Creating a legal exposure plan for your in-house team

The role of an in-house lawyer can be very different to practising within a law firm.

There can be the opportunity to gain a closer understanding of the business and operations of the organisation, to get to know colleagues better across the organisation, and to participate in joint training and development activities with non-legal colleagues.

At the same time, there is a risk that an in-house team quietly carries on its day-to-day activities efficiently and effectively, but in a way which is largely invisible to the broader organisation, which will have little or no understanding of what the in-house lawyers do.

The business development and marketing activities which form part of the day-to-day round of a law firm are absent in-house – but there is an opportunity to re-invent them in the context of the organisation to mutual benefit. The legal team can build a better understanding of the organisation and a closer relationship with colleagues, while colleagues can have a clearer view of the role of the legal team.

In the same way that a law firm might prepare a business development plan, there is no reason why an in-house legal team cannot capture the best of the concept in a formal plan to map internal relationships in a formal legal exposure plan, and this article will look at how you might develop it.

Objectives of the legal exposure plan

A legal exposure plan essentially exposes the role and responsibilities of the in-house legal team to the organisation by creating a framework to build relationships across the organisation. This will allow colleagues to form and develop effective networks, to gain an understanding of the legal issues affecting the organisation, and to ensure that the role and achievements of the legal team are visible to the wider organisation.The legal exposure plan should therefore ensure that the legal team as a whole, and individual lawyers, gain a profile in the organisation – effectively ‘marketed’ across the organisation within the various divisions and sections of the organisation, as well as at the senior-most levels including the organisation’s Board and senior executive teams. In essence, it is about seeking to influence positively the in-house team’s relationships with its internal client base and beyond.

What activities might be considered for the legal exposure plan?

In the same way that a commercial organisation may have a business development or marketing plan with different activities over time, the legal exposure plan can include various activities:

  • Developing a relationship map. A good starting point is to understand who works with whom: where are the key relationships between the in-house team and the organisation – and possibly beyond into the organisation’s user or customer base, regulators, investors or lobbyists. Developing a formal relationship map – really no more than a list of such relationships – can be done as an initial exercise by the legal team. It is then helpful to check it against the organisation’s own organograms – perhaps surprisingly, sometimes it will reveal that there are particular areas of the organisation – or key people – with whom the lawyers don’t have a relationship, and will want to develop one.
  • Induction. Does your induction plan for new lawyers go beyond the legal team and its day-to-day operations? Meetings with key operational colleagues, and peer-to-peer introductions can be really helpful, and can also help to build two-way relationships so that the ‘legal’ element flows naturally rather than being a forced lawyer-client relationship. Most people like talking about themselves and what they do, and are more than happy to share that information with colleagues. You could also suggest that new colleagues in your key client areas might meet members of the in-house team on a reciprocal basis as part of their induction programmes.
  • Shadowing. Do your non-legal colleagues know what you do? Do you know what they do? Shadowing one another for a period can be a really powerful introduction to the issues each faces. If a junior lawyer sees the pressure which an operational colleague works under, they will quickly understand why advice needs to be given in a way which can be rapidly assimilated and followed, rather than in the form of a piece of complex legal research which may be put to one side.
  • Regular reviews. Do you schedule in regular reviews with your ‘client’ colleagues – both to understand what work you are doing for them, and what is happening in their part of the organisation? These can be really powerful, and if the General Counsel or other senior lawyer has a programme of regular reviews with the organisation, that is a very serious indicator of the desire to integrate the lawyers into the organisation.
  • Training activities. Many in-house teams run training activities for the organisation, both physical and virtual. These are a great opportunity to build relationships and reputation. Are your training activities scheduled into the organisation’s learning and development structure – if not, why not consider whether they should be?
  • Legal surgeries and drop-in sessions. Many legal teams will publish some form of instructions protocol, setting out how colleagues can (or should) contact them, in what circumstances, and how instructions can be given. You might want to consider how effective they are, and whether you might usefully supplement them with real or virtual legal surgeries or drop-in sessions, where colleagues can raise issues with members of the legal team. You might think there would be a reluctance to use these and that simply emailing or picking up the phone would be more effective, but experience shows that surgeries and drop-in sessions are surprisingly effective. Why not try them?
  • Conferences and workshops. A number of legal teams use legal conferences or workshops as a way to build profile and reputation. If you can get your key users, your senior management and your external lawyers in a room together – real or virtual – you have a tremendous opportunity to build relationships between them. Any such event needs to be done very professionally or it could fall flat, but done well it is a chance not only to share information about key topics, but also to offer small-group and individual networking.
  • Participation in cross-organisation projects. Many organisations ‘get things done’ through cross-organisation projects for particular issues, such as dealing with new regulations, market challenges, cost-saving initiatives or technology. There is often an opportunity for a lawyer to participate, whether or not in a non-legal capacity, and the in-house lawyer will often bring an ability to project manage, or to fill gaps in the team.
  • Attendance at regular events. There can be a tendency for in-house legal teams to seem aloof from the organisation, possibly because they seek to maintain a professional independence, but more usually because they are juggling significant workloads. That can mean, though, that they aren’t represented at regular events in the organisation, whether that is non-legal training, updates, or even social events. The good in-house lawyer knows what is going in in the organisation, and that means maintaining a presence.
  • Participation in organisational leadership. Whether the in-house team is one person or many hundreds, the lawyers will usually form part of the leadership structure of the organisation. In some cases, though, they do not form part of the organisational leadership and might not participate in management teams and meetings on a regular basis. If your exposure plan can include a structural element of ensuring that lawyers at an appropriate level are part of the leadership structure, there are significant benefits – they will hear what is going on, the risk of them being side-lined (even accidentally so) is much reduced, they will be seen to be operating at a senior level, but will also be easily approachable when the need arises.
  • Work on strategy. There is a known risk that lawyers are perceived to be an ‘after-the-event’ resource, either putting a transaction in place once it has been commercially agreed, or looking with hindsight at a dispute. Most organisations of any size will have a formal strategy process, which will almost certainly involve some legal aspects – ensuring the legal team is involved at an early stage in strategy thinking can be very productive.
  • Develop commercial positions. Particularly in organisations involving complex commercial activities, it is common to develop commercial positions for use in negotiating both one-off and regular transactions. Involving the lawyers in this development is really helpful, both for the lawyers to be seen to be integral, and for the work to be useful in developing standard documentation, playbooks and drafting.
  • Governance and compliance activities. While you may not want to over-emphasise the lawyer’s role in ‘policing’ the activities of the organisation, there is no doubt that the in-house team is often best placed to ensure that governance, compliance and regulatory activities are properly integrated into the organisation.
  • Job swaps and secondments. It is common for organisations to receive secondments from external law firms, but perhaps less so for in-house lawyers to be seconded or to carry out a job-swap elsewhere in the organisation. Why not consider it? To do so can be mutually beneficial and allow new experience to be gained.
  • Developing relationships with the organisation’s customers, suppliers and their lawyers. One might think that a legal exposure plan would be restricted to the organisation itself, but of course no organisation exists in a vacuum and in many cases operational colleagues will work more frequently with customers or clients than they will mutually with their own colleagues. If your in-house team can network and develop a relationship with the organisation’s customers and clients, not only will you gain a better understanding of the organisation, but also the likelihood of greater respect of internal colleagues. Do you know who your organisations’ top 20 customers or clients are, by value? Equally do you know your key suppliers? Getting to know your counterpart’s in-house lawyers can be really rewarding?
  • Visits and presentations. Visiting your organisation’s locations and offices, taking the opportunity to tell people about what you do, undertaking safety tours or back-to-the-floor exercises can all enhance visibility and reputation.
  • Coaching and mentoring. Why not involve the legal team in the organisation’s coaching and mentoring arrangements, if they exist? If they don’t, why not create some – not only to take advantage of colleagues mentoring in-house lawyers, but of in-house lawyers acting as a coach or mentor to others in the organisation or beyond.

Developing a communication plan

A sub-set of the legal exposure plan can be a legal communication plan – mapping out how the legal team will communicate with the organisation, when and how?

You might perhaps consider issuing a legal newsletter or blog on a weekly or monthly basis. You might standardise the form of your advice or drafting. You might issue a formal training schedule indicating what training you will be giving over the next three-month period. The plan should be adapted to the organisation and should reflect its needs, but the aim is to create the discipline of regular, focused, and targeted communications which integrate legal processes into the organisation.

You will receive regular information from law firms and many other legal sector providers and will know yourself which are helpful, and which are timely – building on that knowledge to develop a programme for your own legal output, can deliver something which is really useful for the organisation.

Involving your external lawyers

There will inevitably be elements of the issues considered in devising your legal exposure plan which will be delivered for you by external lawyers or alternative suppliers. Careful positioning can be helpful here to ensure that you are seen as managing and procuring such resource as needed.

And finally…

Developing a legal exposure plan should be something which builds the reputation and impact of the legal team, but is also a helpful exercise for the team in understanding and mapping its own relationships and effectiveness, and defining where further work may be helpful in future. The headings in this article should be treated as a starting point – there are many other areas you can explore very productively. Even if you are a sole in-house lawyer, developing a relationship map and working through some of the areas suggested can give a great starting point to the development of your role, help you to get to know your colleagues, and help them to understand what you do.

Some further reading

Other Resources:

In-house Lawyers’ Toolkit Richard Tapp and Ann Page (Law Society Publishing)