Faced with tight budgets and burgeoning regulatory requirements, campus law offices are turning to enterprise legal management systems to put matters in order.
Lawyers don’t always cut the most sympathetic figures, but spare a thought for campus law teams that increasingly find themselves caught in a full-court press: squeezed on one side by budget cuts and on the other by a growing mountain of regulatory requirements. It’s enough to make a legal eagle buy a comfort beagle. Or, in the case of the University of Alabama system, invest in a new enterprise legal management system (ELM).
“We’re trying to do more with less,” said Cooper Shattuck, general counsel in the Office of Counsel for the UA system, about the situation facing campus law departments. “At the same time, there’s a higher expectation for colleges and universities to be responsible for more things and more people.”
Much of this responsibility comes in the form of a growing number of government mandates. “One of the primary drivers is the more intense regulatory environment in which we find ourselves in higher education, whether it’s statutes passed by the federal government, directives from the Department of Education, or requirements for compliance in our individual states,” he explained. “These have increased at an exponential pace.”
In an effort to handle this surge, the UA Office of Counsel turned to eCounsel, an ELM from Mitratech, an Austin-based software company that specializes in legal-management issues. An ELM is more than just a document-management system. It allows a legal office to tap into all the resources and experiences of that office rather than relying on lawyers’ individual memories. eCounsel gives the UA legal team easy access to past matters (law speak for legal files), similar matters, research, contracts, and agreements.
“If I’m dealing with the Department of Justice on a race issue involving sororities, for example, I create a matter in which all of those documents are placed,” said Shattuck. “It holds not just documents but contacts—who was involved both inside and outside our organization. It enables us to find our e-mails and all of our internal and external documents.”
Having these materials in one easily accessible place makes it possible for the Office of Counsel to represent its clients more effectively and efficiently. It also makes it easier for new lawyers to jump into action without a long learning curve.
“You often get lawyers with great skills but not necessarily experience in higher ed,” said Shattuck of applicants who seek positions in university legal offices. “In higher ed, those regulations, directives, and rulings are so voluminous that no single person can know all of them. New lawyers need to be able to access the materials, the information, and experiences of the office as a whole.”
(Next page: Striving for campus law consistency)
Marshaling this kind of institutional knowledge is critical, but the UA Office of Counsel is also using its ELM to forecast storms that have yet to burst. The ELM can generate reports that identify where UA is seeing more claims and legal issues, allowing the Office of Counsel to act as an early warning system for the university administration. “Let’s say we’ve got a large number of sexual-harassment claims that arise out of a particular department,” said Shattuck. “Maybe there are problems with that leadership, maybe they need additional training. The ELM enables us to project where we may need to support the leadership of our organization.”
Striving for Consistency
The University of Alabama system comprises three campuses, a teaching hospital, and an academic medical center. Since he arrived three years ago, Shattuck has made it his mission to achieve legal consistency across all these distinct units. “Absent that, we are our own worst enemy,” he explained. “If one campus implements a regulation one way and another campus implements it a different way, then it could be argued that one of them is doing it wrong—that’s inexcusable.”
By establishing consistency in how matters are input, eCounsel ensures that lawyers throughout the UA system work from the same playbook. Legal staff use pull-down menus within eCounsel to categorize and tag matters, making it easy for other staff members to pull together related materials. An earlier system used by the department failed because it gave staff members too many options. “It was too cumbersome so people would end up picking ‘other’ as the default description of a matter,” said Shattuck. “If you’ve got 80 percent of your matters listed as ‘other,’ then the system’s dysfunctional.”
Sometimes, though, consistency can be a software euphemism for inflexibility, which is not what the UA Office of Counsel wanted. To avoid getting locked into a system that did not suit its needs, the Office first met with Mitratech to talk about how the software could be customized. “If you rely on vendors or your IT department to tell you what you need, you’re not going to get what you need—you’re going to get what they think you need, and they don’t know,” said Shattuck. “You’ve got to be involved in the process, and you’ve got to be willing to tell vendors, ‘I don’t want that.'”
Even then, no lawyer can predict how legal and regulatory requirements will change. Consequently, it was important to the Office of Counsel that a staff member be able to make functional changes to the ELM with relative ease, something that eCounsel does allow. “I’m able to make tweaks and do a lot of customizations in-house, rather than paying consultants to perform the work,” said Amy Stone, senior administrator with the Office of Counsel who also serves as the database administrator. “That will allow us to save a substantial amount of money.”
Stone is also responsible for training legal staff on the use of the new system. Every employee will receive basic training, which will then be followed by a further round of advanced training. Stone has also identified a group of 10 users—two members of the support staff from each of the UA legal offices—who will be super-users. “They will receive additional training, and they will in turn train the trainers,” said Stone.
That’s not to say that the introduction of eCounsel has been all smooth sailing since the contract was signed in October. As anyone who has championed a new technology in the workplace can attest, the status quo can have powerful hold over employees. “People, especially lawyers, are afraid of change,” said Shattuck. “The easiest thing for them to say is, ‘Let’s keep what we have—it seems to be working OK.’ But if we’re afraid of change, then we’re not adequately doing our jobs.”
Any technology transition becomes a lot easier, though, if staff can immediately feel the benefits. Unlike the office’s earlier system, for example, eCounsel allows remote access for legal staff, which can be a real boon if a news story hits the wires after office hours. “If we can’t access our materials, we can’t provide support to our spokespeople and communications coordinators or guide them in how to structure a response,” said Shattuck.
Ultimately, it is this ability to enhance the effectiveness of the legal team that determines whether an ELM is a success or failure. Trying to calculate ROI in strictly cash terms misses the point, said Shattuck. “Ultimately, I think it will be a cost saver, but I don’t know how you would ever measure that,” he said. “But, clearly, if we give bad advice to our leadership, you’re more apt to have problems. And when you start measuring the cost of those problems, that’s significant.”
Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.