Leadership

Behind the veil of in-house legal teams: harmony, not a handbrake

In-house legal teams operate in a silo. But you know that already. Breaking down this silo is a topic of many conversations around how the integration of legal and the wider business will create better business outcomes for all. There is, however, something often left unsaid in this discussion: the role and responsibility of in-house lawyers in opening the curtain to the legal department, which too often is shrouded in mystery.  We’re here to change that.  


In a series of interviews with our InView champions we will delve into the current state of in-house legal teams and look at how legal can best be harnessed as a resource to elevate the wider organization. But, firstly, let’s turn the clock back a few decades to get some context as to how the role of legal counsel has changed to meet modern business demands. 

Thirty years ago, the function of in-house legal was markedly different to the team of today: the team was to “provide functional technical legal advice, oversee the finer points of governance, ethics, compliance and administer the organization’s policies and guidelines,” according to Legal Leadership UK.

In-house legal teams of current-day organizations provide a much larger breadth of services, although individuals within the organization do not necessarily know this. Frankly, within a corporation many employees are not sure what legal does and often see them as a handbrake or in the way of getting sales done - or really in getting anything done. The ‘slowdown’ department. Are you with me?  

In the past two decades we have seen significant advancement in technology and cloud-based computing, the Global Financial Crisis, and leaps and bounds in the digital economy with the rise of giants such as Uber, Facebook and the other FAANGS. These factors have undeniably changed the business landscape. We now operate in a digital, globalized and risk averse manner. The legal function has also morphed under these external factors. 

Legal teams are now handling technological advances and subsequent data protection legislation, digital disruption, volatile economic markets, the increasing globalization of information, new regulatory challenges and the increasing pressure from clients and governments on corporate compliance, regulation and enforcement. This has seen the rise of the T-shaped lawyer as demands for legal professionals with a multidisciplinary skill set intensify. General Counsel emerged as not just great lawyers and leaders but also in the role of strategic advisor to the rest of the business - which is really where they belong. 

At LawVu we often talk about legal being at the heart of the business because it literally touches everything. But this is often unknown and misunderstood, with the result being that legal is frequently thought of as sitting in an ivory tower or seen as a black box. 

We want to share with you what these hard-working lawyers are actually doing day-to-day, but also how they are trying to help better their organizations and affect positive change. And, yes, that means for the business teams too. 

You will hear from the likes of Helen Doukas, Head of Legal and Regulatory at Airways, discussing some of what she deals with in her role - like Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) regulations and the ephemeral drone regulatory space - and how she is building out the legal team to align with the business. 

In-house Counsel at ZURU, Stephen Drysdale, talks about the nature of his role, from working across contractual negotiations with licensing partners to the regulatory compliance involved in creating a new PPE business division to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The wider business doesn't always appreciate the breadth of services provided by their in-house legal teams. Perhaps this goes back to the traditional in-house model, where one or two corporate lawyers provide high-level advice whilst outsourcing the bulk of the legal grunt work. Or perhaps the wider business hasn’t stepped far enough outside their functions to really care. 

It is important to let your colleagues know this is no longer the case. In the wake of the GFC and the sky-rocketing costs of legal services, corporations have had to rethink the concept of outsourcing the majority of their legal work to private practice. Advancements in cloud computing, and the realization that many standard business legal and contracting needs could be executed internally, has changed this operating model. Also, there is a great amount of legal capital that now stays inside the business rather than institutional knowledge leaving the building with the outsourcing of every high-value legal issue. 

It has become more cost-effective for corporations to hire in-house specialists, and this also provides the added benefit of retaining legal expertise about one's own corporation. The College of Law has reported an upward trend in insourcing legal and contract work over recent years. 

Kate Sherburn, Senior Legal Counsel at Who Gives A Crap, sheds light on how to reframe the way in which the wider business views legal as a resource. Theo Kapodistrias, General Counsel at UpGuard, talks about helping the business to see the in-house team as more than just ‘the contract people.’.

This tendency towards insourcing has seen an adoption in smart technologies and processes that facilitate efficiency. Think contract AI and legal workflow technology. Corporations also expect the same use of technology from private practice firms if they were to outsource any work in an RFP manner.  

This demand for the sophisticated use of technology to create efficiency and ensure accuracy has led to increased pressure on the legal team to create more with less. You will hear from Alex Petrie, Senior Legal Counsel at James Hardie, about harnessing systems to create efficient teams that have increased capacity, and deploying resources were needed based on smart reporting and insights. 

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing our interviews with Helen Doukas, Stephen Drysdale, Kate Sherburn, Theo Kapodistrias and Alex Petrie. These will provide good insights into how to create thriving in-house legal teams that work in harmony with the rest of the business.

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