How do I focus and prioritise when setting up a firm's first in-house legal function?

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

When setting up a firm's first in-house legal function as the first lawyer, how do I prioritise the different business departments and understand where to direct my focus?

This is difficult, particularly if you have started that legal function with just yourself! Some key tips: 

  1. Make sure you understand the overall strategy and focus of the organisation.  Once you understand their priorities and risk appetite, this will help with prioritisation. 
  2. Gather data.  Find a method for recording where your instructions are coming from.  If there are areas of the business that are regularly instructing you, that suggests they need greater focus (case management systems can help do this if there is budget).  
  3. Build relationships – regularly meeting with senior managers helps you get on the front foot.  Don’t be reactive, be proactive too.

Richard Macmillan - Head of Legal (Health)


I would start by setting up some time to talk to senior people in key divisions. It will go a long way if your first conversation involves you listening and talking about their perspectives and aims before you start working with them. 

To go about this, find people who can recommend who to speak to and book time in diaries. Look through structure charts, internal directories and take a note of who features in the annual report. Think about who influences the people you identify. Start at the top and work down.

Talking to stakeholders can help you to direct your focus with a clear understanding of how the business operates on the ground. This will be different to what is said publicly! Look at the business’ key strategic objectives, ‘go live’ delivery dates and think about opportunities and challenges where you can add value to prioritise work as urgent and important. 

Listen and make changes as you go to adjust your approach. If you communicate your priorities back to the business after showing them that you have listened, this will help raise awareness and get them on board with how your priorities are set.       

Jonathan Friend - Senior Lawyer, Information Rights, BBC


Have an effective induction programme
Talk to your manager to set priorities
Talk to the business units and functions but be aware their issues will always be the most important!

Ian White and Simon McCall - In-house legal consultants


With a brand-new function, the in-house lawyer or team will often be replacing one or more external firms. One measure of where the priority areas might be is therefore where that external spend has been going. This comes with a caveat that just because one area of the business has been racking up bills with a law firm, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the most important in managing legal risk.  But it’s clearly worth exploring; not least because it’s an early opportunity to demonstrate the immediate cost saving in-house can deliver. 

The cost of an in-house lawyer will likely be a fraction of the external spend; it’s usually the reason why the decision has been made to set up an in-house function. An early win on how you can help reduce a departmental budget by doing work in-house and/or managing external spend more actively is a great selling point.

It's obviously important to get round the whole of the business in the early days – to introduce yourself (and your team if that’s something you’re putting in place), what you can offer and to understand what use different departments/divisions have historically made of legal resource and where their areas of legal risk lie. These may not necessarily be where they think.

Identifying if there are key internal groups/meetings/projects where it would make sense for the in-house lawyer to be involved to issue spot is something that will help raise profile; so finding out the decision gateways as you chat to folk around the business is really important. This can also help with the perennial issue of being brought in early enough to add maximum value. Negotiating a spell of temporary attendance at divisional or team meetings to get a sense of how projects develop, where decisions are made and what cross-cutting issues there may be could be a tool worth deploying.

Once that initial phase of information gathering and profile raising has been done, a follow up programme of training offers with a focus on “How your in house lawyer/team can help you?” plus any areas that have popped up as areas of concern/uncertainty (when legal privilege applies is a perennial area of confusion and uncertainty, for example) can offer a chance to build the relationship and pull out more on what the key challenges different areas are facing and identify where the legal function can be an enabler.

If there is an external panel in place, they will also have insights and experience to share and are likely to want to be helpful to the new point person for instructions! Making sure you know what external support is being procured and by whom is also essential to getting oversight mechanisms from the in-house function in place so spend can be reviewed and controlled.

Where legal resource is ultimately focused has to be a weighted combination of what is high priority for the business, what is high risk in legal terms looking at both financial and reputational jeopardy  but also what areas or systems might be simplified/cost managed through legal advice; whether that is a contract template for regular transactions, or targeted training to avoid the same questions being asked by different bits of the business on repeat? 

Ideally, the initial stage of information gathering will evolve into an ongoing feedback loop with lawyers feeding in the knowledge they will build up of what’s happening across the business, spotting interdependencies and the business sharing future plans for early legal input to spot risks and shape mitigations.

Rebecca Staheli - Head of Competition and Regulatory Law, BBC


Congratulations on your new role!  You have a fantastic opportunity to support the business and bring real value through your expertise and insight.
The best place to start is to learn as much as you can about the business and the people who you will work with – both formally and informally. 

 Formally, you will want to understand what legal issues exist in the business, and how they are being handled.  You will want to carry out a thorough due diligence process, which will also involve understanding the business’s strategy and operations – making sure that you see minutes and regular reports to board and executive committees and learning about current legal matters in the business.

Informally, though, the best piece of advice is to speak to everyone you can – the board, your peers in the business, the key users of legal services, and your external lawyers, as well as your direct reports.   Don’t just focus on what is going on, though – look at what should be going on too, what is affecting your sector, and what is likely to come over the horizon. Speak to the organisation’s strategy team to understand the strategy and budget, the issues they’re worried about, and any likely corporate transactions.   Whether or not you are a board member, make sure that you cover the areas which would be covered in a board induction – and make connections with your peers in other organisations in your sector (obviously following your organisation’s competition law protocols when dealing with competitors).

Your greatest insight, though, will be through one-on-one conversations.  You may well find that your first few weeks are taken up with individual meetings and conversations – which aren’t just about understanding the facts but making personal connections.  Quite often, you may find that a while after your meeting you’ll receive an email or call, just mentioning something which might be of interest, or asking your view about an issue – often, critically important things.   

All these things allow you to create a map – either in your mind or physically – of the key issues, timescales, and threats which you may need to deal with.   As you continue your induction process you will certainly be re-writing it – perhaps substantially – and you will start to join up the dots.  You may well find that the issues you – and possibly the business – thought were priorities aren’t in fact as important.  It’s quite likely that you’ll find issues badged as key for legal are in fact not really legal issues at all – for example significant employment law issues which arise because of management or recruitment problems.

One thing which is important is to communicate what you are doing – with the board, with the CEO, with the key stakeholders in relation to legal issues, so they begin to understand and embrace your work.  In time, you can develop a strategy for your legal work, and begin to identify what resources are needed, where they are sourced, and how your legal work fits with the overall strategy of the business.   It is, of course, a constant work-in-progress.  Any organisation is constantly evolving and changing, and it is important that legal changes with it – in fact ahead of it.  Done well, though, your focus will be seen to be of real value to the organisation, and you yourself as a key part of it.     

Richard Tapp - legal sector specialist


In 10 steps: 

1: Read the CLL site end to end!

2: Look at your job description, what you were told at interview, what your boss and other senior stakeholders (NED, C Suite, Head of Department, any existing members of your own team) say in their first meetings with you (but be alert to possible political comments and personal agendas of those people).

3: Understand the key priorities and purposes of any “sector specific regulators” and trade bodies (e.g., FCA) that affect your company.

4: Do the same for “generically relevant regulators and trade bodies" (e.g., ICO, ASA, Trading Standards and companies law)

5:  Identify from this – what  areas are large/material to the business if something goes wrong within them (e.g. procurement, certain sales teams, treasury contractual arrangements in the finance team); what areas are fast moving; what areas are in, or about to experience big change; what areas are known to be broken/have problems (e.g. senior staff change, IT problems, supplier or customer issues); and, from within these, which are the areas that you do not know much about from your prior experience?

Pause! Then: 

6: List all the areas down and then score each of those on a heat map from 1: low to 5: high, on each of the following: 
A: important to a key stakeholder
B: in focus with a key regulator
C: in high focus with a generic regulator
D: large
E: fast moving
F: big change 
G: broken
Add up your 1-5s for each item and put them in scoring order and this gives you’re priority heat map.

7: See which ones you do not know much about and/or your team do not either. If this is on one or more of the top scoring areas (let's say in the top 10) then focus first on learning/getting access to knowledge/team/external skill in these areas so that you can understand them enough to check that your scoring is right.

8: Think about what the legal, regulatory and guidance things are that you need to do with each area (e.g., regulatory training for the business, update supplier terms and policy, create and train out advertising law compliance, train the directors on their duties under company law, anti-bribery training…) 

9: Turn this into a written plan (for the next 18-24 months), with explanations tied back to your role profile/job description on each point to explain why this is a (a) legal point, (b) is within your role and (c) needs addressing (and at the level of priority – not higher or lower – that you have given it). If you cannot answer this (a)(b)(c) then, no matter how much you want to, don’t touch it – you already have more than enough to do with your job before volunteering to help other people to do theirs! 

10: Take it to your boss (with related training, recruitment and budget requests linked to the points in order to justify those requests) to get agreement – and then go deliver!

Bruce Macmillan- General Counsel at Irwin Mitchell