How do you stop letting the business abdicate responsibility and free the legal team to focus on higher-value work?
Legal teams are not an island. They are part of an end-to-end business process. With the expectation to deliver more value with fewer resources, organizations are urging all teams, including legal, to optimize their efficiency. In a recently sponsored roundtable at the Alternative In-House Legal event, we delved into the strategies that legal teams can employ to move their legal team up the value curve and ensure that business teams do not abdicate their responsibilities in any process.
Being an in-house lawyer
During the session, a recurring theme was the significance of lawyers being aware of their responsibilities as in-house counsel. Of the need to balance their obligations to the business with their duties as solicitors. The session’s host, Richard Given, GC of OpenPayd, highlighted this by posing questions such as “When was the last time you reviewed the SRA principles?” and “Have you ensured compliance with your obligations as a solicitor?”
In this context, the discussion also focused on what was a legal issue and what was a commercial decision that should be made by the business. Lawyers can advise and provide recommendations in the context of their wider SRA obligations. Business teams cannot abdicate responsibility by passing the commercial decisions to the legal team or labelling the legal team as a blocker if it is providing clear advice that for internal compliance, external regulatory or other reasons the company cannot agree to change its limits on liability or concede its IP.
Working with the wider business
The crucial aspect here is to determine whether the legal team or the business has the authority to make decisions. It is essential to clarify expectations and ensure that both parties are aware of their roles. For instance, a Business Customer Contracting Policy may have fixed guidelines regarding what is mandatory and what is not, with some room for flexibility. The legal team may not need to be involved unless there is a need for advice on complying with the policy’s flexible aspects. This fosters a collaborative relationship between legal and business teams rather than an adversarial one.
Occasionally, the business may view the legal team as unhelpful and challenging. However, changing the narrative can help the business understand the legal team’s value. For example, when a salesperson complains that the lawyer is saying “no” to many things, the lawyer should work through the contract, highlighting the potential consequences of some requests. This demonstrates that the legal team is not being obstructive but rather providing a valuable perspective. By contextualizing legal issues and working with the business, the legal team can pre-empt future problems and show that they are an asset to the organization.
According to several attendees, they often receive phone calls or MS Teams messages from a business user within minutes of receiving an email to ensure that legal has received it and is working on it. To the individual business user their request is clearly top priority. But the business user has no visibility of the work that the lawyer has and where the latest request sits in those priorities.
In this context, lawyers need to be very disciplined in their responses. Jumping to deal with or fit in the request, even if it is not the top priority, sets an expectation that the business can always contact legal later in the process than it should and legal will pull it out of the bag. This results in legal being busy and not smart plus overrun.
It is crucial to take adequate time to respond to requests to prevent the legal function from being perceived solely as a reactive center that jumps on everything. Being clear with the business about priorities helps train the business to approach legal early and see the legal team as a proactive and strategic partner.
Like all functions legal has to operate within budget constraints, engaging with the finance team early in the budgeting process is essential so that legal can manage business expectations accordingly. The level of service legal can provide to the business and the speed with which it will respond to support requests is (absent productivity improvements) heavily impacted by the annual budget.
For example, if the CEO and business expect legal to deliver a range of services but the budget means that not all these services can be provided, then legal should start the discussion about priorities and which services should not be provided. This way expectations are managed on all sides. Either the budget is amended, or legal has a clear brief on priorities which allows it to manage ‘noise’ that arises during the year.
Technology as an enabler
Using technology and tools is crucial but using them intelligently is vital. To ensure that you are using technology efficiently, it’s essential first to understand your needs and then find the appropriate technology to meet those needs. For instance, giving people tools such as self-service contracts or document creation templates can be valuable. OneNDA is an excellent example of a self-served document that businesses can use. It is already approved by the legal team and can be placed on the intranet or any internal system. This way, individuals like the IT director can get a copy of the NDA, submit the necessary details, and have it signed, protecting the business.
Another example is Legal Support Requests. All productivity and legal efficiency roads lead back to intake management. Requiring the business to submit support requests through a legal request form helps capture all the relevant information at the beginning of the work, preventing individuals from going down the wrong path and wasting time. With Legal Support Requests, in-house lawyers can move forward more efficiently and confidently, knowing they are on the correct path.
The Dalai Lama is famously known for saying, “I meditate for an hour a day, except when I’m busy, then I meditate for two,” emphasizing the importance of not losing perspective and staying focused on the task at hand. For instance, an important email to a senior stakeholder on a key business/legal issue that you could write in ten minutes may take several hours to compose to get the messaging right and stop unnecessary follow-ups and discussion.
To improve productivity, schedule “thinking time” in your calendar as breakthrough ideas and clear thinking often occur when we step away from our routine tasks and engage in different activities.
And finally, to ensure everyone is on the same page, define the legal team’s mandate and obtain the CEO’s sign-off, clearly outlining the team’s scope of responsibilities. It is essential to establish clarity regarding roles within the team and the organization as a whole.
Kim Document (www.kimdocument.com) is running a free 30-minute webinar on Wednesday 26th of April 2023 at 4 pm BST focusing on some of the issues addressed during this session, with a focus on self-service, request management and management of outside general counsel. Register here to book your place.