Understand your end clients, deeply.

Discovering the client’s pain points, needs, and wants is the only way to develop the best products and services. That’s the mantra we hear all the time exalted by those reading from the books of agile practice and lean methodology. In the legal sector, success in listening to in-house counsel could make you a rainmaker! In a virtuous circle, this helps build relationships and allow further enquiry of pain points, needs, and wants.

Clearly, long before diving into the substance of the project (and reviewing the relevant internal processes, programs, and documentation), developing relationships with in-house legal teams requires thorough understanding of the structural and cultural issues they face. This applies to law firms, alternative legal service providers (“ALSPs“), product vendors, and innovation consultants etc.

I have often heard general counsel say that they prefer to select external lawyers who really understand the Business and who are good team players, in addition to their technical competence and professional reputation, of course. What does this mean exactly? I decided to pen this primer to capture how I would address this question, and to reflect on the lessons I have learnt from working with in-house counsel in private practice and on the vendor-side, and from my own in-house legal roles.

Baseline Issues

As a starting point, let’s consider the set of common high-level challenges facing in-house teams on the one hand. And, on the other, the many important nuances between the in-house teams of different companies. Here are some baseline issues that might define the characteristics of the team:

  • In-house teams tend to be small and lean; comprising lawyers, paralegals, subject specialists (e.g. forensic accountants), and administrative support staff.
    • How do in-house teams, as increasingly sophisticated cost centers, demonstrate value and optimize their efficiency and effectiveness?
    • What’s the impact on in-house’s budgeting, talent acquisition, learning and development, technology resourcing, and outsourcing management?
  • How does Business see Legal?
    • Is the in-house team expected to be a business partner who contributes to commercial and corporate strategic decisions?
    • How well are in-house lawyers looped in on critical parts of the overall operation (or are they more like legal technicians)?
    • Are lawyers seen as business enablers or business blockers?
  • The degree of Business buy-in on Legal’s visions:
    • What kinds of change management? (E.g. streamlining inter-departmental processes for contract lifecycle management.)
    • How are change management projects resourced? Are there legal operations specialists in the team?

Strategic Objectives

In-house teams are focused on the below objectives to maximize their value and improve their efficiency and effectiveness, given the baseline issues they have to address:

  • Better visibility of the priorities Business.
  • Better utilization of Legal’s time on projects and legal documents, prioritizing matters that really matter to the Company.
  • Better prediction of changes to Business and Legal’s daily, weekly, and monthly agenda (i.e. the pipeline).
  • Maximize value-add (e.g. commercial acumen and corporate strategy) in addition to legal service delivery.
  • Hiring team members with relevant skills and aptitudes for growth and “stretch” work (to support the above goals).
  • Develop and retain talent with a variety of work relevant to their career progression (increasing responsibility; towards holistic understanding of the Company).

Intra-Team Challenges

In-house teams face significant hurdles in figuring out how to meet the above objectives:

  • Adoption of the right legal support model for different kinds of in-house legal work (e.g. eDiscovery and employment law).
  • The right mix of centralized and decentralized team structures suitable to the Business:
    • business desks (to get Legal closer to Business Units); and
    • specialist teams (e.g. litigation and antitrust to support overall business needs).
  • Increase the team’s agility, cross-functional capacity, and ability to break down silos to meet:
    • sudden, urgent needs (e.g. fast-moving litigation and investigations); and
    • the “whales” (e.g. M&A and regulatory reforms).
  • Adoption of the right team KPIs for efficiencies delivered; quantitatively (e.g. cost savings, number of contracts / projects delivered) and qualitatively (e.g. certain value-adds).
    • More advanced in-house teams would tie their metrics to the relevant Business Units’ objectives to demonstrate value.
  • Adoption of the right individual KPIs vis-à-vis their seniority (behavioral, technical competence, team engagement etc.)

Proven Strategies

It is an uphill battle for in-house teams juggling their routine duties and forward-looking commitments (e.g. growth plans, legal transformation projects). In the last five years, we have seen tried and tested strategies from the growth of legal operations in-house and the proliferation of ALSPs and legal managed services providers.

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  • Move the “low value, low complexity” (and high volume) work (commoditized) to lower cost (but appropriately qualified) resources. See the “four quadrants” diagram above.
  • Improve self-sufficiency of Business Units:
    • Run legal training programs for Sales and other teams involved in contracting and other legal related processes; and
    • Create a legal process playbook, helping to triage strictly legal and tangential issues.
  • This would free up the bandwidth of higher cost (expert) resources to focus on “high value, high complexity” work (strategic).
  • Develop a suitable technology roadmap to leverage robotic process automation and data analytics.
  • Issue internal surveys to elicit feedback on career development and engagement with Business.
  • Adapt legal hiring and training programs to ensure talents are intellectual curious and would learn data analytics, project management, and other skills to supplement their expertise.

Opportunities for External Solutions

The above issues and challenges have broad implications on how law firms, ALSPs, product vendors, and innovation consultants could add value and sell to in-house teams:

  1. Share market trends, best practices, and takeaways (and postmortems) gained from working with other in-house teams, to the extent permissible (a perennial value, now more important than ever).
  2. Help in-house teams build internal capacity, improving efficiency and effectiveness (arguably, identifying and addressing process gaps have been the primary domain of legaltech and ALSPs).
  3. Help in-house teams develop their internal legal staff, amplifying their value (an emerging issue as in-house teams evolve in sophistication).
  4. Tailor the most suitable legal support model for a particular in-house team or Business (an issue with increasing relevance as legal staffing and managed services continue to grow globally).
  5. Provide guidance and recommendations on the use of legaltech (in-house counsel’s inboxes today seem to be inundated with legaltech product news).

It is interesting to see how community initiatives have been developed to respond to the needs of the in-house community, as highlighted in the Association of Corporate Counsel’s recent research reports and the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium’s recent press. How law firms are reacting to these trends (and movements in the “four quadrants” above) is an interesting topic for another day. Stay tuned.

Photo of Sebastian Ko Sebastian Ko

Attorney turned Entrepreneur. Led first Asian Access to Justice Hackathon.