Legal as a blocker - How to confront the perception

A career as an in-house lawyer is immensely rewarding and satisfying.

You can build close and effective business relationships with colleagues and contacts. You have privileged access to the way the organisation works, and visibility of its strengths and weaknesses. You can have an immediate, substantive and lasting impact.

And yet, the perception still arises that legal is a blocker – the ‘business prevention department’. Lawyers may be seen as risk averse, or as a challenge to the smooth running of operations. Equally, we may be regarded as ‘different’. We may speak a different language to the organisation, we may not immediately understand ‘how things are done around here’ or in the sector – and we may need to address long-standing issues which may not make us popular.

The lawyer’s role in an organisation has no obvious parallel with other functions. The lawyer is an officer of the Court, with overriding professional obligations. We have legal and ethical duties. We don’t fit easily into management structures – legal teams normally report directly to the Chief Executive rather than through other executive reporting roles. The organisation may find it challenging to set targets for us as the value we may add may not immediately be apparent – and sometimes our value is in our willingness and strength of character to say ‘no.’

So how do we confront the perception that this means we are in some way a ‘blocker’?

What's really the problem?

This is really the killer question. It’s generally most unlikely that as lawyers, we will set out to block the organisation from moving forward and making progress. Lawyers who come in-house do so because they like to be closer to the action, to have an opportunity to learn about the organisation, and make a real difference. So why might they be seen as a blocker?

There are multiple reasons, many of which are nothing to do with you or your team, but might include:

  • Someone had a problem with a lawyer in the past. This may have been in a different organisation, at a different time, on a wholly unrelated matter, but they will have decided that that means the lawyer is a problem. Inherited dislike is a real issue.
  • Someone has a friend who’s a lawyer who would advise differently. Or so they say. Typically, this means they haven’t given their friend the full picture…
  • The business doesn’t know what you do – or are supposed to be doing. It’s hardly surprising – there is little education about legal matters in most business training, even at MBA level – and it’s no more reasonable to expect a specialist engineer to understand legal issues than it is to expect the lawyer to step into the engineering role.
  • Legal doesn’t respond quickly enough… This often means that the lawyer doesn’t know what the organisation is planning, or the timescale which has been promised to a client, or how the particular proposal fits into someone’s business plan. Even where it’s critical to delivery, often the lawyer may not know until it’s too late.
  • Legal is insisting on changes to the contract. This is quite possible. It’s our job – but it can be immensely frustrating to colleagues who are keen to close a contract or sale and don’t understand what we are changing, or why.

The common thread to most of these problems is a lack of clarity and understanding, and often we don’t help ourselves. We employ lawyers from private practice – or in-house teams which work as if they were in private practice – where lawyers are used to being ‘instructed’, rather than being integral to the process. Typically, we don’t get out much – often because we are so busy – and so aren’t necessarily well known to our business colleagues. And often we haven’t grown up in the business or the sector, so we will need to learn a particular specialism – or sometimes even the language and abbreviations the organisation is using.

Occasionally – very occasionally – there will also be personality clashes. These can happen in any context, sometimes because of personal resentment, sometimes because the lawyer thinks differently from the operational colleague, and sometimes for no real reason at all save that we’re in a stressful and pressured environment and from time to time people say things in the heat of the moment that they don’t really mean. We need to understand that these things happen, and to bear them in mind in trying to understand what the problem really is, and why colleagues might interpret all our best efforts as negative.

Getting to know you...

So, what to do about it – and how to start? Above all, we need to understand that in order to do our legal job properly, we have to address these issues and to set a culture which delivers constructive collaboration while at the same time allowing us to say ‘no’ when that’s what is needed.

First and foremost, this is about getting to know our colleagues – but also understanding that this isn’t simply about expecting them to get to know us. We need make positive efforts to understand the organisation, the role of our colleagues, their challenges and successes, and how the lawyers can help.

Some legal teams will have a formal ‘exposure plan’ which is modelled on the best customer relationship management tools, and which creates and builds on opportunities to understand the colleagues we work with and where we touch their roles.

On induction, every lawyer should have a formal induction plan (do your lawyers have one?) which not only gives them an introduction to legal and professional services colleagues, but to the organisation. If your organisation makes things, get them to go to a factory. If you sell, get them to see how that’s done. If you deliver services, get them to work with a service delivery team – even if that means they’re on a nightshift in the middle of winter against a time constraint. Only then can we begin to understand those pressures.

Do your lawyers have buddies at a similar level in the organisation? Do they have mentors at a more senior level (who aren’t lawyers?). Have they had the opportunity to shadow senior clients – a couple of weeks with the sales director will give them a much clearer understanding of the issues than the same time studying the file – and may even persuade the sales director that the lawyer is human and wants to help?

There are other things you can do. Perhaps you can run legal surgeries in a particular business, attend a management or operational meeting, or involve business colleagues in a joint piece of work, such as preparing a key guidance note. If you are reviewing your legal requirements, do you involve your organisational colleagues in the process, inviting them to presentations, consulting with them on their views – and allowing them to tell your prospective lawyers about the organisation.

When you recruit, do you involve organisational colleagues in the interview process? People like to be consulted and feel engaged and respected, and most candidates will love to hear about the organisation or business from someone intimately involved in it as well as their prospective boss.

You will be able to think of many other options for your particular organisation, but the key is to identify instances where you can engage with your colleagues in a business context, but outside the day-to-day business of taking instructions. It’s very hard to fall out with people whom you have begun to know well, and who have shown a constructive interest in what you do. See Emotional Intelligence.

Structural Solutions

How does your legal structure dovetail with the broader organisation? Does the legal team sit separately from the organisation, both physically and operationally, or is it integrated?

This starts at the top. The senior-most lawyer, whether called a General Counsel or by another title, needs to be part of the senior executive team and intimately involved in decision making. If the organisation is large enough to have a subsidiary or divisional structure, a lawyer should have responsibility for each key structure and again should sit on the executive team, attend their meetings and see all their papers. If the lawyers know what is going on, they can intervene quickly and effectively and avoid problems arising from issues coming late to advice and requiring negative interventions. See Managing Up .

There are many ways of organising a legal team – whether by specialism, division, jurisdiction, country or many more – but the structure should be seen to mirror the organisation so far as possible, and – critically – the organisation must understand who has what responsibility, how advice is obtained (and paid for) and how the lines of communication work.

This does not happen by osmosis. It is incumbent on us to communicate how all this works – and that means going out into the organisation, discussing how it works, making it easy for them to get in touch – whether by email, phone, app, or some other form of instruction mechanism. Do you have a page on your intranet? Or a legal app? Have you put in place arrangements to provide checklists, or easy to use standard forms, or automated contracts to make colleagues lives easier? If not, why not?

Love me, love my lawyer....

There must be a fundamental assumption that the legal team is in place to facilitate the organisation’s business, while at the same time ensuring that it is compliant. That being so, there should be no misunderstanding between the legal team and the organisation – but from time to time misunderstandings will arise, so how can they be avoided?

Some of the arrangements you might consider include:

  • Regular communications from legal. These should be short, well-written and very closely targeted so that they provide key legal information while at the same time introducing the lawyers involved. They can also be delivered as podcasts with very little extra effort and provide a different channel to reach your colleagues.
  • Legal workshops. Workshops or surgeries can be very effective ways of introducing the lawyers to the organisation. Again, these can be delivered virtually by Teams, Zoom or another platform. It is often very effective to present them in tandem with a business colleague.
  • Legal conferences. Many functions will have a conference – for example supply chain – to introduce the organisation to its suppliers and its professional teams. Take a leaf from their book (and if necessary, shamelessly copy their successful format). Involving senior colleagues so they understand what we do, why and how is really powerful – the more so if you can involve your external lawyers and ask your Chief Executive to address them.
  • After-sales meetings.’ The best professional services firms will have a regular annual or six-monthly meeting between the client partner or their boss and the client. This gives an opportunity to talk about what is going on, how things are going and about relationships. If there are problems, you will find out about them. If there aren’t, you have an opportunity to build the relationship further, and to hear first hand what the client team thinks of your lawyers.
  • Organisational training structures. Many organisations run development, leadership and training programmes, many of which are entirely appropriate to lawyers – and yet often one hears that the lawyers don’t feel that they should participate. They should – not just to learn from them, but to make contacts and friendships, and to understand first hand about the way the business works. If you have a leadership programme, make it your objective to ensure that a member of your team is chosen to participate every year.

Some final thoughts

From time to time one hears complaints about the relationship between in-house lawyers and their organisations. Often, the lawyers feel that the organisation ought to give them more respect, or more consideration. That may be a fair interpretation – but as in any relationship it takes two parties to make it work. Through the establishment of a clear structure so that major decisions can’t easily be taken without the lawyers being aware, a series of relationship encounters which can be formalised in an engagement plan, and (crucially) the creation of an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation from the top, it is possible to put in place arrangements which can give as much chance as possible for relationships to develop and thrive, and for your organisational colleagues to be your biggest supporters.

That does not mean that the legal team must always say ‘yes’ to every proposal, or simply to allow what is proposed, but it means that when it is necessary to say ‘no’, to offer constructive solutions or alternatives, or to be there to deal with difficult legal and ethical problems, that can be done from a position of strength and respect.

And if occasionally someone sees the legal as a ‘blocker’ – well, that is a real opportunity to create a convert to your cause, and the best legal teams will not rest until they have brought the critic onside and made them a core supporter of the value which the legal team undoubtedly brings to the organisation.

Further reading

CLL Resources:

Managing Up

Emotional Intelligence