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Behind the veil of in-house legal with InView champion Alexander Petrie

We take you behind the veil of legal with a series of interviews discussing all things in-house with several of our InView Champions. 

Alexander Petrie, Senior Legal Counsel at James Hardie, delves into building efficient work environments for legal teams, and counsel having a high-level overview of business operations without drowning in information. 


How can in-house legal help the wider business on a day-to-day basis? 

In short, by being more available.

I’m reading this question as “how can we better help…” and I’m unlikely to say anything here that hasn’t already been said before, but I think it’s by being more available, more responsive, and more proactively engaged. And here you hit probably the most common problem for legal teams, which is demand outstripping supply. We manage that excess demand through waiting lists (prioritizing much like a healthcare system).  

In order to be more available and reduce those waiting lists and turnaround times, you obviously need to create capacity. If you can’t expand the team, you need to become more efficient. Hence, the solution is to identify things you can do which free up legal team capacity. This necessitates investing in capacity-expanding projects, tools and processes that deliver efficiency gains by eliminating some types or parts of work and/or redirecting work away from the legal team to other resources that can competently perform the work to the required standard (in the same way that a healthcare system doesn’t send all issues to its surgeons – right sizing the resource,. eg templates, self-help, ALS, etc.)

The next question is “how do you actually do this?” As I say, what is said above is not new. The question a lot of departments probably ask is, “how do you do that though, how do you make those changes?” I think the question being asked is a practical one which is in two parts. One part is the very practical, ie how do you get from (a) to (b) (project plan, problem, root cause, identifying solution, identifying resources and timeline). But the other is, “how do you create an environment/ensure that the project can be delivered in full and on time?” The latter is a key one. I don’t think the answer is that complex, but it is not necessarily easily done. It requires a change in mindset from “this is a nice to have” to “this is essential”; just like a pit stop, it has to become part of the race and it requires discipline and protection.

What are the key functions of legal as a resource to the organization that everyone should know?

Ultimately, we aim to be a trusted guide and close confidant to the business. Principally, this is demonstrated in two main areas. First, as a protector of business value. Second, as an enabler to business value.

Our role in a large part is to identify risk, analyse and effectively apply a hierarchy similar to that which you would find in safety risk assessments (eg eliminate, substitute, isolate, mitigate/control etc.) While often accused of being risk averse, I think lawyers are pretty risk tolerant. Ideally, we identify risk and then find the most effective, efficient way to move forward, balancing the competing priorities in a risk tolerant, business friendly fashion.

Ideally, from an enabling perspective, we are custodians of institutional knowledge, and we can use that to help better inform the business moving forward, learning from past experience to circumnavigate avoidable pitfalls.

What areas of law do you most play in? Contract, employment, dispute resolution etc?

Commercial contract drafting/negotiation/template creation; litigation management; legal process improvement; project guidance; corporate governance/CoSec.

In-house legal are known to 'put out fires before they begin'. How does an in-house team mitigate and foresee risk before it arises?

You can’t be everywhere at once. You need good lines of communication but equally ensuring that the amount of information being received is right. I think many end up struggling because they are, for example, involved in too many meetings, receiving too much detail, which has a high opportunity cost for a scarce resource and limits effectiveness. So, a bit like the way a funnel web [spider] creates trip lines in its web, you need lines across the business that you can feel a little vibration on, and then investigate when you feel the vibration. The key, therefore, is being involved at a very high level at a very early stage in business conversations/projects/ideas and then being able to identify if there are any potential legal workstreams. Equally, as important as having your finger on the pulse is sharing knowledge within the legal team so they can benefit from the shared experience and can use that to help them better identify risk, avoid repeating past mistakes or near misses, and equally apply best practice which has been successfully applied elsewhere previously. Aside from the day to day, business training is key: address the problem at source (and ideally leaning on real case studies from within your business - admittedly an ideal aspirational state).  

The analogy of a legal web spanning across the organization, with trip lines in place to sense any possible danger is very intriguing. We could all take a leaf out of Alexander's book regarding foresight in predicting risk and using systems to efficient legal teams with capacity.  

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