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The Legal Front Door: Comprehensively Empowering your Legal Business Partnering

By Ignaz Fuesgen.


“Legal Intake” or “Legal Front Door” – words which may prompt nightmares for many in-house counsel. Will present personal face-to-face, phone or email interactions be replaced by anonymous, semi-, or fully automated portal inquiries and a ticket system? How will business colleagues respond if they are asked to communicate in a rigorously structured way, potentially via a portal?

The article will explore the “Legal Front Door” (or “Legal Intake”), a key element of contemporary Legal Business Partnering which in its entirety should “make it easy [author: for the business user] to collaborate wherever and whenever the need occurs”. [1] We will explore its opportunities as well as its limitations and consider some practical tips for a quick head-start.


1. Treat it like any door on this planet - a definition


A “Legal Intake” is often synonymously referred to as “Legal Front Door” for a valid reason because it is supposed to be - in very simple terms - the door and main entrance to the Legal function.


Every day we open many and different types of doors, go through them and eventually leave the respective premises behind these doors. To better understand the concept of the "Legal Front Door", let's briefly look at the questions we are asking and naturally answering, often unconsciously, when doing so.

Firstly, we wonder “what’s happening or even hiding behind this door?”. Consequently, once answered, the second question is all about “how do I open the door?”. And finally, assuming we have made it inside, we will eventually ask ourselves “how and with what will I get out again?”. These three questions guide what Legal Designers call a “user experience”, ie. the way a user interacts or experiences a specific service.

Figure 1: The Legal Front Door


Transferring the idea of a door to the concept of a “Legal Front Door” or “what’s happening behind it, our first interest lies on identifying what attracts people (here: our business colleagues) to come to this specific door. The design and display of content and offerings in one single place, organized and sorted according to the specific needs of the business user is crucial to drive the adoption rate of the “Legal Front Door”. Companies applying a single sign-on approach may even support the personalisation of what is displayed to the individual user.


What is - technically speaking - the “Legal Front Door” made of? Many corporate counsel I have spoken to believe it is always and only a portal. As a matter of fact, most technology vendors offer a portal-based user interface to capture the information and interact with the Legal department. However, conceptually a Legal Front Door allows utilizing all kinds of communication channels, including “old-fashioned” emails, information entered via a mobile device or Microsoft Teams, to transmit the inquiry to a single point of contact. Irrespective of the selected communication channel, the information submitted or captured will be stored in a single repository, i.e., a specific legal service inquiry or matter [2], achieving and warranting a “single source of truth”.


Anecdotal evidence tells us that many corporate counsel often confuse the term “legal inquiry” with the Legal Front Door or “Legal Intake”. Notably, the term “Intake” relates solely to the communication of information whilst a inquiry or matter comprises the history of interactions, including documents, detailed metadata matter information of any kind, etc.


Contrary to a ticket system, run by IT, for example, any contemporary Legal Front Door isn’t not just a flat façade and one-step process but the door to a collaborative platform including project management capabilities, document repository functionality and multi-channel communication management, integrating other solutions like Microsoft365 for communications or a contract lifecycle management system.


Integrating all those applications is essential for a seamless workflow from data entry to inquiry, case, matter and contract management and vice versa to ultimately serve as a truly “collaborative platform”. Accordingly, a Legal Front Door and its transactional foundation are actually a relationship enabler rather than a process accelerator or simple automation tool. It supports the service portfolio of the Legal department whilst keeping a track record of all interactions in one single place, a legal institutional memory so to speak.


Figure 2: A user journey from entering through the Legal Front Door to the resolution of the inquiry (source: smartvokat, 2023)


Literally “opening” the Legal Front Door is usually alleviated by a search function on the portal page / entry form empowering the business user to first search any knowledge article, checklists as well as potential pre-configured entry forms in a library (“Knowledge Base”) to promote self-reliance and any available self-services (refer to figure 2). The business user is guided and assisted from the very first minute of the journey and advised on which information is to be provided in order to avoid the usual email ping-pong game.

Following the inquiry, the business user benefits from full transparency into the inquiry or matter. Furthermore, he/she can at any given point in time communicate on the matter by adding, for instance, more documents and never again has to phone a corporate counsel for any updates. The processing leading to a specific outcome or result pertaining to the said inquiry, i.e., a piece of advice or an approval, becomes completely transparent to the business user.


2. A win-win-situation: everyone benefits albeit in different ways


Legal Front Doors and streamlined intake processes equally benefit business users and members of the legal department. The perception of benefits differs by party to the process beside those shared by both, Business and Legal.


First and foremost, if implemented both stakeholder groups will enjoy an unforeseen level of transparency into each other’s processing activities as they have a shared view into all information and documents attached to the inquiry or matter. The quality of expectation management increases significantly as both know exactly what a) is expected from each other, b) what the status of each other’s activities is like, and c) if any additional efforts are required to resolve the matter. Nonetheless, the visibility of the shared inquiry is governed by comprehensive access controls that permit the acting corporate counsel to add notes and documents as “legal department only” to a inquiry or matter.


The central data repository does not only enable full access by both parties, inquirer and corporate counsel, but also a wider audience for purposes of holiday stand-ins.


So, will a Legal Front Door reduce the relationship to a purely data-exchange oriented relationship? “Definitely not!” must be our immediate reply as it rather deepens each other’s understanding of the task at hand, its information needs and, in return, activities required to resolve it.

What are the benefits to be enjoyed by Legal?

Increased efficiency is often mentioned by vendors in that space but many general counsel certainly refer to a uniform user experience and satisfaction. Increased process consistency, governance and routing are other benefits mentioned. That may sound rather ambitious, but any operable intake process is actually taking over numerous rules for routing, allocating and monitoring tasks, in one phrase: legal project management, that would traditionally be handled by humans. The buzzword here is “triage”, meaning the routing of the right task to the right person and governing the status of that task. Enabling a standardised intake of information and documents allows for a certain degree of pre-qualification. Urgency and nature of the inquiry determine the priority level and influence the routing of a inquiry likewise.


As a result, duplicate tasks and multiple emails forwarded to other colleagues disappear from the list of a corporate counsel’s headaches [3]. Finally, the reduction of email instruction is inevitable across all those who have implemented Legal Front Doors and may be as high as 80% as claimed by the legal department of ServiceNow, a US technology vendor.

Data-driven decision making, visibility into the workload and transparency to KPI reporting is another benefit to any legal as well as compliance departments, should they apply the intake concept to their case management as well.


Thomas Pfennig, SVP, Global Head of Compliance, Data Privacy & LPC Express, describes the situation after implementing a Legal Front Door for their Legal, Patents and Compliance (LPC) function, labelled LPC Express: “Data and analytics are now built into our processes. This allows us to track progress and to find new opportunities to improve. This data never existed before. Without this, we’d never have generated the traction and acceptance we need to drive such fundamental transformation.[4]”


In summary, the introduction of such a concept is not replacing any corporate counsel but rather freeing up time previously spent on administrative tasks and taking away the stress of increased and more challenging workloads [5].


What are the benefits to be enjoyed by Business?

Presumably the biggest benefit enjoyed by business users deals with their own prejudice regarding the legal department (“they always decline my inquiries”) and fear of missing out on providing critical information (“am I submitting the right information in terms of depth and breadth to assist me?”). A structured intake asking the right questions and offering help texts as well as pre-determined menu options, like popular contract generator applications, mitigates those business user concerns.


The strong rule-based approach and almost inevitably transparent handling of any inquiry and matter ostensibly positions Legal as a value-adding and reliable business partner. Real-time self-service options not only render a 24/7 service but – in combination with a structured knowledge library – deflect many of the routine inquiries which can be assessed and adjudicated by simple sets of rules. Consequently, speed and turnaround of legal inquiries and matters going through the intake process contribute significantly to the overall business velocity.


3. The process embedded in the Legal Front Door


Each Legal Front Door incorporates the actual intake process. Applying a logical sequence well known to any lawyer, intake processes can be dissected or better: classified by considering these questions:

  • What is the legal source or policy which is addressed by the intake process?

  • Based on the procedural and content requirements defined by the legal source, policy handbook, etc, what kind of information intake is required for the fact-finding phase?

  • If the necessary information is provided, what kind of action or response, respectively, is expected or pre-scribed due to the nature of the inquiry?

Depending on how one answers these questions the user journey looks different as intake elements such as knowledge documents, self-service options, prescribed menus of standard response, free text input, etc are assembled and emphasized.


For the fact-finding phase, we distinguish between four types of intakes:

  1. Documentation: the business user has been prompted to submit (or does so at his/her own liberty) a certain piece of information, documentation, etc. in the context of an audit, standard reporting inquiry from Legal, etc. Information capturing is rather narrowly defined and standardization potentially higher than for other intake types.

  2. Fact-finding (in a narrow sense): the business user reports something to Legal without knowing the exact direction and implication of the submission. Typical examples are complaints, general inquiries regarding a business situation, etc. Limiting or pre-classifying the information intake may unnecessarily intimidate and confuse the non-legally trained business user, hence a careful balance of questions and depth of inquiry must be achieved. An investigation process may follow the submission.

  3. Self-assessment: the business user seeks guidance on a specific topic either by self-service (which could potentially direct the user to the appropriate checklist or contract template) or towards a certain business behaviour, e.g., regarding the applicability of a NDA. Guiding the business user most effectively through the process is key to a high user adoption rate.

  4. Self-evaluation: the business user requires an approval or at least positive feedback from Legal regarding a specific business activity and is asked to outline the accompanying circumstances. Like the self-assessment, a strong guiding but self-explanatory user journey must be designed that may incorporate elements of self-service, automation as well as exit points for escalating the matter directly to a Corporate Counsel for individual perusal.

Five potential actions are available in principle:

  1. A document or report is generated based on the input provided by the business user and/or the corporate counsel.

  2. The business user receives advice from the corporate counsel regarding the inquiry and the matter is closed.

  3. The business user and the corporate counsel collaborate to address all aspects of the inquiry and may even involve other colleagues from HR, etc. to conclude the matter. In such a case, different phases, milestones, and deadlines must be tracked by the legal Front Door and its incorporate matter management to project manage the inquiry.

  4. A reference to existing know how, such as a checklist, policy, etc. is provided to the business user in order to resolve the inquiry.

  5. A status is changed or amended, e.g., in case of an approval.

Always considering the intent of one’s fact-finding and concatenate it with the envisaged actions significantly alleviates the design effort for a Legal Front Door.


Figure 3: Legal intake types (source: smartvokat, 2023)



4. Five Practical tips from the field


4.1. Alignment with key legal department stakeholders A Legal Front Door substantively transforms the way the legal department interacts with business users. Sponsorship from relevant stakeholders in the legal department is crucial to guide the move away from the current world of inquiry and matter information that is spread across numerous cluttered email boxes and file drives, usually also across different business applications. The behavioral change calls for role modelling by leadership and a concise communication around the “what’s in it for you”.


4.2. “Think big, go small” … for a first pilot

I have personally experienced several undertakings where the legal department went for a very broad and deep scope of the Legal Front Door implementation, embracing literally all types of inquiries and matters in one project. In case of the Legal Front Door and with respect to all other transformative legal tech projects, piloting one simple inquiry type, like the intake for general legal inquiries or a marketing collateral review, allows all stakeholders to familiarize themselves with the new way of working. Finding opportunities for immediate positive feedback is pivotal to a sustainable implementation of the Legal Front Door.


4.3. Define what you would like to achieve at the beginning of the journey

Transformative projects, such as the introduction of the Legal Front Door, draw upon the support by a broad audience. Clearly defined key metrics and objectives at the beginning of such an initiative assist everyone to stay focused and ideally leverage visible “quick wins” to assure continuous support for the project.


Since intake processes generate per se enormous amounts of data, extracting meaningful insights from those data pools is critical and should not be underestimated as a project task. Hence, the recommendation is to focus on one or two objectives from the start and eventually expand to a comprehensive set of leading and lagging performance indicators. In any event, user satisfaction, ie. rating the intake process from a user perspective should be included in these early objectives.

4.4. Appetite comes with eating

The concept of the Legal Front Door is a journey for both, Legal and Business. Based on personal experience, devising comprehensive process maps doesn’t fully reflect how the actual process (including the click-flows through the software application) will look and feel during future work routines. Introducing prototypes early in the initiative as envisaged by Design Thinking-driven implementation approaches and building more time for User Acceptance testing (UAT) into project plans are two suitable means. Applying a full agile project management methodology may be another option but the backlog of features must be carefully categorized and prioritized by identifying and separating the “must-haves”, “should-haves”, and “could-haves”.

4.5. Intuitive experience

The Legal Front Door is all about user experience. It is meant to ease the effort around tasks perceived as being “non-value adding” and administrative in nature (albeit this may not objectively assessed be always the case!). An optimal user experience is to balance the load of information inquired (asking the right questions) without creating a level of complexity (asking too many questions) that may negatively impede the user adoption rate. Business users should be given a choice between communication channels as all of them shall grant access to the data of the single inquiry or matter.


5. Conclusion


Is this all just wishful thinking or can the Legal Front Door be implemented as described? Are there already legal departments that have done this successfully? Yes, you can already implement the Legal Front Door today and yes, some legal departments have already taken the first steps successfully.

Often, these are first pilot projects with a specific process, such as a conflicts of interest check, and possibly "only" with a Microsoft SharePoint© portal without further integration into matter and contract lifecycle management. It is a starting point and over time, these very basic approaches emerge into more integrated and broader initiatives.


In conclusion, there is simply no getting around this trend and even smaller legal departments are being forced to rethink their approach due to growing volumes of inquiries (caused by more laws and regulations) and internal pressure for efficiency. In terms of "tiered legal service delivery" and contemporary legal business partnering, there is metaphorically no way around the Legal Front Door!

 

Notes:

[1] smartvokat, The art (or craft) of effective Legal Business Partnering, June 20, 2022; viewed at https://smartvokat.com/2022/07/20/the-art-or-craft-of-effective-legal-business-partnering/ on May 3, 2023

[2] Legal inquiry, inquiry, matter or case synonymously used terms in this article. Inquirys or inquiries indicate a certain degree of simplicity compared to matters or cases. However, there is no widely accepted definition available for all terms.

[3] 71% of the respondents to Thomson Reuters Institute’s “2022 Legal Department Operations Index” stated “using technology to simplify workflow and manual processes” as a high priority (source: Thomson Reuters Institute, 2022 Legal Department Operations Index, 2022, p.6).

[4] Global life sciences leader creates ground-breaking legal shared services function, https://www.servicenow.com/customers/bayer.html, viewed on 5 May 2023

[5] Refer to Nolan, Ian: How a Smarter ‘Front Door’ Can Save Stressed-Out Legal Teams, May 12, 2022; viewed at https://www.legalreader.com/how-a-smarter-front-door-can-save-stressed-out-legal-teams/ on May 5, 2023

 

About the Author Ignaz Fuesgen is a legal management consultant and Co-Managing Director at smartvokat (www.smartvokat.com), an advisory and product company assisting in-house Legal, Compliance and Risk teams on their digital transformation journey. Furthermore, he is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management (COLPM) and heads the Institute for Innovation in Legal & Compliance at BSP Business and Law School, Berlin.


Connect with Ignaz on LinkedIn

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