their peers.
Once you are siloed, it is very hard to break away from that notion because you will be caught in an everlasting loop of micro-tasks without the opportunity to explore your abilities. In fact, most of these tasks are the ones that an organization should not be paying a lawyer to do.
For example - the creation of contract templates. Traditionally an executive would simply submit a request to a lawyer, who would then draft a very low value-add agreement based on a template, which mostly consisted of filling in blanks on the template. The agreement would then be sent back to the executive who would review it and send it out. Due to the low value add nature of the task, the turn-around time could take roughly 3 days, or even more.
At Property Finder, we did away with this tiresome process. It now effectively take a matter of minutes for us to get any agreement sent to the 3rd party. That is a huge amount of time saved for us and helps the entire business operate a lot faster too.
Interestingly, 90-97% of the time, a template remains exactly the same. There are no amendments and all you’re doing is filling in blanks on the documents. Basically, an endless cycle of copy-and-paste or of retyping the same words into a template. This is a horrible use of a lawyer’s time and also has more chances of manual errors.
Not just that, I also think technology can do a lot more for in-house lawyers to display their work.
Take an example of - matter management tools and case request systems. They can track every inbound request made to the legal team, and provide relevant data. At the end of the day, this data can uphold the amount of work completed by the legal department and also provide a corollary dollar value to your work.
You can utilize this data to provide vivid comparisons about the cost that could be incurred by the company if the same work was externalized.
Some businesses complain that they may not be able to afford the expense of legal technology or don’t have the kind of bandwidth to reinvent the wheel by introducing technology. How do you think they can navigate the in-house role?
I totally believe that legal technology is a must-have for any business looking to leverage their legal teams for better, irrespective of their size or bandwidth.
When I say legal technology - most people immediately imagine blockchain technology, AI, or a whole series of tech 4.0 events. The reality is quite contrary. There is a lot of simple automation that also counts as legal technology if you are absolutely unable to expend any money on tools. And though they won’t be able to provide the degree of granularity to your legal departments as technology would, they can be your first line of intervention. These can range from - templated responses or clauses and more.
Then again, from my personal experiences and from what I have heard about many other legal teams, the more people you bring in - the more low value-add work you seem to attract to the department.
Recruiting that kind of manpower that is unable to multiply value is also a massive and unjustifiable expense to the business. The more bootstrapped a business, it makes incremental sense to seek the help of legal technology instead of throwing bodies at the problem.
Also being too busy to adopt technology, I just don’t buy it. When you are adding more people because you are busy, you need to consider what work you are busy with and if it is really justifiable to add more people to your team or could it be replaced by technology.
So far we have talked about what legal professionals should do at their workplaces. What do you think organizations must do to help legal teams perform at their best and facilitate this change?
A properly leveraged legal team can be a world of difference for businesses. And a lot of it depends on whether a business is using the legal team as a shield or as a weapon.
When businesses expect legal teams to only emerge during a crisis or calls for their help only to avoid potential conflict, it indicates that the legal team is being used as a firefighting function or a shield. But that is not where their capabilities end, and that is not what their roles should be.
Using the legal team as a weapon instead means - getting your lawyers to go beyond and be business partners. There has to be an emphasis on enabling business-minded lawyers - people who understand the business and its goals, and also have a knowledge of the law.
Such an aligned legal team can not only get you from point A to B without hiccups, it can also sometimes use the law to your advantage.
Most successful businesses always have a legal representative sitting at the table. Lawyers in boardrooms can contribute qualitatively with comprehensive insights and advise the business on opportunities for growth.
Also, fostering an environment of collaboration between the other business teams and the legal department helps in navigating their responsibilities better.
And what would you advise legal professionals must do at the starting of their career, to power themselves into the seat at the table in a company?
As a modern in-house professional who would be working with potentially diverse teams within the business, you need to be aware of the technologies used by your peers at the workplace.
Getting a lay of the land, and having an understanding of how the different business units operate will also help you determine where any business data is distributed or can be accessed, it will also help you make better sense of what forms of technology you can adopt for the legal department that will not force others to reinvent the wheel. That also means you need to communicate better with the internal stakeholders.
This goes especially for founding legal members within an organization. Speaking with other key stakeholders - even if they are not directly involved with legal matters will help you understand where you can proactively pitch in and make an impact.
For example - create self-serving contract templates for agreements repeatedly used by the sales team. You will be enabling the business to move quickly, as well as, providing them the ability to be proactive in their roles.
And finally, what is largely ignored is the importance of immersing yourself as much as possible in the functions of the industry. Unless you fully commit yourself to understand the industry, it is difficult to fully understand the overarching business objectives and provide contemporary solutions. As businesses grow and merge and generally go through a world of permutations, this is becoming increasingly important.
How can students in law schools gain this extra-industrial knowledge and what then, is the modern legal school’s role in preparing students for their careers?
My advice for law students - and I speak out of experience, is - don’t sweat the details in choosing what domain of law you’re going to study, because it is always possible to make a career transition. Instead, focus on the transferable soft skills like analytical thinking, negotiation, or communication because they will remain relevant irrespective of what industry you are in later in your career.
If I had a chance to do it all over again, I think I would take more of a generic course path through law school and would have focused on litigation a bit more.
You can never go wrong by choosing generic areas of law. To me, the generic fields like corporate/commercial, or litigation law give you skills that you will invariably carry with you throughout your career and your life.
The more specific you get, the more you are boxing yourself in. It still does not make it impossible for you to switch over to a different discipline, it only makes it slightly more difficult.
But most importantly - and I can’t emphasize this enough - if there is something you’re going to enjoy doing, then do it.