General counsel and senior legal counsel have the ability to influence business units to ensure smarter and faster delivery of legal services. But how can you capitalise on this position for the benefit of the legal team and the organisation as a whole, asks Anil Sharma.
Here are four areas that in-house counsel can review with the aim of making improvements and ensuring the legal team can work to the best of its ability and that the business’ objectives are achieved.
Centres of excellence v generalists
The decision as to whether an organisation’s legal team should embrace a ‘centre of excellence model’ or consist of legal generalists is an important one for large legal departments.
Some of the positives of embracing a centre of excellence model are that it allows the in-house team to develop expertise in areas such as IP, trade marks, competition law and M&A, and the business benefits from cost savings on external advisers.
On the other hand, this model can run the risk of creating silos, as lawyers become specialists in their respective areas of law and become potentially under-exposed to others. Lawyers can also become demotivated after working in one niche area of law for an extended period of time.
A generalist approach sees all lawyers undertaking a variety of legal work, which can be beneficial in keeping lawyers engaged while also expanding their knowledge base. The downside of a more generalist team is that in some scenarios external advisers with specialist knowledge may be required, and this can come at a substantial cost to the business.
Central v lawyers embedded in business units
Do you have a centralised legal department where all lawyers sit together, or do lawyers sit within the major business units such as HR, finance, procurement, sales and marketing?
In a centralised legal department, there’s often a greater sense of camaraderie and belonging, as you’re all undertaking similar work and often working on the same projects. It can also be easier to discuss issues, not to mention create efficiencies for the general counsel from an administrative point of view.
However, when lawyers work within business units they can gain a more proficient understanding of the business and what its levers are. They’re also perceived as being part of the broader team and are likely to be quicker in responding to issues and potential crises given their seat at the table.
Some business heads choose to ‘shop’ for a lawyer within the in-house team. They have a preference for who they like to deal with – this could be because they want a lawyer who is easy to deal with, is more commercially minded, is more flexible, etc.
This practice can have the repercussions of causing competitiveness and unfair resourcing in the legal department.
A solution to this may be implementing a process where all matters are sent to a general ‘legal IT inbox’. This enables all matters to be logged in and out, and gives the general counsel an opportunity to see the workload of the lawyers and to more fairly and efficiently allocate work.
Business units often complain that it takes too long to receive an answer from legal. However, in many cases if the legal team is good at setting expectations, this discontent can be avoided.
For example, agree to a three-day turnaround if a matter isn’t urgent, so that you’ll be able to do a thorough job, as well as to allow for any unexpected and urgent matters that may crop up.
Establish with the various business units what is an urgent matter and what isn’t. This needn’t be a formal SLA, but reaching an ‘understanding’ with senior managers would assist everybody.
Anil Sharma is special counsel at lexvoco.