How to be a resourceful GC: Part 2
Acting resourcefully not only means thinking creatively about one’s department, it also means being “smarter about managing spend” and challenging external providers on the value of their services, says Shannon Landers.
Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Shannon Landers – who is the head of the award-winning legal team at Cotton On Group – reflected that resourcefulness is always front of mind when managing a small legal department.
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Given how law departments will “always” face pressure to do more with less, she said, a change of mindset is required. In-house counsel cannot see such budgetary constraints as pressure, and should instead view it as an “opportunity to be creative”.
“We need to think enterprise-wide”, she said, noting that if the law department is able to successfully implement programs within its ranks and then have that replicated across the board – as she did with an internship program – the law department leader “starts to become more of a general business leader, not just a technical legal leader, and then the business is more open to your ideas and your resourcing and hearing your challenges”.
Legal leaders also need to be more open to the possibilities of technology, Ms Landers continued.
“One example would be with a contract management system: it might be 40 grand a year licensing fee, and the admin cost of having a contract administrator is going to be far higher than that. So, just constantly trying to challenge the status quo and saying that just because we’ve always done something is not how we should always do it,” she said.
“Also, try to if possible, blocking out time in your diary for the white space or the strategy. And it is really easy to get caught in the reactive and putting out the fires and not having time, but you actually have to make that time.”
When asked if there are “hard and fast” principles that GCs should implement in order to be more resourceful at this critical juncture, Ms Landers said that one of the first things leaders should do – regardless of department size – is start challenging external providers on how they’re providing their services.
“It’s certainly more challenging the smaller that your legal function is, particularly if you’re a sole general counsel. But the first and probably simplest way is to really challenge your external legal providers. So, we don’t have a panel per se, we have particular lawyers that we work with rather than particular firms necessarily. But we’re constantly challenging them on the value add because if they don’t provide it, someone else will provide it to you to get your business in the door,” she said.
“One thing that we implement with our externals is a hotline service so they don’t charge us for any phone calls under 10 minutes. You’ve really got to start pushing them on things like that. Start looking at any retainers that you can implement. Have a look at your budget, how it’s formed, or have a look at your P&L.
“Break it down, do some analysis. Where are the high-risk areas? Where are you spending most of your money? Are there certain parts like employee relations that you can caution off, build a retainer with a firm and have a fixed legal spend that you can still report onto the board, you still have the relationship with the lawyer, but it’s the HR team that’s directly briefing the work? So that you’re still across it, but you’ve got that fixed spend that doesn’t have to come past your desk. It’s one less thing you have to do.”
Having a mindset whereby external providers are challenged is very important, Ms Landers stressed.
“The way that I challenge my externals is that I try to get from them things that I would otherwise have to pay for in terms of developing my team. So, if you can manage to get some juniors in, try and get them to do some of the work in the law firm. Send them out into the law firm for a couple of days a week for a month to work on honing in their IP skills or their leasing skills. I also have my team members do one-to-one mentoring phone calls with partners from law firms on areas,” she detailed.
Another strategy she employs is engaging her “externals” to provide one-to-one mentoring with her team.
“So, I’m not an IP lawyer, but I have a junior IP lawyer in my team. And while I can help her with strategy, I can’t necessarily hone her technical skills. So, she has a phone call once a fortnight or once a month with a partner of the IP firm that we use so that partner can tell her recent cases or changes to legislation that’s important for her development,” she said.
“Such actions can be really resourceful and really impactful, and it’s no to low cost.”
Finally, Ms Landers suggested that law department leaders avoid thinking like lawyers.
“It’s not black and white. It is grey and you do have to be creative. You might try some things and they might fail, but you’ll try some things and the wins will be so worth it in terms of freeing up your time,” she advised.
“If you’ve got meetings in the city, for example, ask to set up for the day in one of your partner law firms offices, and then they’ll come and check on you all day and you’ll get free advice all day. Or vice versa, if you’ve got a really cool office like we happen to have which is in Geelong, a lot of partners of law firms or accounting firms have holiday houses down the coast, I offer if they would like to work in my office for the day. And so, they come and set up at campus and then I ask them questions all day. You don’t get charged for those. Just think outside the box.”
To read the first part of this story with Shannon Landers, click here.
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Shannon Landers, click below: