The key is good communication – and that is going to be as much (in fact probably more) about listening than talking. It is important that the legal function does not sit in its area and never goes and visit its clients! You would be surprised by how many in-house lawyers operate like this. Or maybe you wouldn’t! So walking around and visiting your clients is one way. This has, of course, been more difficult during Covid.
Another way is to send members of your team on secondment to different departments and to build up relationships. This also provides those departments with a key contact within the legal team in the future.
Some companies put lawyers within business units reporting to a Divisional MD for example. That is fine in theory but there is a need to ensure that lawyers don’t lose their objectivity and independence once they are working for a business unit.
The key is to show interest in and be well informed about the business. Be curious about the important jobs that the people in core and support functions do for your organisation. A good way to show that you are interested and well-informed is to ask good questions that get people talking about their job and area of the business. One of the best comments we have ever come across in relation to effective networking is: show that you are “interested”, rather than try to be “interesting”.
Ian White and Simon McCall - In-house legal consultants
If you are regularly meeting with senior leaders in key areas, you will better understand the overall direction of the organisation (helping to shape your advice to be more commercial that purely legal) and indirectly help shape decisions. This is dependent on the size of the team for how far you can do this but building relationships with your instructing managers is everything when working in-house for building a more influential department.
I would also ensure that you have legal representation on key committees to help shape the governance of the organisation. If you are working at all levels, colleagues will soon find you indispensable and you will find the team is integrated.
Richard Macmillan - Head of Legal (Health)
Integrating legal processes, people and data can be a helpful place to start. Specifically, can a legal process be integrated into a business one? For example, data protection impact assessments becoming part of the procurement due diligence process.
Where I have seen this work well in the past, process integration has increased levels of business engagement with sufficient time - much to the relief of the legal & business functions! With clear communication, process integration can instil a feeling of shared task and remove any lack of clarity on information needed and timescales.
Integrating data through a shared dashboard or other risk reporting can help present legal data in a ‘joined up’ way. If the business sees legal data with other KPIs, such as numbers of contracts signed, this can help legal KPIs feed into business decision making. In turn, the legal function gets visibility of the wider commercial, legal and regulatory picture, to see opportunities and challenges to add more value.
Integrating people can reduce the volume of formal work requests and increase certainty about timescales. Where I have seen this work well in the past, it has been a joy for the legal function to give ‘quick steers’ in the moment and for the business to receive more nimble support where this is appropriate. For example, when joining business team meetings, sitting with business teams or taking turns manning a ‘helpline’ each week.
It can be a gradual approach of building relationships, or it can be proposing a positive structural move to embed teams within the business areas with which they primarily work. Or it can be a combination of both. Some in house teams have a central GC function alongside teams that are embedded within business areas working as integrated units. Sometimes this can include lawyers working in non-legally badged business led roles.
Central teams can also build a more integrated model. This can come from mechanisms like secondments and shadowing to build up lawyers’ knowledge of the practical realities of the client groups. It can also come from promoting the involvement of lawyers in non-legal initiatives where volunteers are sought from around the business; for example, DEI projects or change management. This gives a chance to get out into the business to work with colleagues outside the normal lawyer function, raising profile and finding out more about areas where there may be opportunities to support. For leaders of legal functions, this means supporting lawyers in taking on “non-legal” work and the carving out of time this can entail.
Offering training for teams on key areas (ideally linked to a topical industry issue or concern) can often raise practical live issues with the opportunity to advise but also work together on changes to how lawyers work with teams to build in advice early and avoid unnecessary delays. Training specifically badged as “How to get the best out of your legal team” can also be a hook. Offering cake helps….and indeed more generally promoting social links between legal teams and the clients they support is always a good supplement. Inviting clients to legal away days or equivalent can also be useful to get their perspective and treat them as strategic partners for the legal function’s evolution and improvement.
There are ethical and professional reasons why a healthy degree of distance is required. Lawyers need to be able to give frank advice when things get tough. Finding the right balance is key but the natural tendency is to err on the side of distance, which can be a mistake. There is a danger of being so remote that we are only engaged when a small problem has become a big one, or that we don’t actually know what is going on early enough to intervene.
On the business side of the lawyer-client relationship, there are also factors that push us apart rather than help us work collaboratively. It can come as a bit of a shock to hear what people really say about lawyers in private if relationships are not well maintained. There are wide-spread cultural stereotypes about lawyers that we need to get onto the front foot and combat.
I once did a stint working as a compliance officer in a large bank. Pretty soon, I was part of the Compliance team, and I could see, hear and personally experience how frustrated people were with dealing with lawyers. The most common complaint was that lawyers did not take responsibility for solving problems, they were perceived as wading in to offer “advice” that was not a solution, and then swanning off again. “Slopey shouldered” was a common way to describe the legal department. Another common complaint was that lawyers were remote and arrogant.
The sad thing was, I don’t think the legal department perceived themselves in this way at all, but they had not been proactive about avoiding this issue.
The first thing is that we need to start from the assumption that relationships need cultivating and that they don’t maintain themselves. One of the easiest things to do is to physically sit with people for a day, where teams are office based. It is amazing how much more trusting people will be of you, if they see you are willing to show up and spend time with them.
A side benefit of sitting with your stakeholder teams is that they can see how hard you work, which is not a bad thing. Often, non-lawyers wildly under-estimate how much time it takes to do legal work because they don’t understand what legal work actually is. Seeing you work helps the business understand how limited legal resource is, why you need to prioritise constantly and why their “urgent” is your “BAU.” You might get cut some slack as a result, and early engagement might improve.
If teams are not in the office, then ask for invites for team meetings, put in “coffee connections” slots, contribute to charity fund-raisers or raise some money yourself. Join every network going. Every member of the legal team should be doing this, with their stakeholder group, not just the team leadership.
The other thing to do is to talk the language of the business. Understand what the CEO and exec are saying about what is going to drive the business or organisation forward and start measuring yourself and aligning yourself in the same way. Structure your 1-2-1s and team meeting agendas using that same language and metrics, where possible. Get results. Understand what the business is trying to achieve and put your shoulder to the wheel to help them achieve it safely and in compliance with law and regulation applicable to your firm.
Lastly, don’t write memos except where the business asks for one or for the file as part of your own record keeping. Offer options and provide a recommendation. The business won’t always take the recommendation but thinking through your options helps them to decide how to move forward. I have never had someone complain to me about putting options on the table that in the end are not the ones taken forward. Show your workings so the business can engage with your thought process.
Michael Phillips - Head of Legal (Advice and Central Functions), Schroders Personal Wealth
It all depends on the philosophy/strategic approach that the legal departments want to play in supporting the business. If it’s a more business partner model, then I think structuring the function around supporting the big strategic priorities makes more sense and having a clear approach to what sort of work you will focus on will help. On the contrary, if it is a more of a compliance type model, then it might be preferable to be separate and distinct so that the department offers a very objective service. There is no right or wrong, and ultimately it will depend on a number of things including the extent of regulation, what industry sector you are in, and what the business and its executives ultimately expect of its legal department.Chris Fowler - Chief Operating Officer - Legal, Rio Tinto
There is a childhood party game called “pass the parcel” where children line up and pass a parcel between them, each taking a layer of wrapping paper off, until someone ends up with the present inside.
Most business activities are like a reversed “pass the parcel” where different departments in the business each add their layer of input until a fully wrapped and complete parcel has been made – the parcel being: an employment relationship; a customer relationship; a supplier agreement; a new office commitment; a litigation process; or designing business plans, etc.
Most, but not all, departments in a business are involved in most, but not all, “parcel making” processes. In many businesses this process is ad hoc and unstructured; but in the better businesses there is a process flow with identified stakeholders adding their specific contribution/layer of wrapping paper at specified points in the process (i.e. lining the departments up, like the children – but in a specific order).
So to be more integrated…
You need to think about each of the parcel making processes that exist in your business (e.g. procurement, supply, employment, litigation, strategy etc). Then you need to think what specific contribution(s)/layer(s) of legal wrapping paper your team needs to add to each process and at what point(s) in that process (e.g. legal research, regulatory compliance checks, due diligence, contract drafting and negotiation, contract approval and sign off processes, corporate secretariat seeking and obtaining board approval to sign, storage and critical date logging).
Next you need clearly to define and to explain your role in those processes – what, what and why you need to input, and to seek agreement and acceptance from all of the other teams that inserting your team into those process flows at the right place(s), so ultimately the correct “legal wrapping paper” is added to the parcel.
You need to make sure that your contributions are efficient, effective, and focused clearly on your role (common mistakes can be trying to exercise your judgement, risk appetite or personal values into the process rather than ensuring that there is adherence to law, regulation, group policy and the business' risk appetite).
It also helps to:
- have clear documents that explain to your team and to your stakeholders what the purpose(s) of your team is/are; when, why and how you should be involved; and what benefit the business will derive from your involvement
- clear business partnering relationships with identified stakeholders in each of the other departments to provide a two way share of information about what your team and their team are doing, when and why.