Defining roles and resource planning ...and why the world may be about to change for in-house teams

Paul Gilbert, Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel, the UK based specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers, discusses the rapid evolution taking place in how in-house counsel define roles and plan resource and why, in his opinion, this will be the biggest strategic challenge in-house teams will face in the next three years.

In this article, Paul looks at the importance of defining roles in the success of an in-house team. He compares the traditional model for resource planning with the increasing number of alternative resource options and provides his thoughts on the 4 things he would address if he were in the position of General Counsel today.

It is a constant challenge for all teams to be able to plan for the work that can be anticipated.

It is an even bigger challenge to plan for the work that cannot be anticipated.

For most teams there have been two ever present certainties in the last five years. 1) It is very hard to get more resource, especially headcount, but 2) there is more work, more risk and more need.

This in turn has resulted in the insidious “do more with less” environment. When legal and commercial risks have developed to be more real and more important to most businesses many teams are struggling to square the circle. It is no longer tenable to expect colleagues to work longer and longer hours. But against this background we risk failing to deliver the services needed, of missing opportunity and not realising the potential of the contribution teams can make. Critically we also risk a crisis of well-being.

Successful teams generate work. They do so not because they are inefficient or unfocussed, but because their increasing credibility and success encourage ever earlier engagement and a broadening of the contribution.

Ironically it is also true that unsuccessful teams generate more work; in their case because being inefficient and unfocussed ensures activity dominates over value. In both situations teams are becoming too busy and too stressed.

Interestingly however it is rare that the quality of the lawyers is the difference between efficient teams and inefficient teams. Mostly the difference is down to the clarity of purpose (role definition) and then managing resources to deliver value against the defined role.

A traditional model:

Typically in-house teams can be justified by reference to four criteria (either by design or through the evolution of their role) as follows:

  1.  To be cheaper than externally provided legal services
  2.  To be always accessible when needed
  3.  To know the business so well that the service is always relevant, anticipatory and immediately useful
  4.  To be able to select and manage external lawyers for value

This model however has always pre-supposed a mix of internal and external lawyers working in a close, mutual gains relationship. In return, so the theory has gone, not only will the client get the best of both worlds, but the in-house team will also benefit from so called “value-add” from their chosen law firms – including training, knowledge updates (newsletters etc) and secondees.

In the last five years however the model has not looked sophisticated enough. In-house teams have struggled to build resilient infrastructures. For example there has been a lack of investment in technology (for workflow management, for document management and for management reporting). In addition demand is often unchecked, in turn creating a culture of long hours and risking burn-out for individual team members. Further while value-add is an easy “ask”, it is often poorly executed.

Law firms have been equally poor, but for different reasons. Their lack of investment in relationships contrasts with their often zealous focus on short term billing targets and an abject failure to create value beyond the instruction. As a result many firms are vulnerable on panel reviews and many are still hopelessly poor at leveraging relationships to create more value for their firms.

The first sign of a threat to the dysfunctionality of law firms and their relationships with in-house teams was the technology providers hunting down opportunities for selling e-billing, knowledge management and workflow management.

Interestingly however, while successful to a point, there isn’t an obvious breakthrough opportunity that threatens to usurp the role of the law firm (or indeed the in-house team). The reasons are complex and, of course, vary, but in essence are influenced by three major factors:

  • First the technology providers have often failed to make their services affordable to the majority of small to medium sized in-house teams.
  • Second the law firms, who might lose out to the major publishers and technology companies selling services to their clients, are themselves major purchasers from these companies. The market place therefore is somewhat schizophrenic.
  •  Finally, in-house teams are very risk averse and fundamentally lack the confidence or knowledge to buy technology well.

In fact the most compelling technology proposition would be one sold to the in-house team through a joint venture between law firm and technology company, implemented for no cost and in return for a long term commitment by the in-house team to the law firm.

It doesn't seem likely, not yet anyway.

A new model?

Now there is a new factor to take into account. The new kids on the block are the interim resource businesses. Companies whose business it is to plug short term resource gaps. Businesses such as these:

Axiom Law


Lawyers on Demand 

Legal Edge

To be honest I am not sure these businesses yet realise the full potential of their role in the new legal services landscape. It will be fascinating to see how it might develop.

As mentioned earlier the idea of needing short-term secondments has been a factor in selecting law firms for many in-house teams. These interim resource businesses however offer something subtly different and more important than just a short-term resource.

For me these businesses now have the potential to unlock the value of an in-house team like never before and to literally transform the legal services market place. It isn’t just that in-house teams, coping with greater demand, need the extra help. Nor is it that this help can be provided more quickly, more cheaply and possibly more empathetically than by a law firm; it is the potential they have to do so much more.

The key to success for an in-house team in terms of strategy is defining their role. The key to successfully implementing their strategy is infrastructure and resilience.

Law firms have failed to supply or support better infrastructure in in-house teams because it has not suited the law firms’ needs. Why would they invest in reducing demand for their services? Frankly the more inefficient their clients are the more short term profit the law firms can make from them. I do not suggest that this is their conscious strategy, but I note it as an observable consequence of partners being rewarded very well on a time-charged basis where the longer something takes the more they are paid; while at the same time much of the market is only open to similarly minded competitors.

Further, and ironically, technology companies have failed to make the inroads they hoped for because of the passive resistance to change in some in-house teams and those teams’ lack of understanding of how technology could help them become more effective.

The interim resource solution however provides the perfect, non threatening, vehicle to make a broader and deeper contribution.

So, imagine if the interim resource businesses also become strategic in-house consultancies and sellers of technology solutions (and/or resellers for third party solution providers). In an instant they equip themselves to change the market forever.

The more efficient in-house teams can thus push at the open door to better infrastructure and greater resilience. While even the less efficient teams can receive honest feedback without the vanity strokes from self-interested law firms.

Imagine the insights these interim resource businesses have; they can see (the lack of) technology being used, the internal structures, the law firms who are engaged and on what terms, the tolerance to risk in the client, the experience profile of the in-house lawyers, their investment in policy and process, etc, etc, etc.

For the first time, perhaps in the history of the in-house role, there is the prospect of accelerating development to a point where it is increasingly straightforward to define roles, resource flexibly and implement tried and trusted solutions. In doing so to build infrastructure and resilience and in turn contribute to the value the teams bring. To be on the edge of such a development is a very significant moment indeed.

Defining roles and resource planning

The “now what?” question posed by this evolution is the biggest strategic challenge in-house teams will face in the next three years. If I were a General Counsel today I would be addressing the following issues:

  1. How to define the different roles I want for my team, law firms and my interim resource partner.
  2. How I can leverage the experience of my law firms to contribute to risk management and especially to anticipate issues arising from suppliers, competitors, customers and regulators in my sector.
  3. How I can leverage the experience of my interim resource partner to help me build a resilient infrastructure drawing on best practice ideas they see in the market and how to source technology solutions that they recommend will help me.
  4.  Then to blend all of this into a robust business plan.

In this environment I have a long term sustainable proposition that I know is secure, optimal and valuable. It is for these reasons that I am more confident than I have ever been of the in-house sector fulfilling its potential.



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