Now is the time that in-house lawyers prove just how valuable they are

LOD’s Anthony Wright discusses five problems in-house teams are facing amid the pandemic

Now is the time that in-house lawyers prove just how valuable they are

We’re seeing the world coming to grips with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Every organisation is responding to the vast and profound impact of the virus, whether it is whole industries shuttering or entire professions relocating abruptly to a new way of working. The legal profession is no exception, and in-house teams in particular are experiencing heightened stress, workload and responsibility – all with less budget.

Despite the global business stress, the legal sector remains relatively well-positioned – but not insulated – to weather the storm. Organisations still need to comply with their legal obligations, and plenty of people are looking at contracts for the better or worse. In-house legal teams are well placed to help the business survive and maybe even prosper amid some big challenges.

Our mission at LOD is to help in-house lawyers succeed – both our clients and our team. Now, more than ever, people need help – whether you’re incredibly busy and stressed, or unfortunately too quiet and also stressed. We’ve spent thousands of hours with in-house teams around the world, looking at legal operations and strategy more broadly. It’s from this deep experience that we offer some guidance on how to honestly reflect and analyse your challenges; setting you up to improve.

Fundamentally, there are two approaches to every problem: do something different or keep doing what you’re doing and change nothing. Unfortunately, lawyers too often pick the latter, meaning they work harder, often reinventing the wheel or answering another FAQ. This isn’t worth it, nor is it sustainable for your wellbeing. Here, we focus on the “doing something differently” option for a list of common problems currently facing legal teams.

  1. The “we’re so busy problem”

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”Peter Drucker

There are two main solutions to this problem: (a) get more people and/or (b) don’t do the work at all or the same as you have previously. In the current climate, not many GCs will relish starting a conversation with the CFO about option (a).  Where you can gain credibility is by explaining one option is to “throw more people at it” but you are thinking more creatively and considering whether the tasks even need to be done by Legal or anyone in the first place. To do this, you need to understand the work coming into Legal and understand what you might be able to stop doing or do with far fewer resources. 

In short, the solution is – define then identify “unimportant” work, stop the lawyers doing it, and find another way for the organisation to do it. Normally the answer will be creating self-serve tools for the internal clients so they can DIY with guardrails in place to mitigate risk. Maybe the answer will involve tech, but a lot of the time it’s not necessary and, in current times, where things need to happen urgently, it might take too long to implement.

A usual suspect for “stop doing work” is for frequently used contracts (we call it FUCs). The “average” in-house lawyer at the “average” legal team spends 60-75% of their time on contracting – drafting, negotiating, advising on, finding someone to approve and sign, and filing. We could go into a lot of detail about this but, in our experience, more than 80% of legal teams could considerably improve their common contracting and remove lawyers from many of the tasks within a FUCs process. These tasks can be completed by the business people (with tools to help them get it done fast and without errors). If the core job of most in-house lawyers is handling FUCs, we as in-house lawyers should be the best* at it. Our takeaway: “FFS be the best at FUCs!” … For goodness sake, be the best at frequently used contracts! * The best as defined by key stakeholders, not solely lawyers.

  1. The “cut legal costs” problem

“Costs do not exist to be calculated. Costs exist to be reduced.”Taiichi Ohno

Has anyone met a CEO who wants to pay their lawyers more? Lawyer jokes exist for a reason. With that as a general premise, now add an economic meltdown. Cutting costs as a percentage of turnover is getting back to basics and should always be a focus. The basics are:

  • Get your ratio of internal to external legal spend to around 2:1 – i.e. for each $3 spent by Legal, $2 is internal and $1 goes outside. Changing this ratio for many teams can reduce total spend by anywhere from 20-50%, and client satisfaction will improve with an in-house counsel who knows the people and the business better than anyone external.
  • Build flexibility in your labour model – there’s a good reason why any team shouldn’t run at 100% permanent.
  • Share the pain – in these dire times, it’s obvious that vendors and suppliers need to share the short-term (hopefully) pain. Ask your suppliers to help you solve your problems.
  • Be on the front foot with a really compelling one-pager to prove to the CEO how you’re going to cut total legal spend by X% within X days, and what the other tangible consequences will be – e.g. some things won’t go to Legal anymore; delayed turnaround times; and don’t use wide statements such as, “legal risk will increase”. Start it now because it needs thinking and research time – don’t wait until you’re asked to provide it by the COB.

       3. Not busy enough problem

This is super tough because there are many uncontrollables and unknowns, but you can control you. Forget your job title and forget your job description and make it clear that you’ll do whatever tasks are necessary to help the wider team/organisation. Lawyers have a great diverse skillset and a great helpful, thankless work ethic. Some parts of the organisation will be extremely busy because of this awful situation. Can you help them? There are some great recent examples of in-house lawyers now helping with customer, supplier and employee communications. Think outside the box, quickly – what could you do to help the revenue engine or the cost-saving aspects – how could you help procurement renegotiate deals, for example. You’re a consumer too – what do you think that could help with your sales strategy?

If you’re fortunate enough to escape much scrutiny, use the time to self-improve and improve the team – all those projects that don’t get done when there is BAU – e.g. knowledge management, simplifying and making your templates the “best”, creating the self-serve tools, documenting answers to the FAQs.

  1. Poor processes and systems are magnified when times are tough

One of the fundamental “jobs” for lawyers is processing information – i.e. receiving instructions (info), applying the law to the facts (more info) and delivering an output (advice, contract, email, verbally – i.e. more info). Thus, legal teams need to be excellent at handling info so they don’t have to re-do, re-buy or lose info (i.e. the common “wastes” from Lean).

Having remote, dispersed teams and clients magnifies the need to have excellent processes and systems to manage info (i.e. matters, documents). How many teams now have issues because they can’t easily find info? How many teams are now struggling to access info through dodgy, slow network access? Now, more than ever, lawyers need to move faster, and the best solution for that is great people supported by great processes and systems, not hindered.

The last thing on some minds now will be using tech or buying tech. Well, don’t. Look at the Microsoft or Google systems you use right now (that the organisation already has and you don’t need to “buy” more tech) and set them up as your legal document, knowledge and matter management systems.

  1. I’m just stressed

This should probably be point one because it’s the most important above all else. Lawyers don’t save people’s lives. Our first value at work is “Life’s first. Work’s next.” That always holds true and even more so now. One of my family was just made redundant and she said to me, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to us in the next few months, that’s just fine by me.” My grandmother also recently reminded me that she was told by the state during World War II to make bullets with no pay … she thinks us younger (under 90) folk need some perspective! Yes, our work provides our livelihood, but we’ll be okay – organisations still need to comply with the law and that’s why lawyers play a crucial role in business.

Value in a time of crisis

We believe that in-house lawyers provide powerful value to their organisations – even more so in a time of crisis, when you need nimble thinking, rapid analysis and clarity of thought. But we also know lawyers can be reluctant to change. Now, more so than ever, is the time to rethink how you go about your work. We’ve spent over a decade challenging the status quo in legal and we hope the profession can seize the moment to transform for the better.

Anthony Wright

By Anthony Wright, head of LOD Innovation & Design. For more information on how to face the challenges above, LOD can be reached via [email protected].

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