Discussion groups

Here, we look at the benefits of participating in, or setting up, a discussion group. We consider what it involves, what risks it entails and how an external law firm could help to control those risks.

Life as an in-house lawyer can, at times, feel like a solitary existence, particularly in smaller organisations. You may not be surrounded with like-minded people or feel comfortable discussing your concerns with non-legal colleagues. So it is important to look for ways of responding to this problem.

Discussion groups – why belong?

It’s a fact of the in-house lawyer’s life that you’re not surrounded by legal colleagues, an expansive online and/and or physical legal library or people who share your concerns, problems or personal development goals. Your day-to-day work involves advising and supporting people whose objectives are very different to – and possibly even in conflict with – yours.

A great way to overcome this is by joining, or setting up, a discussion group.

Discussion groups are great for building networks with in-house lawyers who are in the same boat as you. They enable you to discuss operational or practical issues and commonly-experienced problems in confidence with people who can offer meaningful responses.

Many in-house lawyers find discussion groups allow them to find solutions to issues long before they become major problems. And many more take comfort from simply realising that others in the profession recognise their concerns and that they’re not alone.

This is especially true in environments where good, affordable advice is hard to come by, yet you know your problem is far from unique.

Where challenges are industry-wide or even universal in nature, these groups can provide a platform for developing good – and therefore defensible - practices for a particular issue. For example, where there’s confusion across a sector over how to implement vague or ambiguous legislation.

Similarly, a discussion group can lobby or put forward ideas and position papers. These papers are likely to carry more weight when they represent a collectively held view as opposed to an individual position.

Identifying a theme for your group

For a discussion group to be effective, it needs to have a central focus that resonates with all its members. Examples of common themes could include:

  • Issues specific to your organisation’s sector. Organisations in retail, insurance, financial services, manufacturing and others often collaborate on back office legal issues, despite competing fiercely against one another in the marketplace;
  • Standardisation in complying with legislation covering issues such as data protection, health and safety, Financial Services SMR regulation and the Modern Slavery Act;
  • Role specialisms. A group could be set up for in-house lawyers to discuss issues specific to their jobs. Procurement lawyers, M&A lawyers or even UK-based in-house lawyers working for Japanese organisations will have many challenges in common;
  • Organisational objectives, such as collaborative campaigning and lobbying; and
  • Personal development goals, such as those of a junior, sole or first-time in-house lawyer.

Running a discussion group

If you decide to set up your own group, try to ensure all its members are of a similar level – or at least that they’ll see themselves as such.

There’ll be quite a lot of administration involved, so be ready to spend around four hours per month keeping things ticking over. Running a discussion group involves:

  • Getting meetings into members’ diaries early. Aim to get next years’ meetings confirmed before the current year ends;
  • Sending out invitations and other papers as soon as you can – and following up with several reminders;
  • Booking meeting venues and conference call bridges;
  • Maintaining the group membership and email distribution lists;
  • Maintaining a SharePoint site, if applicable;
  • Gatekeeping the membership list;
  • Suggesting agenda items and potential speakers;
  • Preparing agenda and supporting materials; and
  • Preparing and circulating minutes and any action points arising from meetings.

You’ll also need to be available to provide support to members in the period between meetings. For this reason, it may be an idea to identify a few people, either in your team or among the membership, who may be able to help you manage the group.

Using an external law firm to help run your discussion group

If you’re attracted to the idea of running a group but feel you lack the time or expertise, consider asking an external law firm for help. It’s an opportunity for them to get to understand your organisation better – which, of course, will also benefit you.

An external law firm could help you:

  • Define the theme for your discussion group;
  • Identify and attract potential members;
  • Identify relevant topics for your group to discuss and address;
  • Set up the initial communications and approaches to relevant people and organisations;
  • Structure your group’s meetings; and
  • Frame your role as the founder of the group.

They could also provide:

  • A venue for your meetings;
  • Conference call facilities;
  • Administrative support, from booking meetings and sending invites to preparing the agenda and taking care of post-meeting follow ups; and
  • Practical insights and help with preparing presentations and leading discussions.

But most importantly…

Having an external law firm involved in your discussion group could help protect you in two vital ways.

Firstly, if you’ll be discussing issues with your potential or actual competitors, you’ll need a neutral venue and an independent legal presence so you can demonstrate that you’re not being anti-competitive or operating a cartel.

Secondly, a neutral private practice lawyer will stop people in the group accidentally straying into areas or topics that may create legal problems. 

If you are interested in setting up your own discussion group, see how we could help here.