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Process optimization for in-house counsel

From the moment your eyes open in the morning until your head hits the pillow at night, you are constantly engaging with a variety of processes. Some may be perfectly optimized, such as the pre-prepared overnight oats you’re eating for breakfast. Whereas others, maybe some of your workflows, are not so perfect. You’re aware of it and it grates on you every day, but how do you squeeze in the time to address inefficiencies?

Alex Petrie, InView Champion, Senior Legal Counsel and Company Secretary at James Hardie, believes a disciplined and pragmatic approach is the best way to get process optimization off the ground.

“It’s easy to identify processes that can be improved, and frankly there’s probably not a process that can't be improved," he says. "You need to ask why you’re doing it, what is the outcome you’re expecting, how much is it going to take, cost, time or otherwise. If you don’t do that analysis - and it’s often not done - people won’t have regard to resources, which means it’s not going to get delivered or it’s going to be delivered poorly; it will be a failed delivery.”

Undertaking analysis is vital as it enables you to effectively canvas whether the effort required to optimize a process is worth the potential value-add. An unfortunate reality is that not all processes are made equal and as such some will have to remain unoptimized.

“If you identify during the process that you could make a small tweak that would improve the process a lot and help people, go ahead and do it. You can do lots of minor changes that improve things in a big way, like tweaking templates.

“Bigger projects need more work, and resourcing is key. It starts with being disciplined, recognizing it’s going to take time and, yes, there is going to be lots of work to do and you’re already overstretched. But you’ve decided to do this, which implies you think it’s high value. If you’re going to do it, then be disciplined.”

For Petrie, disciplined process optimization generally comes about in two ways. Either setting a date for delivery or allocating an amount of time per week exclusively to that task.

“It’s about expectations. Be clear on what the delivery time frame is. I do one of two things, either we’re going to deliver it by this date or we’re going to deliver this amount every week and it will be delivered when it's delivered. But we’re just going to keep chipping away at it.”

While spotting areas for improvement is a strong point for in-house counsel, executing it is another issue entirely. Which is why Petrie’s approach is so powerful, forcing counsel to carve out time to make meaningful progress on whatever optimization project is deemed to have the most value.

“A lot of time, lawyers focus on run work. They’re not set up with a structure that’s different. A manufacturing plant has time for running the plant, time for preventative maintenance, and time for upgrades. Does a legal department operate in that way? A lot of them don’t. It’s just run, it’s just punching. It comes back to discipline, if you are going to improve, how are you going to allocate some time to that?”

Process optimization is a vital tool that should be utilized by all legal functions. More effective processes mean more time, which generally leads to more impactful counsel. And as we all know, an impactful counsel is a happy one.

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