Peter Connor on Legal Department Change and Innovation [Q&A]

Peter Connor
Peter Connor, Founder and CEO, AlternativelyLegal Pty Ltd

The legal industry is undergoing a transformative change. Virtual firms, disruptive business models, artificial intelligence and alternative ways of approaching the practice of law are quickly becoming the ‘new normal’.

Peter Connor, CEO and founder of AlternativelyLegal, is at the forefront of this industry shift and boasts over 30 years of experience practicing law and compliance around the world.

From Sydney to Hong Kong to Silicon Valley to Zurich, Peter has enjoyed a fascinating career in law and compliance, and was awarded the prestigious Sun Microsystems CEO Leadership Award in 2004 for his contribution to the business.

Now a global legal and compliance change agent, Peter is on a mission to help lawyers enhance the value of their client services through innovation, business partnering and compliance reform.

We chatted with Peter to find out how you can innovate and succeed as corporate counsel in a rapidly changing legal industry.

Q: Tell us about your legal career.

A: I’d like to say that there was a master career plan, but in truth that wasn’t the case! Having started out at major law firm Baker & McKenzie in Sydney and Hong Kong, I made a move in-house at a time when it wasn’t the most fashionable thing to do.

First I relocated to Silicon Valley to work for Sun Microsystems. I then moved to England to take on their European general counsel (GC) role, followed by the head of European Government affairs position, before returning to Sydney as the APAC general counsel.

Later, I moved to Switzerland to work for Citrix Systems as their EMEA general counsel and then became their head of global compliance. More recently, I acted in a business role for compliance firm Red Flag Group, where I was responsible for managing a team of software engineers and data scientists developing a range of software products. In late 2015, I formed, and am now CEO of, AlternativelyLegal.

Q: You’ve enjoyed a unique and diverse career, working in global legal and compliance roles. How can Australian lawyers broaden their experience?

A: Breadth of experience helps you to challenge the status quo and to see things from the client’s perspective, both of which are key to innovation. If you have the chance to live and work overseas, do it.

If not, one of the wonderful aspects of working in-house is that when you lift your head above the daily grind, you have many opportunities to informally learn about things other than the law. The sweet spot for every in-house counsel is business partnering – where you proactively seek out opportunities to help the business. This is where you add true value from the client’s perspective and can broaden your experience at the same time.

Q: What is AlternativelyLegal and why did you set it up?

A: I realised that I enjoy innovating the practice of law more than practising itself. So I formed AlternativelyLegal to provide training and consulting to help lawyers change the way they work. In turn, they can offer more value to their clients and, frankly, have more fun doing so.

I’ve also developed a radical new approach to online compliance training called Trouble Traps® videos to help companies give their employees more engaging, relevant and interesting guidance.

Q: How are legal departments innovating?

A: Based on my interactions with GCs all over the world, most departments start any change initiative by focusing on costs. It’s what I call Change 1.0. Typically, they look to rationalise outside counsel spend, utilising spend management systems to assist the process. Often, they will use paralegals and some might engage LPO services.

Departments that are further along the innovation maturity curve are engaged in what I refer to as ‘Change 2.0’. They tend to focus on efficiency by streamlining the contract process, utilising technology like e-signatures and implementing contract automation systems.

But for innovation to provide more value for the business – and not primarily for the department – it is necessary to progress to Change 3.0. That involves not just doing the same things more cost efficiently, but reinventing the way lawyers work. This means changing what we do to become more effective and make more of a business impact.

Q: Are individual lawyers embracing change?

A: Most in-house counsel are too busy doing their day-to-day job to focus on change. A recent survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia also found that more than 70 per cent of GCs were not even aware of NewLaw business models.

But once lawyers are aware of what’s happening in the industry, know what and how to change it, most are inspired and willing to do so because they can see it will improve their work life.

Q: Why should in-house lawyers innovate and change?

A: The short answer is: because others are. If you’re not innovating, you’re effectively going backwards. The longer response is that innovation offers solutions to many perceived problems faced by in-house lawyers, such as having to perform the ‘urgent’ work over more varied or enjoyable tasks, or feeling that clients don’t value their contribution to the business.

Innovation also offers the opportunity for greater personal fulfilment and success at work.

Q: What should legal departments change?

A: There are two essential questions to focus on as in-house lawyers: how can we deliver legal and compliance information to clients in faster, cheaper and more effective ways? And how can we make the greatest contribution to the business? It goes beyond a single transaction – it’s about partnering with the business to help solve problems and maximise opportunities.

Q: How should they change?

A: Change is difficult. There’s not a lot of guidance out there for in-house lawyers, especially from anyone who’s had hands-on, in-house experience at innovation and change.

It is critical to acquire technology know-how and non-traditional skills like process improvement, design thinking, change management, business partnering and project management. If you’re serious about change, you need a structured plan, you need to invest in re-skilling and you need to follow a change management process.

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