Helen-Teague

The difference between in-house legal teams and the law firm

Helen Teague, Legal Project Officer at Wellcome Trust, delves into the differing infrastructure, resources and needs between In-House legal teams and Law Firms…

Infrastructure

An in-house legal team is part of a wider organisation of non-lawyers. Work from the organisation with a legal element, but where legal advice is not required does not necessarily come to the Legal team. This means when we are considering new organisation-wide technology we need to look at it primarily from the non-lawyer’s point of view. This means the in-house lawyer will likely be spending time finding facts, meeting the internal client, assessing needs. A vendor should not underestimate the length or importance of this part of the internal due diligence process.

By contrast, at a law firm, the bulk of staff are likely to be legal, so bringing in new technology will mostly be seen from a lawyer’s point of view. Any change will be approved by the partners (in the case of a partnership), led by the IT team and imposed, with little involvement of lawyers other than at the user training stage.

The in-house legal team also considers the impact of technology changes in a wider infrastructure sense, for example, technical integration with other IT programs (which may be many and varied); goal integration with other teams; the organisation’s strategy as a whole and adapting legal tools (such as matter and contract management tools) for use primarily by non-lawyers in their business. This will impact on things like the future support model for the technology because administration responsibilities and usage may be spread around the organisation. There may be more time to experiment.

By contrast, a law firm uses only the technology it needs to support the legal needs of its clients and the IT landscape is likely to be more streamlined. The information governance framework will be (possibly) more robust e.g. in respect of safeguarding confidential client information for lawyers working on multiple matters. Lawyers in private practice tend to be more time-poor and conservative in their approach to new technology, as client deadlines usually take precedence. User adoption will be a more hurried process. Their view may be less holistic and more focused on the benefit to their personal work. For instance, M&A lawyers may be more interested in automating corporate due diligence processes, and litigators, e-disclosure tools.

Resources

In terms of financial resources, an in-house legal team is usually assigned a budget which will determine how much can be spent on new technology (though in some organisations the budget is flatter than others). There may be discussions between teams over budgetary responsibility. A law firm’s budget for new technology will depend broadly on the profit of the firm and decisions will be the remit of the partners, who own the business.

In terms of time resource, an in-house legal team may be running the implementation process and considering the time drain on staff in implementation, change management, communications and training. This, again, will be outsourced in a law firm to non-solicitors, as the solicitors have to primarily concentrate on meeting client deadlines and in general, are less in control of their own timetable. The in-house team will need to make a case to the relevant governance body setting out a cost/benefit analysis and appropriate allocation of resource. They might need more vendor support at the early scoping stage in order to build a compelling business case, as in-house legal might be in competition with other parts of the business for limited IT budget and support. Again, at a law firm these cases are made usually by people other than solicitors (e.g. an IT or Innovations capability) and approved by the partners. These differences may entail a difference in the type of role that tech vendors engage with. The in-house lawyer may be balancing this with their day job, where in a law-firm, tech enablement may be the raison d’etre of a person’s role, so a tech vendor should adjust the type/frequency of their communication accordingly.

Needs

As above, an in-house legal team may need to undertake a qualitative/quantitative research exercise to diagnose needs, which may take time. They may be more involved in the procurement exercise. They may be more interested in the credentials of the tech vendor and whether they “fit”, culturally speaking, with the organisation. Tech vendors should be prepared to answer questions about this. By contrast, the goal of the private practice law firm is to earn fees from giving legal advice to clients, and win new business from clients, so any technology improvement will ultimately be in service of this goal.

Helen Teague

Helen Teague

Wellcome Trust
Helen is a Project Officer in the Wellcome Trust Legal Team. She helps to evolve current internal and legal-led systems. Previously a solicitor in private practice, acting for charities, Helen has a deep interest in charity structures and governance, and volunteers for several charities in her free time.