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In Conversation: Sheldon Renkema, General Manager Legal, Wesfarmers

Summary

GC of one of the region's largest conglomerates and head of the Australia chapter of CLOC, Sheldon Renkema has had plenty of opportunity to reflect on changes facing the in-house role.


It's fair to say that legal operations in Australia has evolved differently to the US, where businesses typically have much larger legal functions with many more lawyers in the organisation. There's quite a sophisticated supporting structure around all of that which has effectively been brought into the legal operations umbrella. Australia is a little different.

The Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) in Australia evolved out of a desire to bring together a group of legal staff working at some of the larger companies who had an interest in sharing things that we were learning through our operational improvement initiatives. That included technology but it also included other less tech-focused initiatives aimed at just improving our efficiency and service delivery.

CLOC, particularly in the US, also has quite an extensive array of online resources and online collaboration tools, including some active chat forums where people ask information about what's happening, and seek insights from other CLOC members that might help them with particular problems that they're facing or issues they need to solve. In the last year or so, CLOC has also put in place a law firm membership so that external legal service providers can share what they're doing from an operational improvement perspective.

Legal operational enhancement can be a real challenge if you're starting entirely from the ground up. One of the great things about CLOC is that you can very easily learn from what others are doing, so that you're not reinventing the wheel. You are learning from others' experiences, which makes it a really good forum for embarking on that journey, connecting with people who've been through similar experiences and being able to benefit from their experience of the things that have gone well or not gone well in that context.

It's very difficult to actually objectively assess whether what legal tech providers are saying their product or service delivers is actually what it delivers. Being able to leverage the experience of people who have used those products and services to see what the actual output is helpful.

In my own in-house legal department, we were using an array of technology from the very basic, starting out at the bottom end in terms of core functionality, things like an internal matter management system, which generates data about what the team is doing and feeds into reporting on what we're up to. We also have a document management system as well, that allows for ready storage of documents.

We've built a number of these tools, for example, a self-serve nondisclosure agreement tool that allows people in our businesses - without having contact with a lawyer - to be able to generate and execute a compliant confidentiality agreement. There's also marketing review tools and a contract review tool that we've built and are continuing to evolve. Our objective is to identify processes that our lawyers would otherwise do that are not particularly complex and not particularly strategically significant. And where we can, making use of a tool so that can be done within the business in a user-friendly way that manages the risk.

Going forward, we are exploring the use of more sophisticated tools, particularly more advanced document review technology. The idea is to do an 80/20 review of incoming contracts so that against some key parameters that we've identified so that it really helps the lawyers to narrow down their focus on what's really important in terms of those contract reviews.

We are fortunate in our business that we are relatively free to look at using technology ourselves, although there is some formality in the process. We have to ensure the software we are interested in complies with our data security frameworks, so everything needs to be reviewed by our cybersecurity team to make sure that it is compliant with our standards. The other - perhaps obvious - issue is fitting it into our budget. Aside from these issues, though, there is a fair bit of freedom for us to explore and test different offerings.

I would make the observation that lawyers increasingly need to be at least attuned to technologies and what they do. There's an open argument as to whether lawyers need to be capable in skills like coding etc, my view is that this is probably not necessary but that they at least they need to be familiar with the technologies that are available, and need to be comfortable living with these.

Lawyers who are beginning their careers now are going to be looking at a very different way of practicing in ten or 20 years' time, and they need to be adaptable to that. Some have said that what is really important for lawyers is perhaps not so much blackletter expertise but around building empathy and their soft skills development. I think there's certainly some wisdom in that.


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