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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

August 2015 edition

A new playbook for Capital One: Accelerating the speed of legal advice

Jennifer Brown, editor, Canadian Lawyer InHouse

Nathalie Clark At 4:30 p.m. every day, you will find Nathalie Clark conducting a huddle with her legal team at Capital One Canada in Toronto. They review the work of the day and any new requests for assistance from the business units.

A white board in her office is a focal point that gets reviewed and updated based on what's in play. This board – part of what Clark calls the "visual environment" in her department – is not just for the eyes of the lawyers at Capital One. The chief operating officer and, in fact, any business unit leader can also drop in for a quick update on what's happening with priority matters.

"The daily huddle has significantly accelerated the way we provide legal advice back to the business units," says Clark, vice president and general counsel at Capital One Canada. "Often during those huddles, we will take an item we need to call outside counsel about to get quick advice on, or that we need a quick meeting to resolve and that day, my counsel can go back to the business to say ‘this is where we stand on this' and then the business can run with it."

It's all part of the "lean and agile" work culture Capital One's legal department has been trying to foster in the six months since Clark arrived. While it's a way of working that has been used for years in other fast-moving industries such as tech, she says it's a very different thing to have a legal team operating in this environment that deals primarily with the needs of getting financial products to market.

"Generally, the way Capital One and other companies operate is changing due, in large part, to digital transformation," says Clark. "It's changing the way we work and it's changing the way we want to provide services to our customers and the way customers look at their own needs. The speed of business for us is getting faster and so having silos of information does not work given what we need to accomplish. Having transparency is absolutely critical."

The challenge, says Clark, was to find a way for the legal department to become more "agile" in such a heavily regulated industry and continue to support the business in a way that would not present too many risks.

"We've decided to embrace some principles of the agile management technique," she says. "We're looking at what we can do to leverage those techniques to allow us to be extremely rigorous, manage the legal risk properly, and meet our regulatory requirements but be more nimble while we do it."

To achieve this, Capital One's legal department of 11, which includes nine lawyers, a business analyst, and a government relations person, reorganized its physical space and implemented new processes.

The lawyers now work in an open-space environment — there are no offices except for Clark's, although it is used more as a meeting room. She also decided to co-locate lawyers with the three lines of business (all in the same building). While she admits there are pros and cons to that model, she's tried to address them along the way.

"We have put things in place to make sure they remain independent and that I am aware, at any given time, of the level of risk that is being discussed and that I agree and have oversight," she says.

Clark also tried to create a more collaborative physical environment that includes a large boardroom table located in the middle of the department where counsel can work closely when they feel the need to, which she says has enabled greater co-operation and problem solving. It has also increased the speed in the way the legal team has been able to provide advice.

White boards are filled with open matters, issues that need to be discussed, projects they are tracking, objectives, and mission statements. There is also a board to track regulatory changes and training to be done with the business units.

"A business person can come to the legal department and stare at our visual environment and what we're working on and have a good idea of where we're at on a potential regulation that might affect their business and when it could come into force along with the contact person's name should they have any questions," she says.

Often, it's the chief operating officer, Pepe Porrata, who surveys the board to see where matters sit.

"It's definitely transformed how we work," says Porrata. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, it's all for the sake of making sure we are focused on the things that matter the most for our customers and ensure we are collaborating on things that will have the greatest impact on the customer."

Porrata has a similar white board so Clark can see what his team is working on. He says the speed at which work was done in the past was much slower. Business review meetings with legal would happen once a month.

"Clarity in the various paths we were all taking was not always available. If you wanted clarity, you might have to request a report. Now you can walk to the department and in five minutes I get what I need to know – the transparency is really helpful."

It means Clark and the senior people on her team have had to change the way they look at the work – they have to be available for discussions and prioritize those discussions.

Any change in the legal profession is often looked at with a dose of skepticism, but very quickly Clark says she felt her team's excitement.

"Definitely for a team the size of Capital One it allows them to have input in legal issues that are not necessarily of their immediate expertise," she says.

The senior management team has told Clark the change has "transformed" the way they are receiving advice – it's clearer, timelier, and well rounded.

"The biggest value is you can ensure better consistency throughout the organization," she says. "Counsel providing advice to one line of business is not inconsistent to what another counsel will say a few weeks later or the same day."

She admits the initiative is in its infancy.

"We are beginning to develop meaningful metrics. We are going to keep refining our visual environment boards and the way we do huddles. Continuous improvement is a big part of agile management and leveraging what makes sense for a legal department," she says.

This column originally appeared on the Canadian Lawyer InHouse website. Canadian Lawyer InHouse was the first magazine in Canada to solely serve corporate counsel. Each week it comprehensively covers the Canadian market online and in print.

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