Cockerill told the room that general counsel are inherently best placed to guide clients and companies and navigate them through choppy waters, such as those thrown up by Brexit and the GDPR.
The concept of lawyerly independence fundamentally flows from regulatory bodies such as the Law Society, which advocates on behalf of maintaining solicitors’ independence, he said.
Cockerill said that representation becomes even more important as the in-house sector edges towards 25% of the profession, yet has thus far yielded only two Law Society Council members.
Director general Ken Murphy told the room that general counsel are an “immensely important” constituency of the Law Society, and that their voice is not sufficiently heard.
The In-House and Public Sector committee is a very powerful and increasingly influential committee within the Society, Murphy said, but the voice of the sector needs to be heard more strongly.
He continued: “We are all lawyers, but first and foremost we are all human beings.” He urged those present to take care of their mental health. Stress levels are highest for those starting their legal careers, Murphy said. “It’s in the nature of legal work to be stressful, and in the nature of lawyers to be somewhat in denial of that stress.”
Rise of the machines
Independent Newspapers’ tech editor Adrian Weckler said he has found that some lawyers can be technophobes.
His talk ranged across innovations, such as food takeaway delivery by drone, translation services for voice technology, and tech-enabled doorbell concierge services.
Weckler suggested that fewer people will work on laptops as the move to business tablets accelerates, because the latter are less of a security risk and both easier to start up and to move around.
Leman claims to be the only paperless legal firm in Dublin, Weckler said. When documents come into the Leman office, they are electronically dated, stamped, filed and then the hard copies are destroyed.
The staff use scanning software and hardware, and store on both hard discs and in the cloud – and the firm limits everyone to a 20c-per-week budget for the printer.
Hard discs will become antiquated in the near future, Weckler prophesied, and we will run our lives in real time through the internet. But data security remains a big issue.
It’s very hard to avoid paying a ransom without losing data, he said, if an office computer system is compromised. ‘Internet pirates’ even have call centres to talk the hacked person through the process of paying their ransom.
IT consultant Jonathan Maas told the conference that good communication is key to successfully rolling out any software innovations. He said it is very easy to under-sell new software projects, but they can never be over-sold.
It takes hard work to sell a new technology initiative and to get buy-in and demand for the innovation. But he cautioned that the first step is to identify the problem that technology needs to fix.
“Don’t buy what you don’t need. Start the process knowing what it is you are trying to fix,” he advised.
Amanda Zahringer is partner (learning and development) in ByrneWallace. As a corporate lawyer who has worked across 12 jurisdictions, she echoed Jonathan Maas in her themes.
‘Cognitive ergonomics’ are key with any new software, because it has to be quickly learned and easy to use. Keep things simple at the start and leave the complex matters to the second phase, Zahringer advised. Test and test again, she said, and speak to external colleagues doing the same sorts of work.
Margaret Maguire, in-house solicitor with financial services firm Fexco, said that, when she joined the company, legal processes were largely manual.
One of the motivations to embrace technology was lack of physical space and a surfeit of hard-copy files. “We were drowning in paper,” she said, while a radical increase in the complexity and volume of files was also a factor that drove change.
However, the main motivation was that Fexco wanted to offer remote working and have the ability to manage and hand-off documents centrally to geographically dispersed locations. “All Fexco Group legal files are now electronic, and you will only establish a hard copy for a limited amount of reasons,” Maguire explained.
If budget is a factor, look at the functionality you already have. Talk to your service providers about existing software functionality, which might not be used to its maximum capability.
For instance, MS Word has a mail merge function that automates documents and is very helpful for managing bulk documents, the Fexco lawyers found.
‘Knowledge management’ consultant John Furlong said that lawyers love precedents first, with know-how and know-who coming after that. “Legal research is a composite of the knowledge one brings to a client, but ways to compile that knowledge are improving all the time.”
Data has value
The NTMA’s John O’Donovan said that lawyers should always be aware that data has value, and a price will be put on it on the dark web. “You are the most important part of your organisation’s security infrastructure,” he told the assembled in-house lawyers. “You have a responsibility to act and protect your organisation’s network and data.”
LK Shields partner Jeanne Kelly said that the instinct for convenience can trump the need for appropriate diligence into technology service providers. The in-house lawyer has an important role in recording diligence into any new technology, Kelly pointed out.
General counsel have their own obligations under the Solicitors Acts, as well as under GDPR. “Remember to keep a document trail, but be careful about what technology you use to do that,” Kelly advised.
Lynne Martin is head of the employment law function at AIB, which has a team of over 100 lawyers across four cities.
Martin said that AIB has recently taken advantage of agile technology to log on without being physically present in the office, and this has offered a greater degree of flexibility. “But, as a litigator, I don’t know how litigation forums would work without paper files,” she observed.
Electronic management systems
Eadaoin Rock (general counsel at the Central Bank) said that, when she joined, it was felt that there was a great need for a proper electronic document-and records-management system in her now 39-strong legal team.
The journey to introduce that system began as a legal-division-only project, but in time became a broader journey involving other divisions – once the benefits were communicated.
In-house legal work can often be hard to quantify, because the lawyers support every aspect of the business, and it can be hard to convey the work done. But new technology is very useful in justifying resources spent on in-house lawyers. “Tech makes it easier to show your value and provide the metrics,” she concluded.