From firefighting to efficiency

This article looks at whether firefighting is the inevitable norm for busy in-house lawyers (IHL), or whether it is possible to operate in a more structured and efficient way – and, if so, how?

Firefighting, in the business sense, is when the problems, requests and queries that you and your colleagues are dealing with are all so urgent that you never seem able to get on top of, or control, your workload.

Business as usual becomes a frantic attempt to keep all the plates spinning and to keep clients happy, often unsuccessfully. Of course, not every referral that is flagged to you as urgent, is truly urgent, which is why it matters that you develop good prioritisation and workflow processes to help filter matters as early as possible.      

Firefighting usually becomes embedded for three reasons – (1) there’s too much work for too few people, or (2) you’re taking on too much of the wrong type of work, or (3) because there’s no structure to the way that client requests are submitted, allocated or dealt with – and perhaps a combination of all three. 

Of course, there are occasions when firefighting is necessary – say when there’s a crisis and it’s all hands to the pumps. But this is different from where firefighting becomes the default position, the modus operandi of the legal team.   

Unfortunately, constant firefighting is both highly inefficient and demoralising. It undermines morale and influences how clients and colleagues see the IHL and not in a good way. If they cannot get their own house in order, how can the IHL be trusted business partners?

But even where everyone is sick of always firefighting, making changes is often not straightforward nor painless. When everyone is so busy it takes a degree of resolve and some resilience to admit that things are not working as they should and that changes are needed. Apart from anything else, it means that at least the GC/HoL and perhaps others, will need to carve time out of their busy schedules so as to consider the bigger picture. 

But where to start? 

Here are six suggestions for transforming a firefighting team into an efficient one.

1. Analyse what you’re doing

One of the frustrations with firefighting is that you never seem to have control over what comes to you or the legal team. There may be little or no apparent structure so that it’s often a matter of reacting to the most urgent, urgent matter or to the loudest client. 

You cannot make changes unless you know how the IHL are spending their time. What are they doing, for which clients? A case management system should give you this information but it needs to be interrogated to show, for example, which clients use you most often and the profile of their requests. Otherwise, it’s worthwhile running a manual analysis to get the same information. 

You may learn nothing new but you may discover that, for example, you’re spending a lot of time and resources on dealing with matters that are not high enough priority or that are repetitive requests.

2. Clarify what’s most important 

The fact is that some legal work is core work and some is not. This may change over time but, fundamentally, core work will be concerned with protecting organisational assets and reputation and enhancing its value, including by ensuring that its business operations run as smoothly as possible. 

Given that legal issues arise out of business problems, you may think that what is, and is not, core work would be obvious. But it’s important that the GC/HoL and the IHL understand the key objectives and priorities of their various clients/stakeholders and to agree where the IHL’s work will have the most impact in any given aspect. This means liaising with clients regularly so as to determine their key legal risks and agreeing how they will be managed to ensure compliance and limit business friction. Fundamentally, it’s about ensuring that the work of the IHL is closely aligned with supporting the organisation’s key objectives and targets and with ensuring the legal and regulatory health of the organisation.

But even where it’s core business, not all matters are equally important or urgent and some matters may not be core at all. So, how to decide what to deal with, when? For this you need to prioritise.    

3. Prioritise

Not all legal work is of equal importance and a simple prioritisation grid will help in differentiating what’s most important and the rest. You can prioritise activity and tasks as between, say, importance and urgency by categorising tasks as important, urgent, important and urgent and neither – for example:

Important, not urgent  Important and urgent 
 Not urgent, not important  Urgent, not important

Clearly the aim will be to focus on what’s important and urgent and important. If you’re active in dealing with a significant amount of work that’s urgent (but not important) or is nether urgent nor important you know where you need to refocus resources.   

Prioritising is not just a spreadsheet exercise. It means liaising with clients regularly to identify workflow. You may also need to persuade some clients if you propose disrupting long established practices whereby certain work is referred to Legal because it always has been. The GC/HoL must be clear that not all referrals necessarily require bespoke advice by a lawyer and that filters and dealing with some work differently, or not at all, will be necessary, for example via the development of more Q&A and self-help type processes to allow clients to undertake lower priority or less complex work themselves. 

If you use external lawyers (and most organisations will) they need to be included in the analysis and prioritisation of work. Their use should be part of an overall strategy for the delivery of legal services to clients and that will be difficult if there is little or no control over instructions, quality and cost. There’s little point in developing more efficient systems for the IHL if others are randomly instructing external lawyers without regard to that strategy.

4. Articulate your vision and have a strategy

A vision needn’t be long or complicated but it does help to write it down. It clarifies what the IHL are there to do and (perhaps) not do. It’s very difficult to articulate this unless you know what are the key areas that legal resources are, or should be, focused on. Thus, the vision will likely confirm that the IHL will focus on supporting the organisation in achieving its key goals, helping protect its assets and reputation and, of course, uphold the rule of law and the high ethical standards to which the organisation aspires.
The strategy sets out how the IHL will do this and how it’s paid for. Again, the strategy needn’t be complex. Depending on the size and complexity of the organisation, the strategy may be fairly short and simple or it may need to go into more detail about how and when services are provided, the availability of legal help and any preliminary steps needed to access bespoke advice, including from external lawyers.

Many IHL will cite the lack of time recording as a benefit of working in-house. Fine, but the GC/HoL will need to know the cost of providing the overall legal service and different aspects of it, which is not simply headcount cost. The better the quality of the data available here, the better the GC/HoL is able to plan and influence and persuade clients about the relative value (at least in financial terms) of different types of activity. 

5. Plan your resources

It’s all very well deciding that you need to focus on core work and deal with things differently. But have you got enough resources, is it of the right type, is it in the right place and is it appropriate to the tasks in hand? You won’t want to be over-engineering advice, for example. 

If the IHL are already dealing largely with high priority/value work and there are good work systems in place but you’re still overrun, it may mean that you need more resources to do the job. (The other option is to cut back on core work and that may be unattractive for a number of reasons). To get more resources usually means having a good business plan to, for example, justify hiring more lawyers (which may be the answer). But it’s likely that the plan will need to set out a range of costed options, including the potential for automation, flexible resourcing, the role of external lawyers and the consequences of not doing certain work.

Looking at resourcing also means being honest about the skills of the IHL and whether there are gaps that need filling in order to meet changing priorities and areas of work. A skills analysis will help but important gaps should be addressed. In essence you cannot afford to confine what the legal team does to the skills it currently has, as those skills may need to be expanded or developed. 

Changing or upgrading the skills base may not be easy or quick. It may mean retraining, recruiting, restructuring or finding a temporary fix via external or flexible providers. Transforming the work of the legal team or simply making simple adjustments serves to underline the value of recruiting and training lawyers who are flexible, curious and eager to learn and develop.

6. Provide leadership

Even if there’s an overwhelming case for it, change is rarely simple or painless. You may be upsetting existing processes, clients and perhaps some IHL. As well as following the steps suggested here, this also requires leadership in order to develop and articulate the case for doing things differently and then taking people with you. 

Leadership, particularly in times of change, requires clear and frequent communication, empathy (as change can be hard) and good alliances as you build the case for change.  It also requires resilience and a little courage to put your head above the parapet and upset the status quo, however unpopular or unpleasant it may be. For example, you may well need to back your staff in the face of complaints from clients about why the old way of doing things was better and why is change necessary? 

Is leadership confined to the GC/HoL? All and any IHL can show leadership by supporting the case for moving to a less frenetic and more efficient legal service.