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Legal Consultant Limelight: Nancy Jessen

To reach their full potential, corporate law departments must go beyond  delivery of legal services – while keeping costs under control – to embrace innovation in a way that proactively contributes to the institution’s strategic goals. That’s the message from Nancy Jessen, Senior Vice President of Legal Business Solutions at UnitedLex, who has decades of experience in helping law departments “become a true business partner” to their company’s success. Jessen joined UnitedLex after stints at Huron Consulting, Arthur Andersen and Altman Weil, and has had a passion for working with lawyers since she worked at a law firm during high school.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers how your work at UnitedLex fits into the broader mission of the company?

Nancy Jessen: UnitedLex is modernizing the legal industry. We are a company of over 2,000 employees – attorneys, engineers, financial analysts, and consultants – operating throughout the United States and abroad. United by an abiding commitment to strengthening our clients, we meld our passion and resources to their goals and aspirations – creating a standard of excellence otherwise unattainable.

LD: Let’s talk about your career path. When you were at Iowa State, what did you expect to do with your degree?

NJ: I graduated with an MIS (Management Information Systems) degree, the first year it was offered.  The combination of business and computer science fit perfectly with my interests and natural aptitude.  Iowa State had a fantastic placement office which brought many Fortune 500 companies to campus for interviews to join large IT departments. I couldn’t see myself being “a cog in the wheel that turned the crank.” I jumped at the opportunity to join a small software development company that focused on law firm accounting. It was the perfect fit by bringing together my MIS degree, my experience working in a law firm since high school, and my public speaking and teaching experience through Dale Carnegie.

LD: How did you begin to develop an interest in the legal side of consulting?

NJ: From my first job at age 16, I have always worked with lawyers. At that first job, I was engaged on both the substantive side of the legal work – doing deposition abstracts and preparing trial exhibits, as well as helping organize the firm and leverage technology by creating an expert witness database.

At my first job out of college at the software company, I worked with law firms to implement practice management systems and to understand their economics – how to interpret management reports to understand the impacts of staffing and utilization on profitability, practice groups and even at the legal-matter level. It became obvious, even back in the early 90’s, that lawyers needed to increase their business acumen in order to make more informed decisions about serving clients.

LD: What eventually brought you to UnitedLex? Can you talk about some of the jobs you held beforehand and how they prepared you for your current role?

NJ: Although I have focused my almost 30-year career entirely on legal consulting, I have had the opportunity to work for organizations ranging in size and strategic focus. Each contributed to my understanding of how to move the legal industry forward and my own best fit. I have been in-house at a law firm, with a small boutique consulting firm, a global accounting and professional services firm, and growing niche players.

UnitedLex is where it all comes together for me – a compelling vision, drive for innovation, commitment to execution, and strength of leadership. People who have known me in the industry for years comment on how I glow when describing UnitedLex and the opportunity we have to make a meaningful impact on the legal industry. 

LD: What excites you about your work?

NJ: I love learning a client’s unique culture, business objectives, industry and stage of evolution. Becoming absorbed into each client allows me and my team to provide objective guidance that is tailored and relevant to them. It is why I never tire of legal consulting – each client, each engagement is a new opportunity to be innovative and impact a department’s value contribution and the legal team’s professional satisfaction.

LD: What are some of the biggest challenges law departments are facing these days – are there commonalities among clients’ needs or trends you are seeing?

NJ: Emphasis on cost cutting that became dominant starting in 2008 has driven good changes in behavior and thinking about the business aspects of legal services, but also created a pendulum swing in staffing and resource decisions driven more by cost than value contribution. General counsel that I work with are looking to increase the effectiveness of the department and highlight how the department contributes to the company’s success.

LD: Have these issues changed since earlier parts of your career? You’ve mentioned in some of your thought leadership that expectations are higher for law departments than merely focusing on cost-savings and creating contracts.

NJ: The law department must understand the company’s business, strategy, financials, industry, and competitive landscape. It is only with that backdrop that a department can be a true business partner and translate its advice into actionable recommendations. Today, departments must not just be proactive, but also preemptive – solving root-cause problems to minimize the demand for legal services.  

LD: Once UnitedLex begins working with a law department, what is your team like in terms of the types of professionals and different skillsets provided to the client?

NJ: Our Law Department Consulting team is a mix of strategists, process experts, financial analysts and technologists – overall really smart people that love to take on new challenges. We value a focus on client service, which includes being a learning organization, innovative and forward thinking, as well as developing customized solutions to change the legal environment. 

We start every project with a deep dive into the company and the department and an open discussion on the tolerance for change. I often say that it is an indicator of success that a client may only implement a portion of our recommendations in the short-term. That means we stretched their thinking and presented new ideas, not just reiterated what they already know. We bring this type of thinking into every project, whether it is a system design and implmentation, an internal resource optimization, or external vendor management project.

LD: How do you get law departments to reimagine or retrain some of their thinking? Do you encounter resistance?

NJ: To avoid the reputation that consulting can be too theoretical, we incorporate tangible approaches and literal examples of how the department can drive value. Using logic and consistent definitions helps move lawyers away from using outlier examples of risk or as the reason they can’t change. We challenge and train the leadership team to model business-thinking processes as a way to set a new expectation and tone of the department.

LD: On the more practical side, what types of technology solutions do you bring to departments to improve efficiencies or other outcomes? Are there challenges that stand out when it comes to getting departments to implement these changes?

NJ: Most departments have focused on the “managements” – matter management, document management, contract lifecycle management, etc. While these are important technologies to track legal work, investment needs to be made in technology that actually enables the completion of legal work and captures the knowledge of experienced resources. It is hard for senior people to admit that what they know and do can be routinized and translated into a system for client self-service or use by a more junior resource. It also requires taking those senior people away from day-to-day client work to codify their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge for use by others – the ultimate goal of knowledge management.

LD: Are there common mistakes you see even well-run departments make when it comes to using metrics or messaging to demonstrate their value to the company?

NJ: Too often metrics overly focus on counting the volume of work or are financially oriented. These only become meaningful if they are shown in context of trends over time and against initiatives that have been put in place to drive change. We have developed an approach to metrics that focuses on how the department delivers value: One, facilitating risk management and protection; two, advancing strategic direction; three, increasing the speed of business; and four, controlling costs.

LD: Are there any other big-picture trends that you think will affect your clients and potential clients in the years ahead?

NJ: The legal industry is following the path of the medical industry – there is a range of providers whose qualifications and cost are tied to their role and involvement in the service delivery. We will see the legal equivalent of surgeons, general practitioners, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, certified nurse assistant, medical technician, and on and on.

Both law departments and law firms need to revise their staffing model from the assumption that all positions enjoy career development that leads to a senior role or partnership. To stretch the concept even further, the legal industry may evolve to the point that lawyers practicing law in today’s traditional structures may become the minority.