Not over-involving yourself as legal counsel
As legal departments continue to be required to do more with less — and in times of cost-cutting and economic turbulence — in-house lawyers need to maximise their time and only get involved in matters when they need to, according to this pair.
Mark Dodd is the head of market insights at LOD, and Helena Kolenbet is a senior legal counsel at LOD Legal. Speaking on a recent episode of The Corporate Counsel Show, produced in partnership with LOD, the pair discussed how in-house lawyers could thrive in cost-cutting environments and manage their time effectively.
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Open communication with legal departments is key during cost-cutting periods, as well as getting your priorities straight and is part of what LOD calls “ruthless prioritisation”.
“A really great tip that I’ve received from one of my mentors is to actually scrutinise the email chain when it comes to you and somebody says to you, ‘This is screamingly urgent.’ And check if somebody sat on that for a couple of weeks because it might be urgent because somebody just hasn’t had the time to get to it yet, and then all of a sudden, that urgency has been pushed onto you. Which again, in the scheme of things, isn’t quite fair, but sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles,” Ms Kolenbet explained.
“But it gives you that bit more liberty to understand, well, look, we are all busy, we all need to prioritise, is urgent actually really urgent? Because that’s a subjective term. And look, I think also having that relationship with your stakeholders to ask them to then push back to whoever is coming to them, asking them for this to be urgent, to say, ‘Hey, look, can you now have some flexibility on these time frames? Because I can’t necessarily push this up the chain as quickly as you need it to go.’ And they’re the ones on the ground that are managing the relationships as well, with their suppliers, with their contractors.”
While prioritising tasks is an obvious need for legal departments, Mr Dodd said that dropping tasks completely is the real challenge.
“I think where the word ruthless came from is you actually have to drop stuff; you can’t do it all. And lawyers, well, mostly, typically due to their nature, they’re quite perfectionists, generally. They like to get things done. They don’t like to miss anything. They don’t want to drop any balls,” he said.
“But in these environments, I think you might have to. So, it’s about having a really honest conversation with your stakeholders. So, depending on, they might be the GC or, if you’re the GC, it might be the CFO, it might be the head of sales. You need to have conversations and say, ‘Look, we just can’t get this all done, so we need to decide what’s the most important thing to do’.”
Ruthless prioritisation also ties in with the importance of eliminating waste, something which Mr Dodd was a two-pronged approach for in-house counsel.
“One of them is about simplifying what you’re doing. So, simplifying your communication because lawyers, we like to explain everything in detail and give a full and robust answer to everything. But the reality is, particularly in these cost-sensitive environments, that a lot of your stakeholders just want yes or no, can they do this, can’t they do this? So, cutting to the chase is a part of it. The waste that we’re talking about in this example is, spending too much time on things that don’t need to be spent doing essentially,” he explained.
“And I also think the other thing that we were talking about is … potentially you don’t need to get involved too early and double up meetings, and spend a lot of time pre-empting issues before they become issues, and they may not end up being an issue. That’s a waste of time. That’s the argument that we’re putting forward.”
For in-house lawyers, getting involved too early can look like being needlessly copied into email chains — which Ms Kolenbet said can be mitigated by having an open stream of communication with your wider team so they are clear when to loop you in and when not to.
“A lot of the work that you do as in-house legal counsel is not necessarily strategically or formally to provide legal advice, but also just to sense check things as well. So, sometimes, giving your team the ability to flag things before it comes to you with that caveat of, ‘This is subject to me checking it with my legal team, but this is what I think under the circumstances.’ So, they can have that confidence to still guide and direct discussions without feeling like they need your input before they can progress things to the next stage,” she outlined.
“[I’m also] upfront with my workload. I’ve sometimes had days where I’ve just jumped from meeting to meeting, and I can see that I’m about to go into another meeting, and someone sent me an email beforehand and I haven’t had time to read that email. So again, joining that meeting and being human about it and saying, ‘Look, guys, my day’s just gone out of whack today, and I just haven’t had a chance to read your emails. Can you just indulge me and spend two minutes just to summarise the key points before we move into this meeting now?’ And that way, I can add value hopefully straight away.”
In-house counsel not over-involving themselves can also assist in managing their time in a cost-cutting environment, which Ms Kolenbet has a number of different strategies for.
“The strategy of the legal team is to provide your business with guardrails, so a safe environment within which they can operate, as opposed to speed bumps, which is, ‘We don’t have time to look at this because it’s not high on our list of priorities right about now.’ And yes, that takes time. When you’ve got a million and one things on your to-do list, forward planning isn’t quite high up on the agenda. However, being able to implement that strategy or work towards implementing a strategy such as that, will help you as a legal team to be able to then focus your time and attention on the important things,” she added.
“Another strategy, I suppose, with this topic is looking at in some ways the allocation of work within your team, and each legal team’s going to be different as to how they allocate the work. The legal team that I’m operating in, we have our different core areas of expertise, and the business people just get to know us, and we receive the work through our inbox. And as we are figuring things out, if we get something a little bit new or something outside our area of expertise, we reach out to the other people in the business.
“Whilst it’s great to be able to get experience in different areas and build your expertise, sometimes when you’re under time pressures and you’re in an environment where you need to create those efficiencies, you just need to stick with what you know and be able to allocate the workflows within your team with what they know and what their experience is.”
Moving forward, Mr Dodd added, moving into more pragmatic ways of working will be key.
“I think lawyers in particularly larger organisations tend to get involved in a lot of ancillary matters on committees and subcommittees and things like that, because lawyers typically want to get involved and help out, and they bring a lot of rigour and clear thinking. So, they’re attractive members for all sorts of subcommittees, but in these times, maybe you need to think about paring those back. I mean, the business itself may be paring back those initiatives anyway, but maybe you need to be quite rigid with what you agree to and what you say no to.
“One of the things that a few different in-house lawyers were telling me was, there is a tension between lawyers wanting to be involved early on matters and so they can nip things in the bud, but also not getting involved too early. So, you can spend a lot of time in internal meetings on, let’s say, a contract spec, and it’s basically a commercial discussion, and you will get involved later anyway once the contracts are at a point for redlining and discussions,” he concluded.
“So, the advice here was, ‘Well, maybe don’t get involved too early. Don’t get into the weeds too early.’ There is a tension there, so sometimes you want to get involved early. But I think in terms of pragmatism, which was your question, it’s about understanding when to get involved, at what point.”
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Mark Dodd and Helena Kolenbet, click below: