An organisation contains a wealth of knowledge and expertise.Here we look at how the use of the organisation’s own specialists can help define, develop and deliver the legal team’s work.
How might you use specialist resources in the organisation?If an organisation is large enough to have in-house lawyers – whether a sole practitioner or a large team numbering hundreds of people – it will almost certainly have other functional specialists in-house in areas such as finance, human resources and procurement, as well as IT and systems specialists. It will also have operational staff with an intimate understanding of the core business of the organisation.
Building relationships with the organisation’s own specialists can be really helpful to the legal team. It may be used to work with them on day-to-day issues, for example with HR colleagues on recruitment, but a much broader role may be possible. You can gain access to a range of specialist skills which can be really helpful to you. At the same time, you can become more integrated into the organisation, you can learn about the way it works and how you can speak its language – and build relationships which will greatly assist your understanding of the issues it faces and your legal response to them.
What opportunities might be available?Some opportunities may be an extension of your day-to-day relationship with colleagues, but some may go much further. Some examples to consider might be:
Procurement. You may well be used to working with procurement colleagues on the organisation’s own procurement needs – products, services, supply chain and related matters all overlap and many organisations will have members of the in-house team dedicated to working with buyers and other specialists in the procurement team.
Their knowledge of issues arising across the supply chain are key to ensuring that the organisation’s suite of terms and conditions are appropriate, and in reviewing your understanding of related legal risks.
Sometimes though, there seems to be a reluctance to use those same specialist skills when buying outsourced legal services, even where the organisation spends millions of pounds on external lawyers. Procurement specialists are very familiar with specifying what work and resources are required, helping to determine the appropriate method of procurement or tendering, assessing responses and helping to document solutions. All of these skills are relevant to buying-in legal services, and working with procurement specialists can be invaluable.
Finance. Budgeting for legal services can be a nightmare for many legal teams. Defining what legal services are likely to be required, where they can be sourced, and how much they will cost can be difficult. Your finance team is likely to be used to dealing with these uncertainties, and will know how they are dealt with in other areas. They will also be able to help you work through your budgeting and forecasting process. An understanding of your numbers may not come naturally to all lawyers, but it is a core skill to working in-house to enable you to work on equal terms to your non-legal colleagues. It can often be harder to budget for legal demand than for most other specialisms in-house, and your finance colleagues can help you plan for that uncertainty.
Business Improvement. Many larger organisations have a business improvement team, which can document and assess functions and processes. They may also have specialists in lean techniques and other business re-engineering specialisms. While these are often applied to operational activities, there is no reason why they are not equally applicable to the legal team. If you have a legal operations function, you may well be using the same tools and techniques, and they can be very helpful in defining how you operate. They can also assist in helping you to introduce formal quality systems such as Lexcel or ISO 9001 into the legal function.
Human Resources. You may be well used to working with your HR colleagues on the organisation’s employment issues, but are you also using them to the full to help you develop an HR strategy for your legal team? In-house teams have specific HR challenges which may be shared with other specialist teams, but aren’t found in the broader organisation or indeed in a law firm. How do you make sure you recruit the right people? What development opportunities can you offer in a small team? How do you cope with a limited hierarchy where upward promotion can be dependent on someone leaving? Consideration of these and more issues in conjunction with your HR colleagues can significantly improve the operation of your legal team.
Learning and Development. It goes without saying that you and your professional staff will understand that they need to develop themselves, and to undertake the continuous professional development requirements of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but are you availing yourselves of the learning and development opportunities offered across your organisation? There may well be a suite of in-person and, perhaps now more likely, online and virtual training packages across a range of issues – but also specific leadership training and senior role training. Not only can these be helpful to you and your teams in their own right, but also help the integration of your staff into the wider organisation. Having lawyers on the organisation’s senior leadership programme is invaluable not only in teaching them key skills which will be helpful in their legal role, but understanding how the organisation works, its markets and its place in them, and in building networks with other members of staff across the organisation. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that lawyers need only to develop their specialist legal skills (although of course they must develop those skills too).
IT and Systems. In-house lawyers will be reliant on the organisation’s general IT systems and programs, and will be heavy users of things like email and word-processing software and audio and video conferencing, but increasingly we need specialist legal programs and apps, whether relating to case and contract management, legal panel assembly and management, document assembly or beyond. These are specialist systems, some of which will benefit greatly from integration with the organisation’s broader systems. Your IT and systems specialists can help you choose which are best for you, how to try them out, and how to get the best from them. In-house lawyers develop a range of skills during the course of their career, but it is unlikely that those of an IT specialist or systems analyst will be among them. Their specialist knowhow can also be invaluable in relation to implementation and training, and if it is possible to develop a business partner relationship with specific individuals, they will also gain an understanding of your needs.
Strategy. Your organisation will almost certainly have a formal strategy, usually set out in a detailed document defining what it is for, what it sets out to do, how it will do it and how it will measure its success. It is really beneficial to have a similar document for the legal function – and why not ask for expert help from your strategy colleagues in designing, delivering and implementing a legal strategy? They will have access to the most recent learning and techniques, and can help you to identify the issues which should be included and how they might be captured in the legal strategy.
Public Affairs. It might be thought that the demands of the legal and public affairs functions are competing, and often contradictory. The lawyers may wish – or need – to keep information confidential and to ensure that the requirements of the court in relation to disclosure and discovery are met in litigation. The public affairs team may wish to make proactive comment on the issues relating to disputes, to talk about the underlying issues, and to issue a range of publicity material through various channels. These demands might be thought to be contradictory, but in fact they are often different sides of the same position and there is much merit in ensuring that the strategy for dealing with a given problem joins both the legal and the public affairs approaches and ensures that they fit well together. Equally, a joint approach will be able to analyse and determine the effects of the proposed legal or PR strategies and to strengthen them as a result.
Coaching and mentoring. Your organisation may have formal or informal coaching, mentoring or buddying arrangements which can link members of the legal team with others to help their self-development or their understanding of the business. They may also allow your team members to act as coaches or mentors of others in the organisation.
Operational specialisms. The range of organisations served by in-house lawyers is as wide as the range of the organisation itself - corporates, public sector and third sectors, from manufacturing to services and beyond. While they are unlikely to provide legal services to their own customers, they may well employ structures or specialisms which are directly relevant to the way the lawyers interact with the organisation. An outsourcer will have techniques which are directly applicable, as will a professional services firm. A manufacturer will have process analysis and mapping tools to refine how things are done. A retailer will have a range of customer relationship tools which can be mapped directly to how the lawyers interact with their clients. Innovation is often about repurposing the best ideas from a different context, and practising law in-house gives a great opportunity for doing that.
What are the benefits?
The professional non-legal skills that exist in an organisation can be of real value to an in-house legal team. Even if an internal cross-charge is payable for the use of those non-legal skills, it is likely to be significantly less than acquiring the same skills externally, and colleagues already in the organisation will be much more familiar with the issues, challenges and requirements of your team.
Equally, from time to time one hears criticism that an in-house legal team operates in something of a vacuum from the rest of the organisation. That is a real shame and the catalyst of the specialist resources of your organisation can offer a real benefit in helping you to continue to develop your legal offering, as well as integrating the legal team with colleagues by building closer and more effective relationships.
Some further reading:
The Legaltech Book Bhatti, Chishti, Datoo, Indjic (Wiley, 2020)
How Innovation Works Matt Ridley (4th Estate, 2020)