The AI Expert – Joanne Chuang
Being Asian, when I was young I was told “When you grow up, you should become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer”. That basically summed up my career options at university. Naturally, one morning, I found myself reading Law at the University of Durham, walking down the old cobbled alleyways of old Durham city in my black gown, staring ahead at my future which was pretty much set. I was to become a lawyer; I would work in a legal firm and I would earn lots of money. And I would take the traditional path like many before me.
Fast forward 20 years later, I did become a lawyer and I have practised in a global legal firm, but I have also moved away from the traditional path.
I started off as a litigator and soon went on to become a solicitor in the United Kingdom before going in-house as a transactional lawyer in a global IT powerhouse.
Then I took on the role of General Counsel at a fast-moving consumer goods company. As I moved across the various roles, what became evident to me was that legal functions are often treated as back-end support. Lawyers are seen as cost centres, document caretakers and filing clerks when contracts are signed. We are much more than that. The legal function should contribute in every area of the organisation to safeguard business integrity and protect against legal risks. This realisation was the key impetus that led to the turning point in my career.
The varied experiences I gained from private practice and in-house legal roles equipped me with a good understanding of the challenges faced by legal firms and in-house counsel. This has also enabled me to be an effective interface between legal teams and technology experts to identify and creatively come up with solutions to resolve specific problems faced by legal teams.
When I took on the role of General Counsel in 2013, I dreamt of transforming the way we worked. Legal teams should not spend too much time on non-value adding work but should focus on high value and impactful activities to drive the business forward. These activities can come in many forms and may include:
- Being an effective (and available) business partner and advisor to key stakeholders;
- Attending business meetings and sales pitches with the business to enable legal risks and advice to be considered when important decisions are made;
- Analysis of data from contracts and legal relationships which could impact on business decision making;
- Monitoring legal and regulatory changes which could affect business activities;
- Usage of different media for communication and training to enable all levels of the business to grasp legal concepts and obligations;
- Continuous improvement in processes to increase compliance and efficiency;
- Continuous legal education to upskill.
By using technology to streamline and simplify legal processes, legal functions can be freed up to do more of these value adding activities.
In 2016, I led “Smarter Contracting” a global legal project to simplify, streamline and ‘easify’ (meaning: to make something more accessible: adapted from “easification”) contracting within the organisation. Unilever is one of the world’s leading consumer goods company, making and selling around 400 brands in more than 190 countries. This role gave me the opportunity to deep dive into global and local processes. I learnt how legal teams operated in all of the geographies ranging from tea plantations to sophisticated state-of-the art factories and supply chain.
One thing that remained constant across the geographies was the need for simpler or easier processes and documents. Legal teams needed to free up time from doing mundane tasks, to enable real business partnering. These include proofreading non-legal documents, signature follow-ups, document retrieval; advising on non-legal matters. They needed to be present at meetings, and not hidden behind the filing cabinet. The legal function needed to embrace technology to automate, triage and amplify the impact of its contribution to the business.
I worked tirelessly with a dedicated team to design the transformation and we successfully roll out Smarter Contracting globally in 2018. The contracting process is now automated to enable users to self-service, i.e. to request for contracts more easily from all locations at any time. Key analytics from contractual documents (such as contract value, service levels, contract status) are captured and delivered to business stakeholders to enhance decision making. Streamlined processes and technology are put in place for approvals, signatures and storage of documents to improve and track the overall lifecycle of documents. As a result, legal teams across geographies are now slowly finding their space in boardroom meetings and are able to contribute even more to the business.
Today, I am a Legal Engineer and I head up the Data Services Team at SYKE. At SYKE, I help legal teams identify the pain points and bottlenecks faced within their legal firm or organizations. Stemming from these pain points, I would then recommend and deploy solutions aimed at simplifying and streamlining processes and ways to creatively use technology to further enhance legal support and drive interactions. Often, the use of technology is woven into the different aspects of the solution. The aim is to optimize transformation processes and to deploy products that enable legal teams to enhance their value to the business, whilst being agile in responding to organizational needs and changes.
Looking back, the legal career I knew 20 years ago is no longer the same one I know today. The legal industry is on the verge of a major transition, a transition from back-end support to a value-adding function, driven by the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives. That is a fact and we are going through a period of major disruptions and the key driver is the need for speed and simplicity.
What does it take to be a Legal Engineer or to be in legal tech? You must have a keen interest in learning, experimenting, exploring, mapping out processes and innovating ways to do it all better using technology. Knowledge and practical work experience from different organisations or private practice is a real added advantage; it helps broaden one’s horizon to identify inefficiencies and to formulate creative solutions borrowing from experiences in different fields. There is a wide spectrum of legal engineers and their contribution to legal tech may differ. There are legal engineers who have IT ability to program and help customers build or configure software. On the flip side, there also legal engineers who have a good combination of skills to identify organisational issues which can be resolved through technology. At the end of the day, you must be passionate about technology and have a hunger to transform the way lawyers work.
If you have all of the above and are thinking of a career in legal tech, wait no more. The time is now. Jump on the bandwagon as quickly as you can. Be curious, be alert and be creative. But most importantly, be willing to embrace the disruption and allow yourself the opportunity to learn the different types of legal technology out there and ways it has and will continue to impact the legal space.