Management Consulting - is it relevant to in-house lawyers?

Many commercial organisations as well as government and public bodies seek advice from external consultants on ways to improve their performance. Engagements may be short-term and focused on a specific process or function, or wider in scope and longer in duration. Consultants may be asked to analyse and recommend solutions only - or be retained to help implement the solution.

General Counsel (GCs) must deliver legal services in an efficient, measured way that contributes to meaningful improvement.

They need to consider all options that will help them achieve this. Strategies could involve increased automation, outsourcing, self-help options for clients or improving skills across the legal team, among others. 

What management consultants can do for GCs 

Finding time away from the day job to properly analyse, plan and implement change is a real challenge. And even once you have made the time, how do get right to the heart of the relevant issues? 

This is where external consultants can add value. They can work with GCs to analyse, plan and implement change. As well as saving the GC valuable time, consultants will employ tools and methodologies that few in-house lawyers have ready access to. This is especially true at times of heightened organisational change, say in response to a crisis, business transformation or change in senior personnel. 

In this article we look briefly at some of the fundamentals of management consulting in general, then consider how consultants can support in-house legal teams in particular. 

What do management consultants do? 

According to the Management Consulting Association (MCA), management consulting is the practice of creating value for organisations through improved performance, helping take organisations further than they would go on their own. 

Consultants advise on particular functions of an organisation, such as: 
  • Strategy; 
  • Operations; 
  • Technology; 
  • Process improvement; 
  • Sales; 
  • Executive leadership; and 
  • Talent management.

Many consultant firms are structured according to the business sector they operate within. Examples include: 

  • Automotive; 
  • Oil and gas; 
  • Healthcare; 
  • IT; and
  • Professional services. 

Types of management consulting 

As well as the distinctions relating to function and business sector, consulting is generally focussed either on business strategy and operational process (sometimes called hard side consulting) or on people (soft side consulting). Many projects will combine both types of consulting, for example, where a business process improvement sees the introduction of new technology, some downsizing and staff retraining. 

Why use management consultants? 

External consultants can bring many benefits to an organisation or business area. 

The most obvious are their expertise in analysis and familiarity with business systems and methodologies accrued from their work across multiple industries and sectors. 

Consultants also bring independent focus. They’re divorced from the day-to-day pressures and politics of their clients, so can be totally impartial. This is important when it comes to gathering information and recommending solutions - particularly if an issue is controversial or likely to involve radical decisions. 

Consultants are often engaged when something has gone wrong and caused a mini (or major) crisis at an organisation. In this scenario, external consultants can often get to the heart of the problem quicker - and with greater ease - than the managers directly involved. 

Sometimes, having already implemented a business change, an organisation may seek an independent view of how things are working. They look for validation of the change or use external consultancy as a prelude to further change. 

Finally, consultants may be brought in to facilitate change. The period following a merger, where an organisation needs to harmonise business functions and cultures, is a typical example of this type of consultancy. 

Consulting services for in-house lawyers 

GCs already use a range of business tools to give their teams a competitive advantage. So what, specifically, can external consultants add? Here are some suggestions. 

A sounding board. Where the GC knows exactly where they want to get to and how, they’ll often take soundings from key stakeholders of the legal team in the organisation. However, they may also want an independent, impartial view on potential upsides, downsides, risks and pitfalls, particularly where proposed changes are significant or may be controversial. 

Strategy, planning and budgeting support. Although this goes with the territory of leading a business function or team, GCs may welcome advice on methodology and roll-out, especially if it involves significant organisational change. In more straightforward situations, consultants can be facilitators for strategy and planning sessions and ‘away days’. 

Help with business processes, structure and resourcing. GCs and legal leaders review how they deliver their services regularly. They assess how their teams are structured and whether they have the right mix of resources (internal and external) for the job. This requires analysis and feedback, which can get particularly complex where a legal team is not centrally located or is spread across different locations. And more often than not, resourcing evaluations include studying how people use technology. 

Improved customer service and performance. This covers matters such as client and stakeholder engagement, service standards, key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurement, and assessing and reporting on activity, client feedback, performance and value. 

Procurement of external services. Whether this means bespoke arrangements or a structured panel system, GCs must ensure that their providers deliver value against agreed financial and other measures. External consultants can help with this. 

Management of specific legal accountabilities. The legal team may be involved in setting up contract, intellectual property, risk or compliance management systems, so may seek external input into a review of existing systems. 

Enhanced matter and knowledge management. These can be challenging areas for in-house teams as they look to capture and leverage their expertise across the legal team and beyond. Additionally, GCs know that reports comprising a simple narrative update of activity are no longer sufficient. They must also explain how performance matches up against targets and demonstrate the value the legal team delivers. 

Change management. Whether implementing or responding to business change, GCs will be keen to minimise disruption to their core function – the delivery of legal services. This will require good systems to maintain morale and ensure business continuity. 

Team-building. While they understand that strong, resilient and diverse teams are key, GCs also know that building a team culture and reinforcing important messages can get lost in day-to-day activity. Consultants can support team development by leading or facilitating regular team-building events. 

Leadership and personal development. External consultants can support leaders and aspiring leaders through skills training, coaching and mentoring. They can also help them develop their business and legal skills. 

People management. In addition to leadership and personal development training, it may be important to look at areas such as recruitment and retention, induction and job transition and the many different ways of building skills and expertise.

Conclusion

Organisations engage management consultants for a wide range of purposes, all of which support the overall objective of improving performance and gaining competitive advantage. 

As GCs and legal teams come under increasing pressure to deliver value and improve efficiency, external consultants can offer crucial input in many different ways. 

No in-house team can afford to be reactive only; boards and executive teams expect their lawyers to adopt the same business practices as the rest of the organisation. This means GCs must consider ways to optimise resources. It also means looking at automation and technology, structure, process and how people are supported and developed. 

Engaging consultants for specific projects could be increasingly important – and therefore commonplace - among GCs. While there is a cost, getting the right external support at the right time may be one of the critical success factors in the management of the legal function and the services it provides. And it may offer new opportunities for larger consulting firms, innovative law firms and niche providers to in-house lawyers alike.