How to become the department of yes
In-house legal departments are sometimes seen as a tick box, a mandatory regulatory and cost centre for the organisation. Yet as the nature of modern business has become more demanding, the expectation of in-house legal roles have changed - it has become obvious that if the legal department can innovate, build trust and integrate with their wider organisation, the business as a whole will benefit. The same goes for General Counsel, where they once provided black-letter law advice, their role is morphing into one of strategy and leadership.
General Counsel do not have an enviable work load. They provide daily advice, manage risk, adhere to legal compliance whilst being a trusted advisor to the Board, not to mention the daily billing and ad hoc tasks, as well as fulfilling their own KPI’s. Meanwhile they are expected to provide true value to the business with their strategic foresight and leadership. When under this amount of pressure and time constraint, it is natural for people to narrow in their focus and be unreceptive to new opportunities. Essentially we start to say no.
This is often the case for the legal department, who are already misunderstood by the wider organization, and are generally approached last minute for help. This creates a negative cycle, where instead of legal working proactively to provide advice and mitigate risk, they are road blocking and reacting to work as it lands last minute in their inbox.
How to go from being the department of no to the department of yes
This leaves the legal team in the unfortunate position of being seen as “The Department of No” to the wider organization. How do legal teams overcome this and reposition themselves to be seen as a helpful, responsive arm to the business. While your responsibility as General Counsel is to oversee legal risk, make commercial decisions and to understand the organization’s business objectives and strategy, another big part of your role is marketing (and it’s often overlooked). One of your biggest challenges as General Counsel is finding the best balance between being efficient at your job and being effective in your role. Once you nail the balance for yourself, you need to emulate this balance to your in-house legal team, helping them to create healthy work patterns where they can effectively fulfill their daily tasks, providing room to respond to other legal tasks. Communicating with the rest of the business the time you need to keep the legal cog spinning and the additional timeframes you require to pick up extra-legal work is essential. This way the organization understands the base value you provide and where you can provide additional value. That’s the marketing, and here’s how you do it:
1. Understand your purpose (and share it).
Make sure that everyone in the legal team understands their “why.” Providing people with a meaningful reason to do the work they do builds a motivated team who want to get things done. The best in-house counsel knows that the legal business is also the people pleasing business. The organization is essentially your client, and you should be doing everything you can to enable the success of their business. If you adopt the “The Department of Yes” as the personal brand for your team, and make a point of sharing that messaging with the organization, it’ll catch on. You can transform your reputation and make it known to the wider organization just how vital in-house legal is.
2. You’ve heard it here before, technology.
You’ve heard this recommendation one too many times by now, but the time savings and efficiency that technology can provide to the legal team through automation, artificial intelligence and analytics is huge. Automating menial legal tasks and moving away from manual processes and paper documentation free’s up the in-house legal teams time significantly allowing them to focus on more important work. Artificial intelligence may not replace lawyers but we can expect that future work teams will use machine guided support for legal tasks. What is arguably most exciting about the intersection of the legal department and technology is how analytics will speed up and provide greater clarity to the legal process. Imagine analytics that can predict future exposure and risk, telling you with certainty when your company will be exposed to litigation. This technology is far from mature, but it’s potential to reshape the legal department is mind- blowing.
3. Think about what you say (and how you say it).
For a General Counsel to be influential, your value needs to be acknowledged by people in the business and across the Board. Communicating your value and that of the legal team requires “soft-skills” and a deep understanding of the politics within your organization. That old adage: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” is an adage for a reason: it’s true. You might have to give a firm NO on certain requests (like that pool table, Charles), but you can say it in a way that shows you’re listening and empathetic, and that you have the best interest of the organization at heart. A simple, “Let me get back to you on that” or “Give me some time to look into that” sounds much better than an unyielding “No”.
4. Up your visibility.
Without one central system that manages all the different processes happening in your legal department, how do you expect your organization to know just what and how much value you and your team bring? There are all kinds of technological solutions (like LawVu) that can help you with this. It is common for legal to not have clear visibility over all of their own jobs and manual processes, exposing the team and the business to serious risk. Technology workflow systems provide clarity of tasks and responsibilities delegated within the team. Once you’ve unburdened yourself from the multitude of daily tasks, you’ll free yourself up for meetings to discuss any issues you have with business requests. And most importantly, people across the business will have a greater understanding of what you do on a day-to-day basis. They might even stop asking for so much once they realize just how much you do (fingers crossed).
5. Master the art of getting S%*T done.
The most obvious way that the legal department can prove their value, is simply to get shit done. It’s self-explanatory really, but the easiest way to demonstrate your worth to the organization is by doing the things they ask you to do in a timely and consistent manner. A huge part of enabling this lies in marketing yourself to the organization so they approach your team with reasonable time frames for requested work. Educate the wider business so they understand how much time you need to fulfil different legal requests. This creates transparency and puts legal in a position where they don’t have to say “no.” Harnessing technology that will free up your time, and will allow the team to put their minds to good use in making things happen.
6. Know the business inside out.
Understanding your businesses’ core offerings, clientele, competition and objectives is crucial to becoming “The Department of Yes.” Taking the time to understand the business model of your organization gives legal a better understanding of where they sit within the business and how they can really provide value. When you’ve got all the details, you can be more creative and strategic with your decisions. This knowledge allows the legal team to be seen as a valuable member of the wider team who is engaged and vested in the success of the organization rather than a reactive team who are approached with last minute requests. Do the research and become a vital part of the organization you value.
Becoming “The Department of Yes'' doesn't mean saying yes to everything, but rather saying yes to additional legal requests that provide genuine value to the organization and its people. No one is telling you to be less strategic or less discerning, but rather to consider the brand of your legal department with every interaction. Part of your job is to promote the value of the legal department, and when you do it enough, it’ll become second nature. LawVu can help make that happen, helping you with the BAU so you can spend your time building the brand of your legal team into the Department of Yes, a team who works proactively rather than reactively.
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