Combining strategy and personal time and development

This article sets out an approach that allows you to combine the strategic element of your in-house lawyer role with your personal development. This approach will help you increase the effectiveness of the legal services you provide across your organisation and, in turn, maximise the time you have available to plan your department’s strategy and your career development.

In-house legal departments are busy places. Your internal clients will be focused on their specific challenges and will have little or no time for your strategic plans or personal development. It’ll be down to you to find a strategy that combines both while maintaining the services you provide your clients as first class.

How effective delivery helps personal growth

If you’re an in-house lawyer with a role in setting strategy, one of your biggest challenges will be managing your time. In what may on occasion seem like a juggling act, you’ll need to ensure you’re:

  • Providing effective legal services to diverse business units;
  • Aligning your department to the organisation’s wider strategic goals; and
  • Making time for your own personal development.

Here, we’ll look at an approach that will benefit both your departmental strategy and your personal growth.

Separate your processes

Most of the processes you’ll be involved in will fall into one of these four types:

  • Micro, routine activity such as allocating two hours every Monday to review strategy, prioritising tasks, and responding to emails;
  • Internal, such as planning your departmental budget and reviewing how you accept work, deliver your services and keep you and your team up to speed on law;
  • Boundary, for example, how and when your team interfaces with other departments such as procurement, marketing, HR and finance; and
  • Strategic, where you’re involved in designing and building new processes for other business units or departments.

More often than not, these processes involve:

  • Documenting established practice;
  • Making sure everyone involved understands their roles;
  • Monitoring for adherence; and
  • Looking for improvements.

For each of the four processes, write down what you’re currently doing and where, if anywhere, you could save time or improve the effectiveness of what is done.

Remember, your role is to set CATs to control RATS

The best use of your time is to advise the right people at the right level about the risks involved in their decisions. You achieve this by working on Contracts, Advice (specific "one time" comments to the business) and Training (anything repetitive from FAQ on your intranet and online compliance training to contract negotiation playbooks) ("CAT") and these help business units and the wider organisation control the business' legal Risks At Tolerance ("RAT"s).

This isn’t about risk elimination. It’s about controlling risks within an agreed level of tolerance. Note too that most risks you’ll face will be business risks with legal consequences. These are distinct from legal risks such as those that emerge from a failure to understand law, comply with regulation, draft excellent contracts or conduct litigation effectively.

Be like Shakespeare

Contracts are like scripts for plays which map out the intended roles of the actors participating in the contract over the life of the contract's performance. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that every provision in a contract has an identified business owner in both contracting parties who must do, not do or be prepared to do (the actor's line prompter!) something in response to every provision of the contract. So identify the actors and establish what they can and can’t do in both standard and non-standard contractual circumstances, before committing them by letting the contract be signed.

Your role is to identify the "actors" for each stage of "your play". These will typically be colleagues responsible for procurement, service delivery, finance, insurance and other critical areas of actually doing the business activity that is documented within the contract. Work with your "actors" to establish what they can and can’t do. Then, ensure they own their roles and agree to what they will normally do when a standard contract is signed.

A change in what is written in the contract also means a change in what someone has to do/not do in order to comply with the changed version of the contract rather than the standard version. So it is important to know that they are willing, able and can afford to do something non-standard before you commit to it in a contract negotiation - otherwise you are making contractual promises that your company may not know that it has and may not be able to keep.

Document each actor’s obligations so that, if they’re read out in court or in front of a regulator, they come across exactly as the organisation needs them to. Getting the wording and structure of your contracts legally effective and enforceable now could save you valuable time later.

Make scarce resources count

Your job is to provide strategic, and preferably one-time, input into other people's processes and decisions. Getting involved in these decisions early and creating general rules for the relevant people to follow will reduce the need to repeat tasks over and over again. Consider setting a "Rule of 3", by which if you have to perform the same task for the same person three times, it’s time to train them to do it themselves. Alternatively, create an intranet FAQ or another easily accessible internal resource. Either way, aim to deal with the overriding strategic issue just once and thereafter be the point of escalation for exceptional events.

SEE the difference

Remember, a good legal function is Strategic, Effective and Efficient (SEE). This means you should concentrate on navigating the organisation through the legal factors that affect its business, not do it all yourself, or even necessarily internally. For example, avoid the minutiae of non-disclosure agreements where a better use of your time is to focus on high risk, high value adds to the business work.

Support, don’t own

As a sole contributor/small team by wider business standards, much like a chief finance officer, think about how your function interfaces with other functions to help them to solve their own issues instead of owning their issues for them. Agree with business unit heads what their RATs are, then plan and deliver your CATs accordingly. Agree too that once you’ve provided the language, training, tools etc, and agreed with them the dissemination and the monitoring processes, then it’ll be up to them to implement the work, do the dissemination and the monitoring for effectiveness.

Focus on making a difference

Ensure you:

  • Understand what you’re being asked to do;
  • Believe it’s doable; and
  • Are convinced it really matters and will make a difference.

Ensure that management understands and accepts the business risks involved. Present them as business decisions and explore business actions that can control or mitigate risks. This could be through measures such as insurance, debt factoring or, back-to-back provision in supply contracts.

Ensure that you have a pre-agreed negotiation mandate (standard positions and range of acceptable fall back positions) in going into sales or procurement negotiations and use it to focus on what matters so that you can avoid endless negotiations about things the other side doesn’t need to move on or has no decision-making authority over.

Prioritise

Once you’ve agreed with a business unit head what you’ll do for them, allocate your resources accordingly. Use the SEE approach to:

  • Focus on what matters most. Work in descending order from the most important things to the business downwards until you run out of resource; and
  • Get acceptance that you’re not responsible for tasks you’ve shown you don’t have the resource for (so long as you have been Strategic in agreeing the risks in a priority order, Effective in addressing them in that agreed order and Efficient in addressing as many of them as you have the resource to do).

The only time this should change is where you either:

  • Agree a reprioritisation, where one issue moves up the priority list at the expense of another; or
  • Secure additional resourcing specifically for a given task.

Create a legal service tariff

You could also increase efficiency by creating a legal service price list and circulating it among appropriate senior management and business unit heads to put your spend and the value that the business derives from that spend into context. Make this relevant to the business. For example:

Proactive management of the IP portfolio to ensure no one registers trademarks or undermines our brand (which we spent £1m building)

£20k for external fees and 20 hours of your time to get the systems set up.

£5k monitoring fees and four hours of your time every month to keep the system under ongoing review.

Stand your ground

Finally, be ready to stand your ground if necessary and remind others in the organisation what you agreed to and how far your resources will stretch. There are four typical occasions for this, summed up as "4PP":

  • PP1: Planned Performance. You have resources in place and ready to deploy which are in line with what it was agreed that you would do and the money that you would have to do it when the budget for your department was set for the year. However, if any of the following PPs occur during the budgeted year, you’ll need to notify anyone affected and agree an alternative path. This may call for additional budget or re-prioritisation of tasks as your resources are finite:
  • PP2: Poor Planning. If a budget is set in December and then in March a business unit asks for help on something they hadn’t previously mentioned, explain that your budget assumptions don’t cover this work - so an agreed re-prioritisation of other work or extra budget is needed;
  • PP3: Pet Projects. If someone has a great new idea within the budget year and receives extra budget to pursue it, so should you if it entails input from the legal department; and
  • PP4: Polluter Pays. Following an IP breach by the marketing department, your organisation finds itself in court. Dealing with the unbudgeted and unallocated time this requires could mean you deprive HR of the resource you promised it for updating employment contracts. Now, two departments are feeling the pain, unless marketing pays for extra resource for you to keep your promises after all why should you deprive a well behaved department of resources because of the actions of one that has not behaved?

Conclusion

Great legal advice for your clients, a strategy aligned to the organisation and personal development for yourself. You’ll want to achieve all these things as a senior in-house lawyer but at times, demands on your time and resources will bring them into conflict with each other. However, by making yourself as efficient as possible and setting limits to what your resources will deliver, you’ll create the time to devote to all your objectives and hone your leadership skills.