Sole in-house lawyers and small teams

We brought together in-house lawyers from smaller teams and those working as sole lawyers to discuss some of these challenges and share experiences and best practice. This note develops some of the key themes emerging from the discussion.

In-house lawyers face many of the same challenges irrespective of whether they work in a large in-house team or a small one.

So, issues relating to working with clients, managing workloads, explaining purpose and value, dealing with external advisers and managing career development are common. But, for lawyers in small teams, these issues can be particularly challenging because of a lack of peer support, resources or because they are the first in-house lawyer in the organisation.

Defining your purpose

There are two main aspects of the in-house lawyer’s role. First, to keep the organisation out of trouble. Second, to help the organisation meet its targets and objectives by identifying positive options within the relevant legal framework.

Yet, even in an established team, you may find that clients have different perceptions about what the in-house lawyers are there to do. Some may see your role as a narrow one, dealing only with particular areas of work – say contracts, with little need to involve you in other areas, even though they may involve important legal issues for the organisation. Or, the legal work in these other areas may be outsourced directly to external lawyers.

It’s therefore important to agree the role of the legal function with the organisation’s board and senior management. If this is not clear you may find yourself handling either too little or too much work as some clients see your role as narrow and reactive whereas others refer every legal looking query to you. Remember that, over time, your role may develop as you identify those areas of the organisation’s business that you should be involved in and those that do not merit your input. Once you’re established and have demonstrated your value and credibility, you will find yourself involved in discussions and meetings that are as much concerned with business or policy matters as the law. But this is an important and effective way of demonstrating how you can add value, while at the same building your business knowledge.

Ultimately, it’s not just about persuading colleagues to use you more, particularly for certain types of work. It’s also about showing them how to use you more intelligently in ways that will allow problems and risks to be identified and managed earlier and more effectively. This is unlikely to be achieved overnight and you will have to work at demonstrating your competency in handling core work and that you have a good understanding of wider business issues.

In setting out your purpose, consider these basic steps: -

  • Draw up a mission statement setting out the role of the legal function and its priorities. This then needs to be communicated appropriately throughout the organisation.
  • Add detail around different clients and how you will support them.
  • Identify what work is outside your remit and why. You may need to work with clients to help them deal with this work in other ways.
  • Without too much complexity, explain the best way for legal queries to be referred to you and how you’ll prioritise them.
  • Clarify the cost. Even where there is no formal ‘cross-charging’, you should make clear that your resources are limited and that you need to prioritise those areas of work that you focus on.

The purpose is not just a piece of paper but will act as a blueprint for you to discuss issues with your clients and ‘educate’ them on where you can add the most value.

Building a legal function from scratch

If you’re the organisation’s first lawyer you may wonder where to begin. As well as doing the legal work, you’re probably also tasked with building a team and cutting costs if the legal work was previously outsourced. You may feel that you’ve little time to start planning but it will pay dividends if you can step back and plan your priorities. For example, consider these steps:

  • Legal risks. What is the legal heat map for the organisation and where are the highest legal risks? How are these currently managed and what are the consequences of failure/breach?
  • Legal support. How can the legal function best support the carrying out of the organisation’s core activities and the meeting of key targets and how can you optimise your resources so that you’re focusing on what’s most important?
  • Legal budget. If legal work was previously outsourced, who outsourced it, to which firms at what cost? You’ll want to be clear about what your legal budget is and that you control the outsourcing of legal work.
  • Identify demand. Mapping legal spend is a useful way of letting you and the organisation know which areas are using lawyers a lot and which are not. The demand for legal advice may be directly linked to the most important legal issues and risks. But it may also demonstrate that legal spend is not prioritised, which will allow you to exert influence to reduce costs and control the quality of legal services.
  • Influence. Who do you need to influence and how can you best do this? Start with your line manager as you’ll want regular catch ups. Which boards, committees, and meetings do you need to be part of, or attend, to ensure that legal issues and risks are highlighted early and managed appropriately?
  • External lawyers. You’re likely to need to blend legal resources so look for relationships that give you the depth of support you need, for example, to also act as a ‘sounding board’ without everything being ‘on the clock’.
  • Networks. Who can you work with to get things done? Cultivate these relationships by being helpful, prompt and knowledgeable about the organisation and its business. Also look for relationships inside and outside the organisation that you can rely on when faced with challenging issues or times.

Educating your clients

First, explain your role and where you can, and cannot, help. Set boundaries for what work is referred to you and how. It’s great to be accessible to your clients but you will need some structure around how work is referred and prioritised – otherwise you risk being swamped. You may also need to clarify the cost of legal support and who pays.

Second, increase your clients’ understanding of key legal issues and risks. This will help them become more legally self-reliant thereby reducing the need for every legal query to be referred to you. Much of this will happen via your daily interactions with clients but, again, having some structured training will help. This is an important part of the role of any in-house team, of whatever size. Don’t see it as the responsibility of one person (unless you’re the sole lawyer) but ensure that all members of the team adopt this approach.

Being seen

Especially if you’re the first in-house lawyer or are new to the organisation, it’s important that you’re seen and known around the organisation. It sounds obvious but, especially when you’re fire-fighting, the temptation will be to focus on the inbox at the expense of getting to know your clients and their problems.

Think about how you will keep in touch with your clients. This may be easy where you share an office and contact is high. But where this is more challenging (including currently where many are working remotely), you may need to plan. For example, by arranging regular catch ups with key clients; by attending particular meetings or conferences; by sharing useful information with clients. Whether your meetings are in person or virtual, there’s a lot to be said for arriving early where it will be helpful to chat with clients and for taking similar opportunities in meeting breaks. There’s often much to be learned from these informal chats and they are often time well spent.

Remember the advantage you have in being able to look across the organisation and identify new or common problems and trends in their early stages. To benefit clients, you need to be able to ‘join the dots’ by sharing information and promoting dialogue and solutions. This is an area where the in-house lawyer can add real value.

Demonstrating your value

A perennial challenge for in-house lawyers is how to show the value of what you do given that it rests, partly, on concepts like trust and judgement. This is particularly so where the legal function is seen as a cost centre rather than as revenue generating.

Approach this in three ways: -

  • By providing a high-quality service to your clients. Promptness, clarity, accessibility and solutions-focused advice will greatly help.
  • By reporting what you do using relevant and measurable metrics that show how you’ve contributed to meeting targets and protected business assets. There are many metrics you could use but examples include internal versus external spend; legal risk benchmarking in new contracts; service levels; raising legal awareness and self-help; client feedback; and team development and satisfaction.
  • By understanding and capitalising on your ‘soft’ value. Just three examples would be: -
    • Your cross-organisational perspective and your ability to join the dots. Your bigger picture perspective can be really helpful to colleagues.
    • Your critical judgement. This isn’t about being a blocker or a negative influence on business plans. It is about breaking things down and being clear and straightforward about the risks and benefits of a particular course of action.
    • Your advisory skills. Your client may have a good deal invested in ensuring that the problem they’re discussing with you can be solved quickly and cheaply. You may find that allowing colleagues to speak without criticism or a rush to judgement is something they greatly value. And having listened, you then provide clarity and agree a way forward.

Working with external lawyers

There will be an expectation that you will control and perhaps also reduce the legal spend of the organisation. To do this you need to:

  • Control the legal budget. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you own the budget but there must be a mechanism for you to control when, and which, external lawyers are instructed.
  • Select and instruct external lawyers. Even where there’s a formal tender process, you need to be involved to ensure service quality. You also need to be involved in instructing lawyers to ensure that the right questions are being asked and answered.
  • Train others. If the organisation relies heavily on external lawyers and it would be unrealistic to route everything through you, you need to educate your clients on how to use the external lawyers efficiently via training, aide memoires and checklists, for example.

Your own relationship with external lawyers is very important as they will form part of the legal service that you are delivering to the organisation, and you will be judged on how good they are. Select lawyers that understand your role, what you need and that understand the value of their service to you beyond the bottom line.