What clients say they want from their in-house legal team

Juno Legal's Helen Mackay shares nine observations from working with CEOs and members of in-house teams

What clients say they want from their in-house legal team

One of the privileges for the Juno team of working with different in-house legal teams is the opportunity to interview senior leaders and hear what internal clients say about their in-house lawyers. The majority of feedback is extraordinarily positive and it is clear that in-house lawyers are making real and valuable contributions to their organisations.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, it is interesting to consider what else or what more clients say they would like to see their in-house lawyers deliver.

Really listen
One CEO said to me, “Lawyers listen with their mouths.” Many lawyers are verbal processors and think through problems and solutions out loud. This might be great in a group of other lawyers but with clients it raises two problems. You can’t truly listen if you are talking or planning what to say next, and you might be jumping in to solution-finding before you truly understand the problem and its context.
 
Take off your black hat
A well-known CEO said to his general counsel: “There are plenty of ways that good ideas will not succeed. The lawyers don’t have to rush to kill every one of them.” Give an idea time to breathe and consider the opportunities before you raise the legal risks and challenges. Don’t be too quick to always find the negatives or you will be seen, not as part of the problem-solving team, but the function where great ideas go to die.
 
Look for opportunities to innovate
What you did yesterday won’t future-proof your legal function. Transformation is the key word in organisational dynamics in 2018 and many organisations are undergoing huge change to their operating model including in the legal team. But you don’t have to radically reform what you do. Some of the most impressive gains have been made in legal teams where the lawyers keep making small and constant improvements over time.
 
Respect other professional disciplines
Whether you work with engineers, salespeople, creatives, customer services representatives, support staff, or accountants, every person and role contributes to organisational success. Being a lawyer is a privilege, but not one that entitles you to treat other people poorly or to feel you are superior. We do get occasional feedback that lawyers are intellectually arrogant so it is helpful to focus on being deliberately humble and showing respect to your workmates and their ideas.
 
Distinguish the urgent from the important
The law of induced demand says that when a resource is free, demand is infinite. As in-house teams have increasingly demonstrated their value to organisations, demand for their services has increased beyond supply. Going back 10 to 20 years, the success of an in-house legal function was measured solely on internal customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, this allows squeaky wheels to profit from greater attention as clients. Do a proper assessment of where your key areas of legal risk sit and work out protocols around who can instruct the legal team and what sort of work should be self-managed by clients, brought into the legal team, or briefed out.
 
Do what you say you will do and if not, communicate well
Clients can usually see how busy and under pressure the internal legal team are. They will also usually understand if deadlines can’t be met or a changing scope of work means additional time is needed. However, failure to communicate is a key challenge for clients where lawyers haven’t delivered, haven’t informed the client and haven’t said when they will deliver. Make a point of keeping in touch when work is slipping and give an early heads up wherever possible if deadlines won’t be met.
 
Train your clients to use you better
Spend some time training your internal clients how to recognise a legal issue – as distinguished from a commercial, judgement, or proof reading/editing issue – and when the legal team should be brought in. Many lawyers spend considerable time talking about the “what” of the legal function but not the “how” or the “why.” Lawyers generally have more goodwill in the internal organisational bank than they realise so should look for ways to use it and reposition their function to focus on the strategic, high-value work.
 
Look for ways to actively cannibalise your work
Unlike your peers in private practice, there is no incentive for more work to flow from the business into the legal team. If anything, a key focus should be ways to de-lawyer or cannibalise your own work and reduce the need for lawyer input. Initiatives we have seen in place are innovation programmes, collaborative sharing, document automation and the introduction of self-help tools including video tutorials, checklists, guidance, and templates. A sensible approach increasingly adopted by many leading companies is to adopt fair and reasonable commercial terms to actively reduce the need for the input of internal lawyers to negotiate to a mid-point.
 
Collaborate and share
If you come up with something that could genuinely be useful across the profession, share it. If banks in competition in the UK can co-source pieces of legal advice, legal teams should be exploring all ways to share that don’t cross competitive lines. We are not talking about sensitive material, obviously, but how others deal with similar challenges, comply with significant legislation, or are creating new policies. Connect on LinkedIn, pick up the phone, or look for an ILANZ satellite network to share ideas.

 

Helen Mackay is the director of Juno Legal, a collaborative NewLaw firm serving the in-house legal profession. She heads to Toronto this month as M.C. for the 2018 In-House Counsel World Summit.

 

Related stories:
On a mission to elevate NZ's in-house teams
Juno Legal bolsters team
 

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