How do you manage expectations with your stakeholders and demonstrate value?

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

Stakeholder engagement is a key role for the legal team, but one which is often missed in the melee of day-to-day legal work.

 Managing expectations means firstly, and rather obviously, being sure you know what they are. 

This can mean recognising that they may not be fully expressed in the questions you’ve been asked – or even expressed at all. 

Being really clear about where the stakeholder wants or needs to get to and why is the first step.
Being honest and open about what is realistic – you can give a caveated view very quickly with little background or a fully fashioned one with time and detail. Which of those or which version between those points is what is needed? 

The value of an in-house team is that they can do both and the more they understand about the client and their goals, the more efficient that becomes.  

External teams can reach that state of knowledge and nuance but it takes time and spend. 

An obvious measure of value is how much the in-house team saves on legal spend – finding a way to demonstrate that can be what some internal stakeholders need to see. 

But what makes them value and rely on internal legal colleagues is their ability to act as a sounding board beyond pure legal risk and also as a good source of spotting interdependencies. 

Legal teams can sometimes be the function that sees across the piece – joining the dots is really valuable and pointing out where a legal risk might be minimal in one area but will have knock on’s in another is a real value add .

Rebecca Staheli - Head of Competition and Regulatory Law, BBC


In terms of managing expectations, I try to live by three guiding principles:

(1) Be clear in how you communicate. 
The clearer you are with stakeholders, the more their expectations will be managed. 

If you’re running a project, for example, be certain and confident in setting the scope, boundaries, timescales, objectives, stakeholder needs etc. 
Remember too to regularly update stakeholders on a matter, set-up and maintain open and transparent communication channels, build that vital trust from the outset, and manage any changes and risks flexibly but productively. 

(2) Be carefully in setting precedents! 

If you’re consistently the “yes-person”, the colleague who is willing to help with whatever (even if not your remit), and the lawyer who turns around work in 30-seconds, you’ll likely make a rod for your own back.

If something is urgent (as in, really urgent, not the kind of urgent label which stakeholders love to use, regardless of the urgency level!), then of course you should prioritise that task. But, if something can wait, I often find that it helps to not jump on it immediately – both in terms of managing expectations, and of managing your own time and workload. 

(3) Show the business what you do.

Now and then, I find that some colleagues, understandably, don’t quite understand or appreciate what’s involved in our day job. I’m sure we’ve all seen similar requests to “Have you got a spare half an hour to run through this (40-page) contract please?”

And, sometimes, that’s our fault. As well as educating our business on legal and other topical matters, we shouldn’t shy away from explaining to them (1) what we do, (2) the extent of the work involved, and (3) how long something actually takes to do. I find that, in doing that, expectations are realistically met, and a newfound respect is given to the allegedly naysayer/ blocker-by-nature Legal Team!

That third principle contributes to the demonstration of our value too. Other strategies I sometimes use to show our worth as in-house lawyers is to:

  • Highlight project success to senior managers – particularly where Legal played a substantial role. 
  • Run “show-and-tells”/ visual and interactive campaigns on things like guidance notes, webinars, precedents and drafting steers. 
  • Remind colleagues that your skillset extends beyond the law – you’re a wholesale, well-rounded commercial advisor too. 
  • Highlight the cost savings from employing a lawyer in-house, compared to outsourcing. 

Above all, show that you’re human – a trait us lawyers are too often reluctant to show to the world! But, in my experience at least, being your true self at work (warts-and-all) enables the wider business to see and appreciate your true value.

Gethin Bennett - Assistant Legal Counsel - The Royal Mint


Bridging the gap - how can legal teams align with stakeholder expectations and demonstrate value?
Stakeholders are not legal practitioners and what they expect from their legal team may differ to what they need. 

Understanding stakeholder objectives
Asking stakeholders about their objectives, challenges and opportunities can be a helpful way for the legal team to get the information they need to: 

  • Focus legal advice on the business implementation in practice.
  • Provide stakeholders with legal advice which they can use to move their objectives on immediately. 

The power of active listening
Having these conversations can help the legal team to 'cut through' by demonstrating that they have listened and adjusted legal advice and priorities as matters progressed. 

Measuring success and making adjustments
This can also be an opportunity for the legal team to measure how well they are doing in providing the business with the advice and solutions they need to: 

  • Formulate products;
  • Achieve commercial opportunities;
  • Manage risk.

It may be that there is work that the legal team are doing which is not having the highest impact and adjustments can be made as they go accordingly. 

Maintaining ongoing communication
Ongoing conversations about legal objectives and work can be an opportunity to receive feedback from stakeholders and to adjust along the way, to ensure the right matters are being worked on at the right time. 

Celebrating success
Communicating back and celebrating legal successes at the time when business objectives are met can be a compelling way to: 

  • Demonstrate the value that the legal team provides;
  • Communicate in a practical way what stakeholders need from Legal to meet their own objectives. 

By adopting these strategies, legal teams can ensure they are not just meeting stakeholder expectations but exceeding them.

Jonathan Friend - Senior Lawyer, Information Rights, BBC


It's about an ongoing dialogue with the stakeholder at the right level about what the legal department is there to do and what it's not as well as what the current priority items in the workload are.

You won't be able to keep everyone happy all the time but it's really important that the right people at the right seniority understand that and there is an ongoing dialogue – you can never communicate enough with your key stakeholders to ensure your priorities are aligned and pulling in the same direction. You won't agree all the time but there should at least be alignment to the strategic priorities of the organisation. 

On value that really depends on the organisation, the strategic focus of your work and how this underpins or is key to a company hitting its strategic objectives.

If the function isn’t aligned or supporting key objectives then demonstrating value is going to be hard but regardless of this try thinking about two or three metrics that you can ensure your stakeholders know about – how engaged is the legal team, how happy are the stakeholders and how aligned is the legal function to supporting the organisations strategic objectives – if you have a good story to tell on each of these items it will give you a basis for articulating the value being delivered and what needs to be done to improve it.

Chris Fowler - Chief Operating Officer - Legal, Rio Tinto


Document exactly what you and your team are there for (and not there for) by reference to your legal and regulatory obligations, your job description and role profile, your objectives and the legal and regulatory risk appetite of your company.

Then document how this connects (what, when, why, how) with your stakeholders (e.g. procurement, finance, HR, sales, design, internal audit) to the best of your understanding.

Then go and discuss and work through these draft documents with each of those stakeholders in turn so that you get understanding for you of each of your stakeholders’ roles, objectives, needs, priorities, resources etc and for them of yours. 

Once you understand each other (and have taken any uncertainties between the teams as a “No fault escalation” to your boss (hopefully this will be the CEO) to resolve), then you can look at how to work together on managing your teams’ day to day interactions with each other from a perspective of mutual understanding and collaboration.

Wherever possible use agreed methods of prioritisation and project planning and raise any issues or problems early and have regular check ins to agree and document how to approach new issues arising, changes in priority and any problems that have come up (and what to do about them) – i.e. good “business partnering” with your stakeholders.

Once you have done the exercise in the previous paragraph properly, then you can measure and report back on how well you are delivering on your and your team’s role descriptions and on the agreed project planning and prioritised deliverables and to show how you take a positive and proactive “continuous improvement” mindset to the issues that will inevitably arise.

It is important in doing this to think how best to express what you are doing is helping the company to meet its stated objectives and to do so in line with its vision and values and not just make abstract statements like “we processed 20 contracts last week”. Now you will have the materials to demonstrate to your boss, to other stakeholders and to the business more generally the role of your function, the deliverables that you are achieving and how they add value to meeting the goals of the long term, sustainable success of the business. Perhaps talk to your comms team too to ask them to help you to market what you and your team do and how well that is supporting the business effectively to your stakeholders .

Bruce Macmillan - General Counsel at Irwin Mitchell


Those of us who are privileged to work in-house know that it can be a two-edged sword – the more successfully you work, the more work finds its way to the in-house team, and the harder it can be to manage the expectations of the internal client. You’ve shown how well you can work with them, so they’d like more, please, and they’d like it now.

This can present a further problem.  Even where you are working flat out, there is the risk in many organisations that you are seen simply as a commodity resource – brought in-house simply to do work more cheaply than an external provider.   Instead of realising the true value of your team, you can find yourself under pressure to do more with less, while being unable to meet the expectations of your internal clients.

If any of this sounds familiar, it is well worth stopping to think about two things:  what are you doing to manage the expectations of your stakeholders, and how you are demonstrating the value of the legal team?

Stakeholder engagement is a key role for the legal team, but one which is often missed in the melee of day-to-day legal work where there is constant pressure to get the work out.  It’s useful to ask yourself, though, whether your stakeholders understand why the organisation has in-house lawyers, and what you are expected (and able) to do.   If not, or there is doubt, then as a first step, you may wish to consider developing a legal strategy to agree and record those elements.   

This isn’t as hard as it may sound – it starts with a series of conversations and consultations with the key stakeholders in the organisation – not just senior management but the people who instruct the legal team regularly too – about what is needed, whether you are doing the right thing (are you firefighting – or as has been said “putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top”) and whether you have a resource which allows you do meet expectations?

There is a limit to the capacity of every individual – often in-house people are expected to take on more and more work with no real understanding of whether it can be completed and when, and as lawyers are driven and focused people, they will often try to do it without complaint until it becomes clear that it isn’t physically possible for them to complete it.

As well as identifying what and how the team should do, it’s essential to decide how to engage about expectations for delivery.  You may well have arrangements in place already for each instruction to be acknowledged with an indication of timescale, but more than that you can introduce formal and informal review meetings, regular catch-ups with clients, involvement in strategy and planning meetings and other events which help you both to understand what is needed.

Engagements like this can also help sell the team's value – but do bear in mind that demonstrating and communicating value needs to be a core role of the in-house department.  What lawyers do is understandably not something your in-house clients necessarily understand, and the more you can do to communicate and celebrate that, the better. 

CLL has useful materials on engaging with clients and selling the value of your legal team – do look at them to see what ideas might be useful to you and your organisation .

Richard Tapp - legal sector specialist