The best in-house legal functions are those that have a plan that takes the wider business goals and stakeholders’ views and challenges into consideration.
Knowing how to develop and implement a strategic plan will enhance the standing of your team and improve its contribution to your organisation.
Making the in-house legal function effective and efficient
To make your in-house legal function as effective and valuable to your organisation as possible, it pays to have a strategy – and a plan to put it in place.
Here, we look at how, as a general counsel, you can create and implement this strategy through a seven-stage process flow plan and follow-up sessions.
The plan will help you:
- Assess your current position;
- Work out your desired future position; and
- Implement a plan to get there in seven structured sessions.
We recommend establishing a small process flow team and holding sessions every three weeks. This should give you enough time to:
- Digest the outputs of each session;
- Consult with colleagues as needed;
- Prepare for the next session meaningfully; and
- Keep up the day job!
At the same time, it should maintain the tempo necessary to:
- Cover significant ground without missing anything; and
- Avoid creating overly-relaxed timetables that people may not adhere to.
The "SEE" (from Strategy to Effectiveness to Efficiency) plan
The seven suggested steps in the "SEE" process flow plan are:
1. Our business
The idea of this step is to think about your organisation in its legal context. Gather together as much hard data from across the organisation about other teams in the businesses':
- Budgets; and
- Existing and anticipated legal commitments (contracts, legal and regulatory requirements etc.).
Aim to have a challenging discussion about your legal function as a whole; considering what the teams within your legal function currently do and what they should do if different. Consider what your organisation does or should expect of your legal function - both at the overall organisational level and at the level of each business team that you do (or should) work with.
You could consider running a survey (using an online service such as Survey Monkey) among senior management and selected team members before this session. If so, ask questions that will help you form a vision of where you want to go and how to get there - a powerful question is "Tell us what we should do better in future for your team; why it will be an improvement for both teams; and how can you help us to make this change?"
2. Define your role
Defining your function's role enables you to decide how to position yourself for the future. So, in this stage of the process, the questions to consider are:
- What should we be doing and not doing?
- Who should we be doing it for?
- What changes should we prepare for given what we know about the organisation's and our team's current activities and future plans (including knowable future external changes that will impact the organisation)? and
- What are our core team values and motivators – and are they what they should be?
At this point you can set out the main areas you feel your team should prioritise. The upshot of this step should be for everyone in your team's "role working group" to take away a first draft strategy to work on and refine for the next meeting. Remember that active engagement in the development of the plan by your team (and other key business stakeholders) is more likely to result in active ownership of its delivery too.
3. Create a strategy and revised outline business plan
In the weeks since you commenced the second step of the process, you and your team will have discussed the first draft strategy with stakeholders and other people in the business and fine-tuned it accordingly.
The aim of this third stage is to discuss the development of the strategy so far and provisionally finalise it. Include in this step a thorough analysis of your current corporate business plan and known external impacting factors (such as Brexit) against your new strategy and identify gaps, ambiguities and known differences.
4. Gap analysis between current and revised plan
Having identified the gaps between your existing position and your proposed plans; take a closer look and detail how you will bridge those gaps. Rectify any errors, ambiguities and omissions that you find in your plans as you look at each aspect of your operations more closely.
Next, assess and quantify what this will involve and, if necessary, rework the plan. This is time consuming and will involve a process and project mind-set as well as inputs from other teams that will be affected by the change. It may help to "borrow" skills from your finance, HR, IT and project planning teams to help you with this exercise - you can leverage their skills and more easily get their teams' consent to and engagement with the changes that you are proposing.
You’ll need to specify the exact nature of the gaps involved. Discuss ideas on how to plug each gap and what it will cost.
5. Fill the gaps
Revise your plans and build up a draft change management plan in the light of your learnings. Check all the points against each other as well as the underlying business and look at cost, resource, timing and sequencing implications. Then sense-check the end plan and timetable against your targets.
Make a list of the stakeholders who’ll be affected and consider what the impact on them will be. The main objective of this step is to fill the gaps identified in the previous two steps without disrupting existing business operations.
Bear in mind that change is a job in itself and so change planning and delivery involves the temporary use of extra resource or resource which is temporarily released from other work.
Also remember that delivering change that matters is not a learning opportunity - you use the most relevantly skilled people that you can on projects that matter and let people learn on things that do not matter too much if they do not work out!
Bear in mind that people often struggle to stop doing or to deprioritise their normal work and client activities for emotional reasons as much as time and pressure ones, so emotional intelligence is needed in the allocation of people to work on change analysis and delivery.
6. Keeping stakeholders engaged
Having assessed the impact of your plans on your stakeholders, ascertain their likely views. Decide to what extent you want or need these stakeholders to be involved and how realistic that involvement is.
Remember to watch out for "tacit blockers" who are not actively opposed to what you do but do not really want it either and so are not very cooperative and will slow things down through their inactivity.
For this reason it is often wise to try to build some "hidden slack" into your timetable so that it is much harder for them to make you miss your deadline - this is why big changes often take a lot longer than you may initially think.
In this context, keep your plan under continued revision and communicate closely with stakeholders. You may also want to think about making a sub-plan to manage and satisfy your stakeholder’s requirements.
7. Finalise the plan
Finalise your plan, including your stakeholder communication programme, and set out the first two months of its operation. As with all plans, test it in a structured way with your key stakeholders. Add in any last minute revisions and then ...start rolling the plan out.
This concludes the Strategy phase of your plan.
Follow up sessions
Once your plan has been live for around a month or so and implementation is in progress, start the follow-up process. This could comprise three sessions with intervals of two months between them.
1. Listen to stakeholders
Analyse early feedback from stakeholders and revise the plan while it is in progress if necessary. We rarely get everything right first time and circumstances do change while plans are being executed so plan for change and make a virtue of it - if you say that this is likely to happen then no one can criticise you when it does.
2. Three-month progress check
Your plan has now been live for three months. Get your team together to measure the plan’s progress against outcomes and assess any areas that may need to change. This is the Effectiveness assessment stage.
3. Five-month progress check
You’re now five months in and your plan should be running smoothly and you may well be getting close to having completed all of the changes needed and moved into the "new steady state" for your function.
However, it’s still a good idea to monitor progress and tweak the plan as necessary – especially if the wider business goals change during its lifecycle. You will probably want to evaluate outcomes with stakeholders and look for further improvements and any demonstrations of success that you can make. You are now starting to move into the Efficiency stage of running your department
Business is not static and neither should your department be. Once you have got into an SEE position with your team then you need to stay there with a regular evaluation of what is happening to the business and in the wider commercial and legal framework that your business operates within. Then you can continually evolve your department proactively to what you see and also make timely and supportable budget and resource claims as part of the annual budget cycle.
A well run legal team should only experience the "earthquake" jolt of change if the business itself does the same (e.g. with a merger or restructuring). The rest of the time the legal team should be continually reassessing and making small changes so that major step change is unnecessary.
Too often, strategic planning is something people talk about, but rarely do, or stick to. However, from forming a small team, through planning and communicating with stakeholders to monitoring progress, the SEE process gives you the tools and timescales to put your in-house legal function on a strategic footing.