The first half of this two-part series has explored how corporate counsel is bucking the trends that have once been imposed on them, making it clear that in-house lawyers are no longer just seen as the final legal sign-off at the end of a deal, but are instead a huge player within that deal from beginning to completion.
This evolving role is causing a shake-up of industries, something that has also been explored in the last issue, and resulting in a change of dynamic between in-house and private practice lawyers.
But who are the trailblazers that are paving the way for this disruption and how are they a prime example of what could be in store more prominently for the legal profession going forward?
Lawyers Weekly spoke with three in-house representatives to let you be the judge.
Claire Bibby, Brookfield
As senior vice president, legal and general counsel at Brookfield, Ms Bibby has seen her fair share of key changes within the profession.
One of which, she notes, is a growing awareness of the importance in equipping in-house legal teams with resilience skills, given the high rates of psychological ill health within the profession.
Ms Bibby says Brookfield is working to combat this through a variety of channels.
“Informed GCs and legal thought leaders are aware of and embracing initiatives, such as the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation guidelines and mindfulness training, as well as openly discussing with other in-house legal teams’ various initiatives that resonate with staff, especially millennials and graduates,” Ms Bibby says.
“I am also seeing increased collaboration in our market space on issues relating to legal operations. My in-house legal team at Brookfield are one of the founding members of the Australian branch of CLOC, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium.
“It is still early days, but in just the first six months it has been very rewarding to work with other in-house legal teams to find ways to optimise the delivery of legal services to our respective businesses through strategic planning, data analytics and knowledge management, to name just a few of the competencies critical to our roles.”
Just five years ago, neither of these issues were getting much air time, if any, Ms Bibby says. That’s why it has become vital for her to help steer Brookfield as an organisation that plays into both personal care and professional development.
“Attitudes are changing, and I think a lot of that is down to the fact that practitioners we may know and respect are standing up and telling their stories; that’s bringing more humanity to the issue and making it okay to stand up and say, ‘I am not okay’,” she says.
“The collaboration piece is very much being driven by our international counterparts. US in-house teams are ahead of us in this space, but the Asia-Pacific region is sitting up and listening.”
On top of this, Ms Bibby installs a deep level of trust between her legal team and internal clients. This, she says, sets her team apart in comparison to others within the Australian market.
“We have a reputation as a highly reliable and trustworthy source of efficient and proactive legal advice, combining professionalism, responsiveness and commerciality. We collaborate with our business early on and the fact of having a seat at the table from inception to close is a by-product of us having got results time and again for our clients. For us it’s all about our relationships, both with our internal clients and with the external legal market,” she says.
“We create a team strategic plan as well as individual personalised goals at the beginning of each year and which we refine, as necessary, throughout the following 12 months. Our corporate and team goals are aligned to the Brookfield business plan, and we walk the walk and talk the talk with our clients, being armed with a clear understanding of their strategic drivers and what is (and thus what isn’t) important to them. That guides us in knowing what is high-value work that we need to concentrate our time on and thus add value to our business.
“At the same time we also set ourselves personal and professional goals, including stretch targets where we can so that each of us also works on ourselves and our own self development. Team building and bonding is very important to us – we spend a large proportion of our waking hours together, and we’ve been known to borrow from Yoda when referring to the importance of their not being a disturbance in (our) force. We are each ‘people persons’, and we’re providing an important service to our clients – it’s vital that we be open, accessible and approachable.”
For Sunil Puranikmath, legal counsel at Telstra, the changing nature of corporate counsel has inspired him to branch out of his comfort zone.
As discussed in the last issue, Mr Puranikmath is going out of his way to study coding and data analytics to position himself as a valuable player within Telstra’s complete operations, not just in its legal team.
“Given that technology was what we did, I thought coding and data analytics was a necessity for me to upskill in and that way I can show value to my clients. That also meant people were including me in the early conversations, not just as the last-minute legal sign-off. They brought me in and engaged me as a trusted adviser from the beginning,” he says.
Mr Puranikmath says now more than ever, his legal team is playing a huge role in customer advocacy.
“We’re changing the way that we draft our terms and conditions, and we are revisiting all of our standard form contracts because there’s a trend to put the customer first,” he explains.
“What will the customer see and how will the customer react to these terms? Is it in their language, is it something they understand, or are we doing it purely because it’s a necessity and it’s a document that has to be there so we can just draft it as we want it to be? We’re always putting customers over revenue so the customer experience will always be valued more over an extra dollar that can be made.”
Mr Puranikmath says this shift in priorities comes down to the added competitiveness in the telco market, with his legal team helping to position Telstra as the customer’s first choice – something it might not have had a strong role in doing in years past.
“Telstra, for the past decade, has always been the market leader in terms of telco and as our competitors get stronger and narrow that gap, we are looking at different ways where we can tell our customers, ‘This company is for you’, so as we become a technology giant, one of the areas that we can really excel in is customer-focused and customer-first,” he says.
“So we are looking at different ways of helping our customers, and in the legal team we are always asking the question to our clients, ‘How does this impact the customer? Is this the best experience we can give them?’ That’s up to us.”
In addition, Mr Puranikmath says his legal team lends a hand in showing customers why Telstra should be their first point of call.
“[There is a lot of] pressure to show your differentiation, to show why customers should choose a Telstra over an Optus, and where there is a price premium on Telstra we have to show why it’s worth coming to Telstra. One of the big selling points for us is we put customers first – you'll have a better customer experience at Telstra,” he says.
“Because technology is changing so fast and there’s always something new in the market, it’s our responsibility to educate the customers, to give them a good experience and be able to inform, educate and train them on how to get the most out of what they’re buying from us.
“It baffles me how many companies out there treat their customers like the lowest common denominator. They’ll sell them a product but not educate, train or offer any assistance for them to help them get the most out of that product. I think that’s where we’re going further and beyond. We don’t just end the relationship after the customer has walked out the door. We look at ways to always engage the customer, and we’re always pushing for communication and looking at ways to future-proof our agreements so we can contact the customer in the future, offer them more services, looking at ways we can build on services and as part of this whole process of legal taking a customer-first centric, the legal team at Telstra is not seen as a cost centre – most legal departments are seen as a cost centre, and you're a support function and that’s all you do.
“With that in mind, legal teams often make the excuse of, ‘Our budgets are being cut; we're being told to let people go; we don't have the man power’. You’ve got to think outside of doing legal work. What else can you do to show the company that you can add value and that value be recognised as valuable and then the budget starts growing again. One thing Telstra does really well is customer advocacy and we get invited to strategy meetings, we're involved in business decisions and commercial brand decisions and so as a result, our budget may not necessarily always be going down because we offer so many different things that aren’t just black letter law.”
Kate Dryden, Veolia
Being the executive leader and general counsel at Veolia is not an easy task, however Ms Dryden has managed to boost her team to new heights while adapting to an evolving in-house market.
Before jotting down some ways, her team has uniquely positioned itself as a disruptor in the profession. Ms Dryden notes that the in-house market is generally seeing the continued push to do more with less, something she is implementing at Veolia.
“Cost consciousness and reduction in overheads is a theme for many companies, and legal fees (internal and external) are certainly not immune from it,” she says.
“This has been a theme for some time. There is more activity now in the M&A and projects spaces, resulting in a recognised need for legal resources, though it is encouraged to obtain these in a cost-conscious manner, for example, through innovative fee arrangements, short-term internal resources, etcetera.
“There is also a recognition that having intelligent conversations with contracting counterparts regarding risk is part and parcel of doing business – no one has the time or inclination for negotiating changes to contracts unless those changes go to the heart of the key risks presented by the contract. In that case then, generally speaking, parties are open to discussion and amendments to documentation.”
Ms Dryden says that in order to be a disruptor, both in-house counsel and private practice firms need to adapt to key challenges in the legal market, such as the digital age and notion of cyber threats.
“The in-house legal team endeavours to embrace and adopt technology in its activities. For example, our team developed a bespoke matter management tool using the collaboration tool Google Sheets,” she says.
“We embrace video conferencing technology and Skype/Google hangouts to meet with our client base spread across Australia and New Zealand. The team has developed a legal hub within the Veolia intranet and provides proactive communication to all employees through this medium.
“In respect of cyber threats, the team assists in raising awareness of risk/advising on risk mitigation strategies, assisting with respect to appropriate insurance arrangements and managing any legal fall out from cyber attacks.”
On what makes the Veolia in-house team a unique one, Ms Dryden says its flexibility in working conditions is a key selling point for many staff.
“It appears that many in-house legal teams are proving that they are better able to respond to the needs and desires of lawyers who want to work flexibly or part-time,” she says.
“The Veolia team’s approach to enhancing family-friendly working conditions for all lawyers and support personnel within the team sets it apart from some private practice firms and some in-house teams. Currently, five lawyers within Veolia’s legal team work part-time as well as those and others working flexible arrangements, including varied working hours and working days from home. The team is supported by the business and this drive for flexibility, and in an industry which has been historically male-dominated, has been a catalyst for much cultural change across the Veolia business, leading the way for other functional areas to encourage family-friendly working arrangements.
“This attitude, combined with commitment by all to the team’s well-honed workflow management systems to manage workflow, ensure that the part-time arrangement is honoured in the context of seamless service to the business. The organisation’s high regard for a legal team structured in this way is testament to the fact that allowing opportunities for dedicated lawyers to work flexibly can yield dividends both for the employees and their employers.”
Now that we’ve learnt what some are doing to disrupt the traditional delivery of in-house legal services, we hear from all three on how they believe this is going to alter the entire profession going forward.
How is the relationship changing between in-house legal teams and private practice firms?
Claire Bibby: At the big end of deal town, I don’t think it’s changing as radically as some are saying. Yes, we are unbundling services, and yes, we are looking at technological developments and NewLaw providers, but we are still going to brief our trusted top-tier advisers with whom we have had a longstanding relationship with when we need to close strategic or complex transactions.
Sunil Puranikmath: It’s changed a lot. We use this company called Exigent. They are a LPO – legal process outsourcing office, essentially. They are a firm based in South Africa and normally companies use these firms for your discoveries or your non-complex legal work, but as we try to become more productive in our legal team and find better ways to do things and do more with less, there’s no longer that trend, which was quite a while ago, where companies would be loyal to one set of firms and give them everything.
Kate Dryden: There is an increasing recognition of the need for two teams (in-house and private practice) to work in partnership to solve the issue at hand.
How should private practice lawyers best position themselves to adapt to the changing dynamic of in-house teams?
CB: It’s all about KYC – Know Your Client. What my team needs from our panel lawyers is likely to be very different from a sole in-house legal counsel, and yet again very different from what an in-house lawyer in a team that runs into the hundreds is likely going to need.
For me it all comes down to trust. I won’t buy the cheapest legal service on the market so as to minimise legal spend – if one pays peanuts, one will get monkeys. I engage counsel I know and trust and who know me.
SP: It’s now more important than ever that those lawyers in private practice understand our business just as much as we do as they are representing to our clients that they are essentially part of Telstra as well. They need to understand what we understand. For example, I mentioned coding and analytics, and the need to be privacy specialists – they need to get that as well.
KD: Move away from the hourly rate model and embrace fixed fee, risk-sharing and other innovative fee arrangements; be willing to offer sharp pricing for the less bespoke/more straightforward forms of documentation (eg standard forms of agreements); be prepared to work with all levels of the in-house team (including opportunities for corporate counsel to network with their private practice peers); and be prepared to demonstrate real compliance with diversity and inclusion, equitable briefing, sustainability and other such policies.
How do you image the in-house market to disrupt the legal profession further into the future?
CB: I suspect the in-house legal professional will continue to grow and become even more sophisticated, as will alternative service providers servicing niche markets. While I have seen one exception to the rule, I’m not generally convinced that anything else can beat private practice at the beginning of a lawyer’s career. A large chunk of my disciplined approach to problem solving in the confines of the practice of law is as a result of having spent almost a decade in private practice before I moved in-house.
I’d encourage in-house lawyers to make a considered effort to collaborate with other in-house lawyers. We can learn so much from each other, and organisations such as the Association of Corporate Counsel offer in-house counsel opportunities to be involved in mentoring, in advocacy for our place in the legal market and for networking. You never know who might be able to open the next professional in-house door for you.
SP: I think one of the biggest challenges we face is that there is a growing trend of companies that are offering amazing flexibility. For example, we have a very flexible working culture here. You come and go as you please. You can work from home. We completely hot desk, so you can work from anywhere that suits you, essentially. That’s very appealing to a lot of lawyers in firms, so I think the move in the future will be an influx of lawyers moving across from firms to in-house.
KD: It appears that many in-house legal teams are proving that they are better able to respond to the needs and desires of lawyers who want to work flexibly or part-time. Currently, five lawyers within Veolia’s legal team work part-time as well as those and others working flexible arrangements, including varied working hours and working days from home. The team is supported by the business and this drive for flexibility, and in an industry which has been historically male-dominated, has been a catalyst for much cultural change across the Veolia business, leading the way for other functional areas to encourage family-friendly working arrangements.
- This is the second part of a two-part series Lawyers Weekly conducted on in-house disruptors. To check out the first part, click here.