Interview by the Society with Rob Gitell, whose mission is to bring matter management systems to in-house legal teams

Rob Gitell is a man who knows in-house legal teams and the challenges they face, having visited more than 100 in the past year across the US, Europe and the UK. I was keen to meet up and to learn how his knowledge might assist our members.

Rob heads up global sales for a widely used legal department management system, with 18,000 in-house, and 35,000 private practice users. The system provides one shared online platform, allowing in-house counsel and external law firms to co-ordinate on legal projects and deadlines, exchange bills and budgets, collaborate on documents, and run performance reports.

This is technology which can help track matters from start to finish, give an overview of all ongoing work, help compare performance of external counsel, enforce billing guidelines and automated audit, collaborate more effectively with firms, and interrogate data for efficiencies. I was excited to be able to cross examine him on what all this meant in practice for in-house teams.

Starting points

Keen not to expose any gaps in my own knowledge, I kicked off with a general question. Where do you start as an in-house team considering change to matter and billing management? Luckily Rob caught the ball and ran with it, talking through the key stages.

He started with some myth busting: “You will not be the first to ask your panel firms to work with you on this change. They may be keeping it quiet, but other clients will have challenged them before you. So this will not damage meaningful relationships.”

I was also curious whether this was just for the largest legal teams: if a key trigger for change has been the downturn, in-house teams will have to be able to articulate clearly the value of change. It’s another myth, Rob assured me. “Anyone with more than £300k of legal spend should consider this as essential. An average saving of 5% to 10% of legal spend can be achieved for system costs of around 0.5% to 2% of your legal cost. So apart from the other benefits we’ll discuss, a business case can easily be made.”

Perhaps surprising advice was that in-house teams should speak to their panel firms early, engaging them in the change process rather than finalising a plan and presenting it as a done deal. A more typical suggestion was to have a clear end aim in mind. Good practice for any project, but it led into two interesting discussions. First, whether you start with looking at your systems and how you want to work, or by looking at existing products; and secondly, how you start looking at your processes (as from conversations I know that a good percentage of lawyers still assert that every file and case is unique, and systemisation is not possible in law).

After deliberation, we decided that good advice for most teams was to look at an “off the shelf” product. This still often allows customisation, but is cheaper, faster to deploy, and has better post-implementation support. These products will force you to consider workflow as you implement, and may need you to adapt to their way of working, but bespoke systems can turn into monsters, hard to manage without significant scale of resource.

Guidelines

When the Society issued advice last year on cloud-based systems, a key concern was around security, confidentiality and privilege, although after research we identified that the risk profile in relation to a dedicated legal sector product was often lower than the risks of paper-based or other systems. Most matter management, collaboration, and billing software could actually offer improvements here.

We also looked at the benefit of ensuring your product meets existing international standards, which often gives significant reassurance – so hearing Rob talk about the advantages of the EU legal billing standard (LEDES 1998BI, which all the products he works on comply with) seemed consistent with the type of factor we recommended teams look at when examining technology and software options.

Starting simple was another helpful message. When moving to issuing billing guidelines, I was amused to hear Rob talk in British currency when he suggested teams want to avoid being “penny wise but pound foolish”. He elaborated: “A common mistake is to try to rush immediately to have guidelines for every eventuality, and this often leads to complexity and then problems. Starting simple and building as experience grows is more likely to work for the in-house team, and better protect the relationship with panel firms.”

In litigation, this was perhaps especially important, where the key was about getting the same broad assumptions in place (that a case is budgeted as it is known now and in the past experience of the firm in similar cases; that budgets may change as the case does; and that unknowns, like appeals, should not be built in from the start).

Need for leadership

Time and again, Rob mentioned the need for leadership from the top. I challenged him as to whether this work could ever be led from the bottom up, knowing a new generation of lawyers perhaps had skills and enthusiasm that would see them pushing for these changes. We decided that engagement across the team was essential but that, at the end of the day, without drive from the head of the team there would be difficulties, especially since there is no doubt that there is an upfront investment of time and energy, even if there will be real payoffs later.

Returning to my notes the next day, I realised just how much ground we had covered, and the incredible insight Rob had from meeting with firms. It also confirmed my belief that investment in technology is becoming a defining divide between sustainability and stagnation, and an area no lawyer can afford to be shrinking from.


The Author
Neil Stevenson is Director of Representation and Professional Support at the Law Society of Scotland Rob Gitell is director of sales for Serengeti Tracker, the management system from Thomson Reuters. He was previously a consulting certified public accountant working with leading law firms on business automation. He holds a BA in Business from the University of Connecticut and earned his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. t: 020 7393 7447 e: serengeti.uk@thomsonreuters.com For another interview with Rob Gitell, see the October 2013 ILG newsletter on the in-house section of the Society’s website (shortcut link: bit.ly/1eib3wk).
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