How do I change the perception of the legal function within the business?

A community clinic article - an initiative for you and by you.

The starting point is probably a further set of questions. 

  1. What do you need the perception of the business to be? 
  2. What is getting in the way of the legal function delivering to its full potential? 
  3. What do we know about what the perception is out in the business? 
  4. Does it vary across different teams and divisions?  

The answer to these questions should inform what needs to be done to change the perception and how big a task that is. Inviting clients to team meetings or even dedicated workshop can help. Surveys work, too. 

Questions can be couched positively and negatively. For example, "my legal team make my life easier when…" or "I find it really unhelpful when the lawyers…".

There are some tried and tested methods for improving general visibility. Road shows, training events etc. But often, in my experience, it also has to be a bit opportunistic. There’s nothing like a crisis to get buy-in on the back of some legal firefighting for a shift in approach – maybe one which builds legal advice into the decision making at an earlier stage or involves lawyers in less rigidly defined ways. 

To make the most of such opportunities, it does need a clear mutual sense of this being part of the mission of the in-house team. If the lawyers are all agreed on how they want to change perception, then everyone can be on the lookout for opportunities to do just that. 

So keeping it on the agenda within the legal function, sharing intel and success stories is really helpful. Cross-selling is not just for law firms!  Making use of cases elsewhere in your industry can also focus minds. For example, getting clients to engage with dawn raid procedures from competition authorities is much easier if there has actually been a dawn raid in your sector. 

Rebecca Staheli - Head of Competition and Regulatory Law, BBC


  • Talk to people about the perception.  What don’t they like? What they would like to see?
  • Develop an SLA/mandate
  • Deliver!
Ian White and Simon McCall - In-house legal consultants


Make sure that the reality is right and the perception will follow!

Do this by:

1. Start off by being clear what your functional purpose is.
A typical working definition might be “helping the business to deliver its short and long-term goals in a way that is compliant with its legal and regulatory risk appetite” (n.b. Appetite is not the same as being totally risk free. It is about being trying to be just within but not in excess of that appetite, e.g. “operating in a way that does not expose the business or its officers/staff to material regulatory or legal sanction, sentence or litigation as a result of the business’ acts or omissions”)

2. Then work out how you should do this across each aspect of the work of your team.
For example, what should your Co Sec Team do to deliver this effectively through governance, policies, meeting operations, etc. Ask what and how should: your procurement legal support; your sales legal support;  your legal and regulatory horizon scanning should spot and help the business to adapt to imminent changes that will affect it; your litigation team etc.)  

3. Self-assess - how you actually do this?
Spot the gaps and work out how you would fill the gaps. (CLL has many great resources to help you with these things.) 

4. Recognise that no change is only internal to your team nor is it just about messaging.
Most change will be about ways of working, communicating, changing roles and accountabilities between teams. For example, defining what your team does and does not do or decide upon. 

5. Consequently, identify and consult with key stakeholders across the business to achieve alignment and acceptance on:

  • purpose;
  • how you should deliver;
  • how you are currently delivering;
  • what needs to change, in what order, by whom and how (funding!) to get from where you are to where you should be
  • which stakeholders need to agree the purpose, and will support the journey of change; 
  • how this will be managed within your team and within the wider business to make the changes;
  • how this will be communicated within your team and within the wider business to successfully change.

6. Go deliver and, if done well, the reality will match informed perception! 

Bruce Macmillan - General Counsel at Irwin Mitchell


A common perception levelled at legal teams is that they are a "blocker". If this is a perception is levelled by some in your business, have a think about how true that perception could be from a business perspective. Think about how Legal work with your business and how this aligns with business objectives. For example, in recent matters, do you see Legal adding value by bringing new and creative ways to help people change things in sync with business timescales or is there a pattern of firefighting under unrealistic time pressure? 

Timing is key. One approach that I have found helpful in the past is to increase pro-activity by considering how well the Legal team understand 'pain points', strategic objectives and upcoming pipeline work. This can be a huge help in developing thinking about the issues and opportunities that arise. 

If you find that the level of understanding can be improved to support pro-activity, have a think about what existing channels of communication can help. If there are no existing channels of communication that help, have a think about whether people in Legal can be empowered to reach out to start conversations of their own, to get a better understanding of business objectives, 'pain points' and opportunities. 

Finding this out can also help with planning and resourcing. If you can anticipate as far as possible the needs, busy times, and prioritisation, you can flex your other priorities in line with those business needs. 

Where I have seen this work well in the past, such conversations have also helped the Legal function to demonstrate to the business that they have listened, which can be another important factor in shaping how Legal are perceived. 

However, the most meaningful benefit tends to be from increasing engagement as people see how their work fits into the bigger picture. This can also help your people give better advice with an understanding of how the law impact business objectives, which in turn can increase positive perceptions of Legal. 

Once the legal team have listened and demonstrated an understanding of how the business operates in practice to provide a pro-active legal service, it can be very helpful to think about whether the Legal function communicates the value that it provides. For example, what metrics are made available to the business and are these made available in a way that is relevant, accessible and in sync with wider business reporting timelines?  

This can really help to shape the perception of how Legal has supported achieving key outcomes and in battling against any beliefs if they come up that legal is a "blocker". For your team, it can also help you to shape how matters are prioritised to ensure that the Legal function is concentrating on the 'right' pieces of work at the 'right' time. 

Jonathan Friend - Senior Lawyer, Information Rights, BBC


Legal can often be one of the busiest – but least understood – functions in any organisation.  It’s also something of a ‘distress purchase’ – people will use it only because it’s essential, and sometimes they may be told they can’t do something or need to do it in a different way.

Often, too, the legal function will feel that it is doing a good job – often going above and beyond what is reasonably expected – and that perceptions are unfair.   So what can be done to change the perception of the function?

Really there are two key strands: what the legal function is for, and who the lawyers are.  Communicating these factors, both generally and by personal interaction, can really change the way the function is perceived.

Sometimes lawyers can be guilty of waiting to be instructed – and feel they are so busy that they can do nothing else.   However, a willingness to interact with the organisation can pay dividends.   

As with most activities in business, a documented plan is a good starting point – setting out what you feel will work in your organisation, how it will happen, and when.   Some activities will work; others won’t, and when that’s the case, move on to the next one.  

Some of the options you might consider could include:

  • A clear statement of what legal does, how to contact them, what to expect and how they are paid for;
  • One-to-one meetings with key users of the legal function – and with those who should be, but aren’t for whatever reason;
  • Regular drop-in surgeries (in person or online), allowing people to chat to legal informally;
  • Involving key users in legal team events, or projects – and perhaps even in recruiting new legal colleagues;
  • Holding legal training, workshops or seminars – including covering how legal works;
  • Adopting a ‘buddy’ system for lawyers with their non-legal colleagues;
  • Involving lawyers in generalist training and development sessions in the organisation, and in leadership programmes; or
  • Carrying out a legal audit or legal foresight programme - to understand what legal issues really exist in the organisation, and what might be on the horizon.

Consider what other options might fit with the culture of your organisation and how you can get legal involved.  The aim is very much to try to remove any suspicion or mystique which might prevent colleagues from engaging with you – and to build the function’s profile and reputation so that there is confidence in dealing with the legal team, allow colleagues understand who you really are and what you do, rather than relying on misunderstandings or unfair perceptions.   

Richard Tapp - legal sector specialist