LBCambridge programme: including how to balance risk management and being commercial

The top 6 pressing issues impacting in-house roles

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LBC Wise Counsel logoThe 18th LBCambridge Summer School recently took place at Queens’ College, Cambridge. This acclaimed initiative was established in 2006 by LBC Wise Counsel as residential skills development programme for in-house lawyers to debate, challenge and share in a highly interactive environment.

The traditional opening keynote session on the first full day is designed around themes which the delegates identify as their most pressing issues. We ask the delegates what is “top of mind”, then discuss and debate these ideas with them and then distil these conversations into six key themes.

The six themes for April were as follows:

1. Making progress in flat structures when “dinosaurs” are in the way
2. How to balance risk management and being commercial
3. Ensuring consistent delivery with changing demand
4. Do more with less. Changing mindset on risk assessment and how to say “no”
5. Working best with people who work from different locations
6. Coping with rapid growth, dealing with/influencing significant cultural change

1. Making progress in flat structures when “dinosaurs” are in the way

This is a common concern. The challenge of course is that there is little or no planned route to promotion. The opportunity for development however is not curtailed. The emphasis for progression therefore is not promotion but development. In this regard there are three ideas to reflect upon as illustrated in the diagram (fig 1, below):

3 themes

 

Development through consciously seeking new experiences, through improving soft skills, through formal and informal learning is always possible. Whatever is on offer, frankly, grab it! A well defined role means you can assess your progress and judge better areas for improvement and areas of competence.

If a role is less well defined, my guidance is to define it yourself. Explore the boundaries, understand what being really good might look and feel like and seek out development opportunities that will improve the role and your performance in it.

In my view proactive thoughtful engagement with colleagues across the business cannot be overdone. Be curious, be interested, and be supportive. Fundamental to your success however will be that you secure a mentor. There will be no more important investment of time (possibly some money) that you make. A mentor is your sounding board and your constructive challenge. It is a resource for you, not your business and will always put your interests foremost.

And why are you doing all this in a flat structure? Because if there is to be progress, you need to be in pole position and not caught napping. However if as is likely there will not be progression for you (not easily anyway) your CV needs to be your advocate and there is nothing that is engaging than a CV which talks of development, skills and fresh experiences.

2. How to balance risk management and being commercial

Balancing risk management and being commercial is one of mine well-groomed hobby horses. This could be a whole conference in itself. I was recently facilitating the off-site meeting of a legal team when the General Counsel said that he thought his team should never say “no” and that whatever the business wanted he wanted to think “we had to find a way”.

There was the sound of sinking hearts in the room. For the previous hour all that had been discussed was how everyone was frazzled by increasing demand and increasingly petulant requests for even more support.

As Fig 2, suggests being “commercial” is not a panacea.

road closed
The first role of a legal team is to provide legal advice that protects the interest of the business. The language of “commerciality” is often a thinly veiled critique of lawyers who are perceived to be slow, pedantic and diffident. In a nutshell, the lawyers did not say “yes”. Obviously there is a balance to strike and I am not arguing that lawyers should work in panelled rooms off learned cloisters away from the grubby realities of business, but for heaven’s sake we are not there to be unthinking, subservient fetchers and carriers of  whatever the business fancies doing.

The balance between risk management and commerciality lies in a clearly defined role which encompasses both ideas but which enshrines and rewards the former. How many of your objectives focus on risk management?

3. Ensuring consistent delivery with changing demand

This requires three levers to be used:

a. Managing expectation, so that commitments are kept, but the commitments given are achievable within the anticipated context of competing priorities.

b. Reducing demand for personal interventions and investing in process, policy and self-help solutions

c. De-risking business activities by raising knowledge and understanding in the business.

In these three concepts lies the opportunity to smooth out the peaks and troughs and to focus on resilience and consistency. It is never as easy as a few words suggest, but the essence of your success is to understand the play between these three ideas and to make a conscious effort to manage them.

It is a common misapprehension in legal teams that if only they had more resource they could do everything that is expected of them. While this may be true and certainly should not be dismissed, the first step should be to try and reduce demand as illustrated by fig 3 below.

More resource

 

4. Do more with less. Changing mindset on risk assessment and how to say “no”

Doing more with less and learning to say “no” are the illegitimate love children of prioritisation.

It is unlikely to be possible to do more with less. What can be done is “less with less”.

Learning to say “no” is a false hope. In the face of colleagues who need support taking an antagonistic approach is a short journey to a loss of credibility.

Key here, as in many areas, is to have a well-defined role that is accepted by the business as a whole.

What is in scope? What is not in scope? What should be the realistic expectations of the business of their time-poor, demand-driven lawyers?

And, crucially, what happens when something isn’t full-square within the role of the team? This question needs an answer too (which might be an outsource solution or a self-help route etc) so that the business isn’t just left hanging without an answer.

It is literally hopeless however to expect lawyers in the moment to suddenly say “no” and be seen as credible or to become more efficient because they will it to be so.

If doing more with less is possible it will take time to plan, time to test and time to embed. I don’t rule it out; I do ask whether it is a slogan or a strategy.

5. Working best with people who work from different locations

The penultimate theme concerns working with people who are across different locations.

Co-location has obvious advantages. Relationships are easier to manage, communication is easier, and building a team ethos has more opportunity. However many teams are not co-located so how to build team cohesion in these circumstances?

Fig 4, below, provides one route to achieve this.

bunch of individuals

The essence of this is to invest in the team infrastructure so that the value proposition moves away from individual contribution to the impact the team as on the business as a whole.

For a team-wide impact there needs to be resilient, trusted policy and process that is an accepted part of the fabric of the organisation. The investment of the team members in building this is both a development opportunity for them individually, but also a team building opportunity. The resulting infrastructure helps to provide a common vocabulary and to define the team’s contribution and culture.

6. Coping with rapid growth, dealing with/influencing significant cultural change

The final theme to explore concerns dealing with rapid growth and cultural change and in many ways pulls together the other five themes explored in this report.

So, are roles defined (team and individuals)? Is there a resilient infrastructure? Have we invested in how to manage and then reduce demand for time? Are we working to common goals as a team?

The plea I make is that we are realistic about what can be achieved, make time to plan well and make time to implement well.

If we do not do this, we create a false expectation of what is possible. Teams can flag under the weight of work, morale can dip and lawyers tend to revert to the relative comfort zone of making an individual contribution based on their own strong personal relationships within the business. At this point team cohesion is lost and initiative fatigue is inevitable.

If, as this theme suggests, a team has to cope with a significant transformation, personal resilience must also be a consideration. Mentors are helpful, but managers as well must be equipped to spot signs of workplace stress and know how to deal with it empathetically and professionally.

 

 

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