Growing a legal team amid turbulent times
After growing a legal team from almost nothing to nine lawyers, this head of legal has learnt that taking a step back can both aid in the wellbeing of a team and assist in overcoming challenges.
Bianca Lau is the head of legal at Youi Insurance — the legal team that recently won the Insurance Team of the Year at the Corporate Counsel Awards. Ms Lau was also one of the panellists at the recent Corporate Counsel Summit, speaking about getting business and board management buy-in.
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Following those events, on a recent episode of The Corporate Counsel Show, she discussed some of the challenges she’s faced in the last few years — and the context of those challenges within the insurance space.
Ms Lau has been at Youi for four years and started at the company when there was just one part-time contractor in the legal team.
“My job was to come in and grow out a legal function and show the business how to engage with a legal team, what value we can offer. And so, that was a really exciting opportunity for me, but also a little bit scary at the time. But I’ve been really lucky and well-supported,” she said.
“And, we’ve grown the team out to currently nine lawyers in the legal team. And, that’s just mainly been possible because of management buy-in at Youi, which has been, yeah, a really interesting time.”
The Youi legal team is quite a bit bigger than many other Australian legal departments — and Ms Lau said that over the last few years, there have been numerous management adaptations that have been required.
“It was a really interesting journey in terms of starting from scratch, which is challenging, but also a huge opportunity to really design a legal team, this matches the vision you had for it. But it certainly had many steps along the way where you start with a very small core team, and everyone’s doing a little bit of everything, and you have to be a real generalist to the size of the team,” she explained.
“Now, we’re able to leverage more people’s specialties and slightly change our structure to really align with what the business needs to support what they do. It’s definitely been a consequence of that. But now that we’ve grown a larger team, we actually outsource significantly less. So, there’s a lot of cost benefits that come with being able to scale a team to that size.”
Because of this, the Youi legal team has had to find a balance between wanting to remain true to their original vision while also remaining flexible as the team continues to develop.
“Obviously, over the last few years, everyone had COVID, which has hugely changed the way we work and live. So, in addition to COVID, we’ve, in the legal industry and a lot of other industries, have had the issue around, well, how do you attract and retain good talent? So those things are consistent. In the insurance space, in particular, the last few years as well, we’ve had a once-in-a-generation financial services regulatory reform, which is just huge,” Ms Lau added.
“There’s been some extreme weather events over the last few years and just a really challenging environment in the insurance space. A lot of it’s stemming from COVID as well, shortage of trades, inflation, that sort of thing. And so, to be honest, when I set out to build this team, I probably didn’t have my eye on technology and innovation in the initial stages. It was just trying to build a team and trying to survive.
“But, with all those things that have happened over the last few years, it became increasingly important to start actually figuring out how you can leverage your team and really focus your team on strategic matters rather than just trying to build any question that comes into the legal team. So, it’s been a really interesting few years, and some of that approach of how we deliver legal services now has really been out of necessity. But those challenging times really create opportunities for you to reframe how you’re providing legal services to your customers internally.”
The “collision” of these events forced Ms Lau to take a step back and think about the wellbeing of her team, as well as how they were going to navigate challenges moving forward.
“It’s all about how strategically you can align your legal team’s work with the strategy and also the high-profile, high[ly] important needs of your organisation. And so, that necessitates a bit of time that you have to spend away from the day-to-day and just getting through what needs to be done and start thinking a couple of years ahead, which was great for us as a legal team, because even though we were in the midst of the regulatory change and all these other things happening and these huge weather events, which obviously, it’s a high priority for us, it’s what we do,” she said.
“Insurance is a business of trust. Basically, we’re selling a promise. But you also need to spend that time to step back and think, ‘If I don’t start changing some of the way we operate now, what’s it going to look like in a year or two years’ time?’ And because it hasn’t slowed down, that was really valuable, even though we’re so busy, just spend some time planning out how we provide legal service, ‘What can I automate? What can I use self-help to get rid of?’
“But it also completely aligns with the attraction and retention of talent as well because lawyers don’t get up in the morning to review NDAs. It’s not what makes them satisfied in their roles. And so, it’s got all these flow-on effects. If you structure your team to focus on strategic work, you actually are growing a happier, healthier legal team as a result.”
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Bianca Lau, click below: