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How to Navigate Digital Transformation as a General Counsel: Insights from IDC

Kristy Esparza

For years, general counsel’s main responsibility has been straightforward: protect the organization from risk. But in today’s world, where the pace of work is ever-increasing and technology ever-changing, innovation has become part of the job description.

With that change on wheels, what does the future look like for in-house legal teams?

At a Relativity Fest session last year, we put a group of GCs, legal operations leaders, and one analyst on the hot seat to find out. Each speaker had less than 10 minutes to share their thoughts and insights on the changing role of in-house counsel.

One speaker, IDC Senior Research Analyst Ryan O’Leary, tackled the topic of digital transformation, delivering insight from the 2019 Legal and Corporate Strategy Digital Transformation Survey.

“I’m a recovering lawyer, and I like rules, I like order, I like figuring out systems. But innovation is none of those things,” Ryan explained. “Innovation is imagination, and there are no rules—it’s whatever you can make out of anything. And that can often be tough in this new digital era.”

So, what’s your corporate legal department to do? Ryan’s talk offered plenty of ideas for how your team can—and should—help with digital transformation.

First, understand what “digital transformation” means.

Broadly speaking, digital transformation is the integration of digital technology across a business to solve problems.

“A digitally transformed enterprise places data at the heart of a platform that expands across IT, business, and digital domains,” Ryan explained.  “[The company] uses and turns that data into action, insights, and tools to help the organization.”

Because a digitally transformed organization spans the whole enterprise, roles within teams are becoming more diversified. For legal departments, that means responsibilities beyond the bounds of what you would normally consider “corporate legal.”

“We have this digital transformation taxonomy that lays out what we’re calling a new ‘adaptive general counsel’ who has to do more than just be a ‘no’ department,” Ryan said. “You have to bring together all these different domains that aren’t necessarily your bread and butter or what you went to law school for.”

The domains Ryan referenced include things like corporate strategy, business development, data-driven deals, and investment risk analysis—all processes that legal departments may now play a heavier hand in.

Next, promote the transformation.

Lawyers don’t often get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their use of technology. That’s a stereotype Ryan and IDC wanted to challenge.

“It’s easy to make jokes that lawyers aren’t with the times in terms of technology. But enterprise lawyers must be at the cutting edge of technology, because enterprise is at the cutting edge of technology,” he said.

To that end, IDC asked legal departments at different parts of their digital transformation journey if they were accepting of change. The results demolished the stereotype.

Seventy-six percent said “somewhat accepting” or “completely accepting.” And if you break that down into organizations that have been mostly or entirely digitally transformed, that number jumps up to 92.5 percent.

“If you’re not okay with throwing everything out and jumping into new technology, you may be stunting your digital transformation of your company,” Ryan said.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

Embarking on a digital transformation journey—or even testing the waters with new technology—can be scary, especially for departments that are primarily seen as cost centers, making buy-in for change difficult. But Ryan says there’s good news.

“Compliance is revenue and mitigating risk is revenue,” he said. “Get the idea across of how much risk and cost you’re saving, and you may be able to get better buy-in.”

Getting that buy-in, however, shouldn’t be a one-department job. The legal department, Ryan reminded everyone, are legal experts—not necessarily technology experts.

“Digital transformation is about bringing the enterprise together and breaking down barriers. Work more closely with IT—and don’t view them as [people] there to answer your questions every once in a while,” he said. “You’re going to get the speed of IT up, the man hours to implement new technology down, and your costs down as well.”

An added bonus? Partnering with IT will quell security concerns, too.

“A lot of security concerns come from implementation, not necessarily the technology. Work hand in hand with IT and you can get those security concerns alleviated because your team will be sure you’re not misconfiguring or missing anything.”

Finally, don’t forget the details.

Before heading off stage, Ryan added in one small but mighty nugget of insight from IDC’s report: respondents listed “integration with existing technology” as a pain point.

“[This] is a personal pet peeve of mine,” he said. “When you’re updating your systems, you need to update your end points as well. You wouldn’t watch HD on a standard TV. You’re not going to get the benefit that you want from digital transformation by not upgrading everything. Think about that when budgeting out your costs.”

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Kristy Esparza is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, specializing in content creation and copywriting.

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