How I'm transforming my legal department - Aisin Holdings of America
Dante-B-Aisin-HoldingsGuest blog written by Dante Benedettini JD, MBA
General Counsel | Automotive Lawyer | Author | Trusted Business Partner | Legal Technology Advocate

One of the things I’ve always professionally aspired to do is build a great legal department. I got that opportunity two years ago when I joined Aisin Holdings of America as general counsel.

Aisin, like many other companies in the automotive sector, is focused on cutting costs while improving profitability and manufacturing capacity. North America contributes significantly to Aisin’s worldwide revenue so we had our work cut out for us.

When I got here, there were some hurdles to overcome:

  • The legal department was very lean: there was just one hard-working lawyer on staff and no legal technology infrastructure in place. As a result, it was difficult to deliver comprehensive legal services to Aisin’s 12 subsidiaries.
  • There wasn’t much maturity with respect to legal department policies and procedures, which meant that nothing was being measured, forecasted, or budgeted when I started. Without benchmarks, there was no way to improve, much less prove what’s improving.
  • There wasn’t a filing system. Without analytics, record retention, or document management – I couldn’t even go to management and tell them what a busy month looked like.

At that time, Aisin’s situation allowed for little help in overcoming our largest challenge – cost reduction. They seek to eliminate muda (waste) in every part of the company, but without analytics to measure anything, it was just impossible. Assessing the most urgent needs was critical to beginning our transformation, and I was beginning to create my punch list of what had to happen first. At the same time, I learned that one of the keys to success in this business culture is to respect the needs and goals of the business while improving them. I needed to use nemawashi (consensus building) to tactfully determine the right approach while respecting my extended legal ecosystem.

I started by putting in place a compliance program to assist with minimizing overall legal risk and exposure for the companies. We uncovered long lead times to turn around fairly simple things like contract and NDA reviews. And because all the companies were run separately, there was no centralized control.

Once the critical compliance hole in the dike was patched, I shifted my focus to staffing up the department. I began hiring and set up my new team to focus on being trusted advisors and begin the blocking and tackling associated with improving service in the day-to-day work. This helped get other initiatives started like contract review procedures, and improvement in litigation management issues. But I knew there was still one piece missing: to transform my department into a functional team, we required the right legal technology that establishes a solid foundation for more growth.

Matter management has always been one of my basic foundations of an in-house legal department, and I’ve had experience with many of them on the market. After a comprehensive evaluation, we chose ASCENT because it allowed us to do exactly what we needed. For example, we need the ability to split up forecasting into operating costs; personnel; special projects; known and unknown claims; budgeting and planning for the upcoming year; compliance; contract management; and cost reductions. We also wanted each member of the team to have a personalized view of their most critical information in one place, and with dashboards we are now able to do that. In fact, doeLEGAL configured the system to work within our process, not the other way around, for example:

  • Quickly opens a matter and allows drag-and-drop items into its file folders.
  • Effortlessly dovetails into MS Outlook.
  • Affords changes as we advance daily with agility.
  • Dedicates support experts to guide my team through the transformation.
  • Keeps me focused on the more strategic decisions, not the technology.

There’s no lack of agility like other solutions I used. I liken it to building the airplane as you’re flying – I’m able to make changes throughout the implementation as my business changes, which happens all too frequently. ASCENT has the capabilities to allow for these “growing pains” without feeling overwhelmed by it. I’ve had experience with other matter management systems, but wish I chose ASCENT from the very beginning.

So the question that remains to be answered is how are we using this tool to support our transformation? It starts when we come in in the morning – we open ASCENT and it’s opened all day long. We’ve gained agreement on what constitutes a matter and now all matters go straight into ASCENT. We also use the system at home, securely because anyone with security privileges can access the system from anywhere – including their mobile phones.

Another way we’ve supported our transformation is by moving all our files to the cloud. If your IT department is concerned about moving everything to the cloud like mine was, have the right conversations. The conversations with doeLEGAL and IT helped inspire us to think differently about where we keep our files – now everything is in the cloud and we now know it’s much more secure than our previous approach. Security is important to us – the doeLEGAL servers are prepared for anything regarding security. Their policies, procedures, and standards all overcame our initial hosting concerns.

We are still in the beginning stages of my transformation plans, but already, ASCENT has allowed me to demonstrate that we are becoming a world-class in-house legal department with the ability to communicate our value throughout the company, for example:

  • Client service and internal communication have already improved.
  • Internal efficiencies are being tracked now and already show significant improvements.
  • We are measuring and reducing lead times of all types and can report on them at any stage. For example, contract review and NDA lead times used to range from 2 days to 6 weeks. We’ve reduced this time across the board and right now, we’re at about a 7 – 10 days, and our very achievable goal is 2 days.
  • We can now collaborate among all companies and, in the future, the legal department at our headquarters in Japan.

Next up in our transformation plan is ASCENT’s legal hold and eBilling modules, which we’ll be implementing in 2019.

This is only the beginning of my journey, but the moral of my story so far is,… if you’re looking to add legal technology tools to your department, make sure you choose one with adaptability. If you choose another focus, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle… like trying to put a round peg through a square hole. I’ll let you know how we’re doing as this journey continues. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, contact me or the support experts at doeLEGAL.

Follow Dante Benedettini’s articles by visiting his LinkedIn profile. Read his original posting of this article here.