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Let's drop the 'cost-center' narrative

Language has the power to create narratives.  Language we use everyday to refer to groups of people creates stereotypes, eg referring to lawyers as blunt, nurses as kind, women as soft, and men as stoic. When we frame people with language, they often live up, or down, to our expectations.

The words 'cost center' are haunting in-house counsel and it's a label Asim Khan, Senior Legal Counsel and Legal Operations whiz, is fed up with. He says that if in-house teams want to be perceived as a value-adder they should reject it altogether. "The narrative should be different, legal should not have to justify why they exist. We should be more positive and say, 'this is where we add value, and this is where we protect the business'."

Khan believes it is possible for in-house teams to reframe businesses mindsets to see legal as a valuable resource rather than a financial drain. His first step toward changing the mindset is communication, and he recommends talking to a business's internal stakeholders, asking them where they think legal can add value, and going from there.

"You'll get a mixture of responses, depending on the business unit and their typical interactions with legal," he says. For instance, the sales team is probably legal's number one fan as they are aware they don't always understand sticky situations with clients and that they need legal's help. "They see legal as a function that can guide them through issues and look for solutions."

And some cautionary advice from Khan, "If your organization doesn't value legal or recognize their need, you may need to re-evaluate your position within the organization."

He recommends a GC or CLO look objectively at the profile of their legal team within the wider company. Is it operating in a silo? Are people afraid to approach them, only seeking out legal when something is seriously wrong?

He also suggests legal should try to participate in company activities and make themselves known and approachable to colleagues. He stresses the importance of producing regular updates of legal's processes, internal company-facing information, and tools. "Share that information with your business, let them know any new tool or process you've introduced that will help them."  

If you look at most organizations, they have many core corporate support functions, yet, according to Khan, legal is often the only one that must justify its existence, "countering an argument that the expense doesn't add up". He believes this is because people are unaware of what legal does and can do to help them.

It's an education issue. Legal need to educate their organization on the value they create. And while this value is unique to each organization, there are consistent factors. Any healthy legal function should be a business enabler as they are in the unique position of being privy to the issues of different business units. "You could have three different departments talking to you at once and you can spot gaps and opportunities where they can assist one another," says Khan.

The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) shone a light on the value legal adds to businesses. Legal teams that decided to tick the boxes added customer value. This goes for many potential scenarios. "By identifying what could be perceived as a risk area and repackaging it into an opportunity, legal teams added value," says Khan.

The goal is to be a proactive legal team, giving the business tools to use legal in advance of issues becoming fires.

In societies, how we perceive things through our cultural lens impacts how we judge them, and the same goes for corporate culture. When the legal function is constantly referred to as a cost center, people attach negative connotations and buy into the 'cost center' narrative. The first step toward changing this perception is changing the language and rejecting that cost center label. Try 'value-adder' instead.

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