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‘Become a strategic partner to your business.’ It’s the universal aspiration for in-house counsel at the moment, but it’s easier said than done. If you manage to dig yourself out of mountains of paperwork and process, and find some genuine headspace, what should you do with it?
Here are five ways in-house counsel can transform from reactive, risk-averse lawyer to proactive, strategic business partner.
One of the most effective ways to make sure legal actually partners with the business, rather than simply reacting to it, is to align your KPIs. If you work in a sales-led organisation, and their key metric is deals closed, then by sharing that goal, you can incentivise legal to work towards it too. For example, is there anything legal you can do to remove friction in the deal process, whether that’s through automation, adjusting your risk guidelines, or exploring contract management?
Forcing lawyers to think creatively about ways they can work directly to support business KPIs is a great way to bring the legal function closer to the teams it supports. Aligning financial incentives could work too - but that might be too radical for some.
If you expect to be invited to meetings with the C-suite and financial directors to talk commercial strategy, you all need to be speaking the same language. And while you might have your head around the risk environment your company faces, or the commercial upside that a particular legal strategy might enable, can you show your workings?
If the stakeholders you’re hoping to partner with live in spreadsheets, then you should too. As I said on stage at a legal tech conference a couple of months ago, one of the most powerful legal innovation trends we’ve seen in recent years is the migration of lawyers from Word to Excel; make sure you’re comfortable with this.
Start reporting on your time-to-signature metrics, so you can help with revenue forecasting. Build out prediction models for your external spend. Work out your fully-baked cost per transaction - a great way to show legal’s value to the company’s bottom line. If everyone in your meeting has a spreadsheet, don’t be the only person with a Word printout.
When he was the Director of Corporate Legal and Tax at PGGM, Max Hübner decided to take the guesswork out of his legal team’s relationship with the business. Together with Integron’s Stephan Van Gelder, he created a customer satisfaction questionnaire for the company. The 20-question survey went out to 400 internal clients and helped him to compare his legal team’s perception of their value, to those characteristics and tasks that business colleagues actually find indispensable.
The findings were surprising - for example, the quality of advice was taken as read, and hardly mentioned as definitive. Instead, factors like turnaround time, absence of jargon and business enablement were much more important. If you’re struggling to work out what would really make the business value your legal team as a partner, don’t leave it to chance. Just ask them.
It’s uncomfortable for some to admit, but not all contracts need lawyer involvement. In fact, a great many don’t; the high-flying legal team at Monzo are a fine example of how to find a risk appetite you’re comfortable with, and then optimise operations to deliver a great service to your internal client.
NDAs are a common example - most tech companies, for example, sign high volumes of NDAs with little to no negotiation, so there’s no point wasting lawyer time on those documents when commercial teams could just use automation to self-serve.
But there are many other examples, beyond NDAs: at Juro we’re fortunate enough to work with plenty of innovative in-house legal teams who push the envelope in terms of empowering their commercial colleagues, freeing themselves up to focus on high-value, strategic advice to their businesses.
One of the reasons lawyers (often unfairly) find themselves perceived as reactive cost centres (rather than business partners) is the narrow range of tasks on which colleagues are prepared to consult them. Contracts, risk, compliance and the occasional IP question can sometimes feel like the extent of it. But in fact, most lawyers have a much wider field of vision, and can add value in lots of different areas.
A great example of this was at Habito, where the legal team, led by GC Rohan Paramesh, took a proactive approach to help colleagues navigate concerns about Brexit. With a Brexit deadline looming, several employees raised concerns about the ‘settled status’ process.
Rohan’s team set up workshops to guide employees through the various different considerations, and even bought a company Android phone to help them progress their applications. Not only is a project like this great for morale, and for the legal team’s perception within the business, but it might also make a huge difference to the bottom line, if talent is at risk.
Thinking creatively about processes like this - where lawyers are perhaps uniquely placed to add value - can help in-house teams to change their reputation in the business, shifting away from reactive work and becoming true business partners. Give it a try - because life is too short to spend your whole in-house career stuck in process work.
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