Collaboration and working across the organisation

In this article we summarise some of the key themes in relation to collaboration in the context of working across the organisation.

Why collaborate?

In organisations, legal problems rarely arise in isolation. Rather, problems impact various aspects of the organisation’s ‘business’ and include, to a greater or lesser degree, legal issues. 

The legal issues may be known and well defined so that how they are dealt with may have been integrated into a playbook or standardised contract terms. Or the legal issue may be a novel one arising, for example, where the organisation is expanding into a new jurisdiction or launching a different product or service.  
Legal problems do not exist in a vacuum and they can be complex and multi-faceted. They are part of a bigger business picture, often involving more than one area of the organisation and colleagues from different departments. This inevitably results in the in-house lawyers working closely with these colleagues as they seek to solve the issues in play. 

Examples of where in-house lawyers collaborate

Collaboration happens in different ways. Let’s consider some of the most common situations for in-house lawyers: -

  1. With the client. A manager or executive wants your advice. You will often need to work with the client to unpack the question in order to understand the context, relevance and impact. This may be straightforward or it may involve you in looking at other information or documentation. You may also need to speak to others in the organisation in order to get that information or to understand the business context and how the relevant issue is, or could, impact aspects of the organisation’s business – in essence, you need to understand the risks involved. 
  2. With other colleagues, as part of a project team. It’s common for an organisation to be running a number of project groups where teams made up of people from across business divisions or the wider organisations are working together to implement an organisational initiative or goal or solve a business issue. Here the lawyers (which may include external lawyers as well) are often responsible for specific legal issues and outcomes.
  3. As a member of a board or committee. Again, apart from the main board, many organisations will have different boards and/or committees with particular responsibilities, where one or more of the legal team may have a seat. Such boards/committees typically perform a governance, compliance or sign-off function and cover a range of organisational issues from budget approvals to people development programmes.
  4. With other members of the legal team on legal advice. It’s critical that the in-house team gets the law right and that it is consistent in its advice on particular issues. Clients will not want to be getting a different answer from different lawyers on the same question. Where legal issues are complex or novel, it is important that these are discussed across the team and, so far as is sensible, an agreed position is adopted. This also prevents ‘advice shopping’ where the client is looking for the answer most favourable to them, regardless of other factors. 
  5. With the legal team on the legal service. The team needs to collaborate to ensure that its service meets the needs of different clients and that it is also focusing its time on resources on what is most important. These will clearly be matters that will concern the GC in setting the team’s strategy but it matters that these issues are discussed regularly in the team. It’s good for sharing knowledge and intelligence from across client areas and for agreeing changes to how advice is delivered to respond to changing demands, both short and longer term.
  6. With external lawyers.  Most organisations out-source some of their legal work. The type and volume out-sourced will depend on the size of the legal function, their areas of expertise and the mix of core and other legal work. This makes the legal service to the organisation a mix of internal and external providers and will require the in-house lawyers to work with one or more law firms and counsel. How in-house lawyers interact with external advisers will vary based on need but it will be important that, particularly for law firms, they are seen as an extension of the in-house team, reflecting their standards and values.  
  7. With external stakeholders. To a greater or lesser degree, most in-house teams will need to work with one or more of their external stakeholders, such as a regulator or a government or trade body. This is rather different to internal collaboration as interests may not be aligned. Nevertheless, it is usually important to maintain good and effective relations and to collaborate well, where required.

These everyday examples of where in-house lawyers will typically be collaborating with others demonstrate its importance in an organisational setting. The organisation’s business will typically be carried out by different teams of people and, often, by teams made up of people from different business areas. Any in-house lawyer therefore needs to work effectively with others, whether legal colleagues, other business colleagues or stakeholders outside the organisation.  

The advantages of collaboration

Here are six benefits: -

  1. Business knowledge. Working closely with others in the organisation builds understanding of their roles and the problems they face in carrying them out. It helps develop a broader view of the work of the organisation.
  2. Diversity of thought. Lawyers have an analytical, incisive approach to problem solving which is often of great value in dealing with complex issues. Combining this with the expertise of others and different approaches is often the key to finding a workable solution that would be more difficult in isolation. 
  3. Innovation. The changes brought about by the Covid pandemic provides an excellent example of where many organisations had to find new ways of doing things in a range of areas. Business as usual was not an option, not simply in one area of the organisation but in many aspects. 
  4. Networks and relationships. Working closely with others should increase trust and understanding and strengthen the relationships that underpin effective working and business practices.
  5. Risk. Having more experts and diversity of thought at the table should ensure that risks are identified, calibrated and managed better. 
  6. Retention. Good in-house lawyers want to be involved in important and interesting work. A collaborative working culture is a good place to learn and develop and is therefore likely to provide an incentive for those lawyers to stay with the organisation for longer.

Developing effective collaboration

Advising clients is the bedrock of the lawyer’s role and much of their training and career development will, rightly, focus on providing accurate and relevant legal advice. The importance of good client service is also essential. 

In an in-house context, these fundamentals are clearly involved when the lawyer is working with an individual colleague. However, the need to collaborate more widely and in different contexts may require the lawyer to expand their existing legal skills and often to learn new approaches. For example: -

  1. Widening business knowledge. There is no substitute for understanding how the organisation works and the sector in which it operates. This means, of course, the legal framework but also the wider business and political issues that impact it.
  2. Communication. It’s critical for an in-house lawyer to get to the heart of the issue quickly and to explain the legal impact concisely and in a way that their clients can understand. This means in written advice, of course, but also typically in meetings. Presentation skills are an important aspect of good collaboration. 
  3. Language. It’s part of communication but it matters that the lawyer speaks the same language as their clients. Otherwise, you risk them not understanding you or, worse, alienating them. 
  4. Proactivity. Displaying an attitude that tells clients that you want to help them solve important business issues is much more powerful than adopting a reactive, aloof position.
  5. People skills. Some are inherent in legal training but it really helps to be seen as a good listener with good self awareness and empathy. These are important leadership skills in any context.  
  6. Trust. Probably the most important aspect of all. For the lawyer, this often means trusting others to do their jobs and exercise their expertise rather than looking for ways to correct them or improve their thinking. It’s a realisation that others bring different skills and perspectives to the table and that the lawyer’s view is not always the only one. At the same time, the lawyer’s expertise in logical, analytical thinking will often be highly regarded in collaborative teams, provided it’s expressed in a way that is supportive rather than unnecessarily critical.    

These are all approaches that can be developed. To be collaborative, you need to collaborate so putting lawyers in situations where they need to work with others is an important part of it and should be part of the strategy of the GC and their senior managers. They can also be developed in the legal team itself, for example by encouraging team working and giving people the opportunity to learn new skills – chairing meetings and leading initiatives, for example. 

Further reading

Harness the Power of Smart Collaboration for In-House Lawyers”. Heidi K Gardner PhD, Harvard Law School, Center on the Legal Profession