If you're wondering what a Business Partner role within an in-house legal department comprises, this article highlights some of the key points. In many respects good Business Partners are "mini GCs" so business partnering is often part of the way that you learn the skills and demonstrate the competences that can take you to that top role.
The in-house lawyer as Business Partner
The in-house legal team will want to be regarded as a Business Partner (BP) by its key clients and be at the heart of the organisation.
However, at departmental level, the BP is often a designated and specific role. So what does it entail?
How your legal team is structured will depend on factors such as the size and geographical spread of your organisation and how it operates. Providing legal services to a small, single office business, for example, presents a different set of challenges to working in a multi-national business with operations in multiple jurisdictions.
There are elements of being a BP in almost all in-house legal roles so it is important to understand what is involved.
Generally, the role of BP (as a whole role rather than being a component in a more generalist role) is more relevant in larger legal teams where the BP acts as conduit to a central team that carries out legal processes and gives legal advice.
Alternatively, the BP may work alongside business colleagues as an ‘in the line’ lawyer, giving advice on matters relevant to that business unit (and checking with other legal colleagues and/or external lawyers on areas of law and company legal policy that are outside of their personal competences before doing so).
Either way, you’ll be the main legal point of contact with the business unit, have close relationships with your commercial colleagues and give them the relevant legal advice and support they need.
You’ll need to ensure any legal service you provide is of high quality and meets relevant business standards and key performance indicators (KPIs). Part of your role will be to find ways to continuously improve the legal service and enhance efficiency.
If you work in the line, you may be part of a structure, perhaps reporting to another lawyer such as the General Counsel but with a dotted line to a senior business manager.
In some smaller legal teams, the role of BP is fused with that of a subject matter expert into a single role.
What makes a good Business Partner?
To be an effective BP, you’ll need:
- Excellent business knowledge, particularly of the units you support - not just of what they do but of their plans, their strategy, their interactions with other business departments and with external stakeholders such as suppliers, customers, auditors, regulators or the media;
- A good understanding of the legal issues that affect the organisation and of the "risk map", which includes the organisation’s risk appetite and that of your individual business unit(s);
- The ability to connect the business and legal knowledge to work out both what law affects which parts of the business, when and how; and to work out how to use Contracts, Advice and Training ("CAT") to ensure that the relevant business people understand the legal issues that affect their roles and that they are able to act on this understanding;
- Good people skills. As part of a team, you’ll be expected to engage with the problems and issues confronting business colleagues remember all people care about is What Is In For Them In Their Language ("WIIIFTITL");
- Excellent customer service skills. If business colleagues aren’t getting the legal service they require, the BP needs to look for ways to agree work prioritisation, negotiate extra resources, identify and resolve people and process issues and look to manage failures in delivery from within their own legal team. This can be difficult when resources are squeezed and may mean innovating and finding solutions;
- To be persuasive and resilient. As the BP, you'll be the lawyer on hand, yet you may come under pressure to always take the business line, including where this conflicts with your view of the legal risks. A good BP doesn’t always say yes and you will need to be able to persuade your colleagues to your view. Expressing this as "a better way for you, for the business and legally might be..." is so much more user friendly than "no";
- To understand budgets and business planning. You’ll help the General Counsel plan for expected and perhaps unexpected demand from the business units and to prioritise that demand according to business need and level of legal risk;
- Sound awareness of project management. Many business plans and initiatives are carried forward by project teams. As a member of the project team, you’ll need to be familiar with project management methodologies; and
- To work as a team with your legal colleagues. You’ll need their support to carry out your role effectively.
The role of BP is interesting and challenging, either as part of your role or as a whole role. It can put you at the heart of the business, let you develop a detailed understanding of one or more business units and become a valued member of those teams. Being a successful BP can be a useful stepping stone to a more senior role as General Counsel or in general management. However, the risk is that you may become too specialised around a business unit at the expense of developing a broader legal perspective. So, changing BP roles may be important to you career progression.