The life of an in-house lawyer can sometimes feel quite insular. Although you are a senior member of your organisation’s leadership team, your professional duties mean that you must maintain an appropriate degree of professional independence which sets you apart from your peers in other disciplines. Even if your legal team is of a reasonable size, the opportunity to sound out issues with colleagues may be limited.
You may find, though, that there is a substantial community of interest in legal matters which you can engage to real advantage.
What is a legal community?
In some ways, your legal community is what you make it. There is no single blueprint, and what works for you will differ significantly between organisations. In short, though, it is a series of interactions and links between those who have an interest in legal matters in the organisation.
It begins, of course, with the in-house lawyers, and it is helpful if someone has responsibility for forming and managing the community. It may well include the key users of legal services in your organisation, and those in adjacent functions such as secretariat, governance, and compliance. Most organisations, of whatever scale, use some external legal resource, whether in a law firm, an alternative legal provider or through some form of external knowledge management system. You may well have connections to sector or industry organisations, or professional memberships to legal societies in your area. All these people and resources have a perspective on the impact of law on your organisation – and will be a repository of knowledge and practice on legal issues.
If you can bring together those people, organisations and resources in a way that allows you to access and utilise their knowledge and expertise, there can be real benefits for your organisation, your legal team, and your professional reputation and standing.
How to build your legal community
At the simplest level, creating a legal community allows its members to know and understand what is going on, what resources are available to them, and how they can help. There are several tools you may want to consider in helping to build the community:
- Meetings – real or virtual. Lawyers can spend their lives in meetings – but most will be focused on transactions. Are you able to bring members of your network together to discuss issues facing your organisation and to build a real understanding? Several organisations have full-blown legal conferences, but you can begin by bringing together smaller groups, focusing on particular specialisms, or simply piloting your thoughts with people you feel can help you.
- News and social media. Does your legal community know what is going on – and how you are dealing with core legal issues? Often, in-house lawyers keep their achievements very much to themselves, simply moving on to the next issue, and don’t communicate them as a matter of course even within their teams.
- Technology. Could you have some form of intranet, social media, or newsletter for your legal community? It doesn’t need to be complex - simply to be kept up to date regularly, and ideally set up so it appears in their media feed or email rather than having to remember to look for it.
- Resource hubs. Most legal teams hold a wealth of knowledge, from standard documents to advice notes, analyses of legal and practical issues, and preferred approaches to issues. If they can be curated and brought together to a legal resource hub, accessible to both internal and external members of the legal community, you can save time, money, and resource, and make a real contribution to the organisation.
- Knowledge management. Building on the resource hub concept, you can use the legal community as the foundation for your knowledge management. The knowledge you have and want to publish can appear in the resource hub. Much more than that, though, you can use the community’s skills and resources. You might use a combination of in-house and external resources to generate focused legal updates, rather than the generic ones you might get from law firms. You might have a ‘quick question’ function, where anyone in your legal team can ask a legal question of the broader community. Taking it further, you might consider developing your procedures and knowledge management into a formal quality system, perhaps using Lexcel or ISO 9001 as a basis, and bringing together the various members of your legal community.
- Personal development resources. Most organisations will have some form of personal development process, often with formalised personal development plans, and possibly with professional or leadership workshops, programmes or courses. Your legal community can also be mobilised. Perhaps it may be possible to allow your lawyers to join programmes or courses run by your external law firms for clients and their staff, or for you to have reciprocal mentoring or coaching arrangements with firms? You may also be encouraged to introduce mentoring or coaching arrangements across your organisation so that lawyers are mentored or coached by senior staff across the organisation, and vice versa. You might also consider reverse mentoring, where more junior staff have a mentoring relationship with senior people – this can be effective, for example in communicating how and in what way graduates use technology to a senior lawyer, or for a junior lawyer to build a relationship with a senior non-legal director who then gets an understanding of the talent available in the legal community.
- Secondments. Many in-house teams will take secondments from law firms; less commonly – but equally effectively – you may be able to second your staff into your firms. There are significant benefits in mutual understanding of each other’s needs, working procedures, and preferences, and in identifying and dealing with issues that affect the organisation.
- Access to broader legal specialist skills. Many law firms offer lawyer secondments to their clients, but in building a legal community you may also have access to more specialist skills, ranging from knowledge management, to process design, legal architecture, legal technology, and legal project management – and be able to identify where those individual skills can assist your particular needs and demands.
What benefits can be realised?
Dealing with the legal issues of any organisation is hard. Often, the legal team is fully stretched just coping with day-to-day legal demands, and doing the work which lands on the desk. It can be difficult to resource new projects and challenges, to systemise precedents and processes, to access previous advice on key matters, and to ensure the organisation is sighted on legal issues coming over the horizon. One frequently hears lawyers complain that they are instructed later in a transaction than they would wish, or they aren’t told that an issue is brewing until something has gone badly wrong. Most often, this isn’t because of a desire to keep the lawyers in the dark, but rather the fact that people simply don’t understand the issues, opportunities, and the best way of working which already exist.
Indeed, in so many cases, the knowledge or skills which allow these issues to be addressed exist – in the organisation, within in-house or external lawyers, or elsewhere – but either aren’t known about, aren’t easily accessible, or are simply not available because someone thinks it isn’t important, isn’t their job, or that because they don’t want to appear to be imposing. Equally, the day-to-day demands of the job and continuing workloads may mean that the legal team can’t innovate as they would wish, or that their ideas haven’t been formally captured.
If your legal community can be mobilised, though, significant benefits are possible. Just some which you may want to consider include:
- Using and making accessible all the legal know-how related to your organisation, wherever it is situated.
- Capturing previous advice so that it can be accessed easily.
- Identifying a process for repetitive issues so they can be treated in the same way each time.
- Ensuring you are horizon-gazing for issues that might come to impact the organisation.
- Locking in your knowledge of the organisation’s strategy and planning processes.
- Introducing clear feedback arrangements so that your legal team can learn from the way your standard documents are used in the organisation, and pick up early warning signs of issues which have legal implications.
- Building better relationships across the legal community, allowing greater understanding of each other’s needs and wants, risks and opportunities.
- Allowing much quicker and more effective communications, faster problem-solving, and issue resolution as people get a better understanding of who to ask, where to look and what to consider.
- Opportunities and processes for innovation.
- The ability to use the collected know-how of the legal community to develop process flows for legal work.
- Accessing the non-legal specialist skills in your organisation which can be central to the performance of your role – procurement specialists to help define relationships with external providers; IT specialists to understand and implement appropriate legal technology; HR and development skills to help to integrate a development programme for legal staff.
- Significantly reduced transaction times and costs as it becomes possible to capture and standardise processes, documentation, and actions.
- A better understanding of the issues facing others in your industry, specialism, or sector from your external providers
These are all practical benefits that can help the in-house legal team to work more effectively and more quickly. Much more than that, though, a legal community allows the in-house team to become more integrated into the organisation.
Sometimes, the sheer pressure of work means that the legal team is seen purely as a service provider carrying out legal work and responding to emergencies. The creation of a legal community can allow the in-house lawyers to be more visible, for their work to be more transparent, and their value to be clearer to colleagues and senior staff across the organisation. In doing so, the reputation and value of the team can be enhanced, bringing with it more benefits in terms of the way the team and organisation work together.
A legal community can also allow better working arrangements with external legal providers. Particularly when working with specialists, there can sometimes be the risk that lawyers perceive that all clients in a particular sector work in the same way, or want the same outcome from a similar issue – whereas this is often not the case. Some will simply want a transactional service; others will want a holistic approach that looks at and addresses the root cause of issues. Some may want limited intervention exactly when required; others a cradle-to-grave service. By creating a legal community, you will be able to design exactly the options you require and ensure that a seamless legal service is provided across in-house, external lawyers and other providers.
For example, if you hold some form of physical or virtual event to bring together members of your legal community, the opportunity can often be taken to brainstorm risks, opportunities, and improvements; you may also be able to engage senior management from your organisation with the advantage that they see the value of your work, and your external providers understand how the law works in your organisation.
Some final thoughts
A hallmark of the in-house lawyer is that their work engages them with a huge range of people – much more so than almost all other in-house functions. Taking advantage of that community allows you to access relationships and engage resources that enable you to work more effectively, maximise your impact on the organisation, and at the same time enhance the reputation and value of the in-house lawyers to the organisation.
Almost every in-house lawyer at present is extremely busy; a huge number are dealing with increasing (and perhaps even impossible) workloads. While the creation of a legal community itself requires time and effort, the benefits can greatly outweigh the work involved and can make the in-house role significantly easier with better communications, a fuller understanding of the issues involved, and a broader range of resources to address them.