1. Making your purpose clear
This is useful for both clients and your own lawyers (for those with a team). Not all of your clients in the organisation will understand how you can best help them.
A ‘sophisticated’ client may know exactly when to seek legal advice in a business project or process and will be able to give you the information you need to advise.
Others may decide that anything that looks like a legal problem should be referred to legal regardless. And then there may be those who are suspicious of what they perceive to be your role so that they are reluctant to refer anything for fear of getting advice they don’t like.
Setting out your purpose in a straightforward way can really help. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy document as its purpose is to clarify the scope of the legal function and set out some ground rules for how you can work best with clients. Areas that you could cover include: -
- A short mission statement.
- The types of matters that should be referred to you and how you can help.
- Any steps that should normally be taken before a matter is referred
- The information you need.
- Turnaround times.
Of course, once you’ve set out your purpose, it’s important that it is carried out by all members of the team in their dealings with clients. The purpose is not a paper exercise and the whole team should be able to demonstrate the purpose in action.
This is a balancing act for in-house lawyers. On the one hand you want to appear accessible and you may be reluctant to turn work away. On the other, trying to handle all legal issues can be a shortcut to being overwhelmed, so that you end up only firefighting.
This is not necessarily the same as prioritising resources on only meeting key business/organisation targets and objectives. Helping colleagues launch a new product or enter into a major contract will be important work, of course. But you must also be concerned that the organisation is meeting its major legal and regulatory commitments generally and that you are working to avoid serious problems and disputes. This work may be less headline-grabbing but is likely to be an important part of the work of the legal team.
The right balance needs to be struck here also, in deciding how much advice is needed in a particular context. Do you aim to provide a gold-plated service, covering all possible bases? Or is a ‘good-enough’ approach acceptable? It’s important to understand your clients’ needs as they may not always require a gold-plated service, or indeed very much at all. Sometimes a ‘quick and easy’ service will be enough. This may be fine, although you will, of course, want to ensure that the key legal risks have been highlighted by you somehow and that these have been understood by the client.
Here are some ways of prioritising workflow.
- Log what work is being referred and by who. If you don’t have case management, a simple spreadsheet system should work. Otherwise, specialist software such as Smart Sheets may be worth checking out. How you then prioritise rather depends on the nature of the work and the business need. But the intention is to get to the position where you are focusing time and resources on the areas of most importance.
- Map the organisation’s key legal and regulatory risks. This should include how the risks are managed, the tolerance for the particular risk and whether that’s appropriate. Again, a simple spreadsheet may work.
- Logging and mapping are important but you also need to be at the table to ensure that you are involved when it matters. Ultimately this will depend on having a good network and relationships to ensure that you’re at the right meetings, involved in the important projects and can find out from colleagues in the know, what’s going on.
3. Controlling the agenda
If you’re setting up a first legal team in an organisation, it will matter that you’re involved in all legal matters. This doesn’t mean you have to advise on them all. But you cannot afford to have important legal issues being managed without your knowledge and without being involved in helping manage the appropriate response to important legal risks.
This means overcoming perceptions that you’re only there to do certain types of legal work or overcoming historic local arrangements between managers and external lawyers for other types of work. This may not be easy. And the issue may not be confined to new legal teams. It may be a feature of long-established legal functions. How then can you change the narrative? Here are three things to consider: -
- It’s very rare for the in-house lawyer not to have a brief of controlling legal costs. You cannot do this unless you know how legal issues and risks are managed. They may be managed well, in which case you may need to change very little. But it’s likely that you will be able to introduce efficiencies and controls. This is a good place to start.
- The problem with local arrangements is that they can multiply with business areas doing their own thing. This is likely to be inefficient and costly. It also means that no-one will have an overall picture of legal compliance and of ensuring that the right questions are being asked and answered. A real-life example of where this localism has gone wrong will help, of course. But the head lawyer’s role must include having responsibility for the overall legal strategy of the organisation. Local arrangements may persist (think different jurisdictions) but the head lawyer should be influential in the process.
- Perceptions can be slow to change. Introducing changes with tangible benefits for others (cost, time, process) will greatly help. But you may also need to prove your value by providing a first-class service – knowledgeable, timely, business-focused and practical, for example. Once you’ve established your credibility and earned the respect of colleagues, then they’re likely to start really valuing your suggestions for doing things differently.
4. The value conundrum
In-house lawyers can worry about what they’re reporting on and whether it’s the right things. Or, unusually, they may have no reporting obligations, in which case they may worry that they should be reporting on something.
More likely, you’ll need to report according to a business agenda, say a monthly board report or a report for a senior management board or committee. These may require you to report according to specific criteria, for example on a high-profile project, or areas of particular legal risk – say, contracts or litigation.
Value is not easy to report on as it will have a quantitative and a qualitative aspect i.e., what you do and its impact but also how having you (and the legal team) there helps avoid problems, manages challenges and conflicts and smooths the passage of business operations. Here are a few things to consider: -
- Boards are rarely concerned with debating legal issues. More likely, difficult issues will need to be resolved before, or after, the board meeting with any final decision or action being reserved, or reported, to the board. They may need legal advice on a business decision, of course.
- Don’t mistake value for activity, whoever you’re reporting to. The range of activity in the organisation may indicate the spread of your impact and influence (not unimportant) but outcomes are more important. It’s helpful if you can find a set of benchmarks or performance indicators that help demonstrate your contribution. There is no one size fits all here, but helpful indicators may include comparative cost, work in raising legal awareness and managing important risks, and contribution in terms of enhanced revenues or lower costs as a result of Legal’s work.
- Use the language of the organisation. Long narrative reports are unlikely to be appreciated. Graphs, timelines and financial impact (where possible) are likely to get a better hearing.
- Don’t underestimate the value of your relationships. Trust, integrity, business sense and teamwork are ultimately the things that are likely to be most influential and these are not easy to report on. But they matter.
5. Creative Resourcing
Many GCs and legal managers will say that they could do with more resources. They may consider that they’re too stretched and struggle to meet the demands placed on the legal team. Additional resources, particularly in the form of new lawyers, can be expensive. So too are bespoke IT packages and bespoke training programmes, both of which may sit on your resources’ wish list. Here then are a few suggestions on how to make your resources stretch a bit further (we’ve assumed that you’ve done the work to prioritise your workload): -
- Look at how the team works. Are resources tied up processing instructions and researching and crafting legal advice? Could the legal ‘supply chain’ be shortened by more project work, where appropriate? This could allow legal issues to arise in real time, with the lawyer being in place to deal with them, rather than relying on the client to identify and frame the legal query as best they can.
- Can you use technology better? We don’t mean expensive bespoke solutions but rather utilising document creation, workflow and reporting functions in existing software systems or that are available at low cost. Can you reduce the demand for some bespoke legal advice by making self-help tools and generic guidance available for repeat business?
- Could you do more to anticipate future demand by having a stronger network and better intelligence to identify new work that will require you to re-focus resources for a period, or provide you with better ammunition to make a case for additional resource for a period?
- Have you got the right gearing in place in the legal team i.e., people at the right levels of qualification and experience for the different types of work you are dealing with now and in the foreseeable future? Would a mix of experience work better, say by utilising paralegals for certain types of work? Or having a legal or non-legal specialist in place to meet a particular need, whether legal or operational.
- Are your resources well managed? If you manage the entire team, are you making the most of the resources you have? Are your recruitment and people development processes bringing new and required skills to the team? Are you spending enough time on strategy and planning to make sure the team is as efficient as it can be? If it’s a larger team with legal managers, are they managing well to optimise the resources you have now?
- Are you getting the most from external providers? Could you ask for more from them in relation to both their legal and non-legal expertise – knowledge management, for example?
- Can you pitch for new resources? Resources are finite and you’ll be in competition for them with other teams and departments. Can you put together a compelling business case that includes a narrative explaining the need for change and the additional value that additional resources will realise?
- Do you have a longer-term strategy to recruit lawyers who are technically good and who are also good learners, flexible, and pro-active in carrying out their roles?