Too many in-house legal professionals are still being shut out of high-level strategic business meetings. This diminishes not just their standing with leaders and internal colleagues, but the impact they have on the success of the business.
Nearly half of legal professionals (47%) are brought into key initiatives after strategic decisions have already been made, according to “The State of Collaboration in Corporate Legal Departments,” Everlaw’s recent survey of nearly 400 CLOs, GCs, in-house counsel, and legal ops professionals.
The U.S. survey, conducted with the Association of Corporate Counsel, found that three of five (58%) respondents say that other business departments see the legal team as a blocker to projects, and two in five (41%) as unwilling to take on enough risk. A reputation like that doesn’t get you invited to the next high-level planning meeting.
The most successful have cultivated a mindset that is rooted in a team mentality and focused on business growth. It calls for getting out of the legal department to build relationships and rapport throughout the organization.
We’ve put together a list of three important steps that help break the negative cycle.
Re-examine Your Approach to Risk
While it’s the legal team’s job to identify risk, the role is so much more than that. They also need to help the business team realize and explore the range of possibilities.
That said, lawyers are risk averse, sometimes too much so, which doesn't serve corporate in-house teams well when their business leaders have an appetite for risk. In-house counsel’s key role is to not only mitigate risk, but to help solve problems that move the business forward.
In an interview with Corporate Counsel, Everlaw Legal Ops Director Catherine Choe said lawyers who want a seat at the table need to recalibrate their approach to risk.
“If you think your role is to eliminate all risks, you’re basically going to eliminate the business,” she said. “There’s no business that survives without some risks.”
It’s also helpful to prioritize risks on an ongoing basis by looking at how likely they’re to come to pass and what the effect would be. Not all risk is created equal, Choe said.
This mental shift is critical to becoming a true strategic partner to the business.
Train In-House Lawyers to Think Like Business People
In-house legal professionals have the unique role of combining legal expertise with a nuanced understanding of the company’s competitive landscape, goals and risk profile. That positions them to be powerful strategic advisors.
And it calls for another mind shift, especially for early-career lawyers or those coming from law firms.
SunPower Legal Chief of Staff Brad Johnston told Everlaw that many lawyers are “substantive wizards of the law” but often lack practical business experience.
“With more junior attorneys, particularly those coming out of firms, it takes a while to get them out of the ivory-tower legal mentality,” Johnston said. He trains them to think like business people. “I have them shadow discussions with the business, to hear conversations that occur at the higher levels.”
This not only gives lawyers better insight, it also raises the legal team’s visibility within the organization.
Get In Early
To stay connected with the business, in-house lawyers need to keep lines of communication open. Being responsive, available, and helpful are key.
Boeing Legal Ops Director Sol Brody said during an Everlaw webinar that the company’s lawyers make sure they’re seen as active parts of programs and lines of business throughout the company. Having lawyers embedded in other departments establishes collaborative relationships and gives the attorneys the necessary understanding of the business to mitigate risk and take smart chances.
“Strategically, it’s important to have those conversations early,” Brody said. “That’s the number one key way you can ensure moving with some speed.”
Time to Write a New Chapter
To be sure, in-house legal professionals are getting a lot right. The collaboration survey also shows that the vast majority (80%) feel their contributions are valued, and most (74%) say they deliver strategic advice in addition to legal support.
But that also means that many could be delivering higher value. A vast majority (70%) say they plan to improve cross-departmental alignment in the coming year. And many are already using modern technologies that make their work lives easier: Eighty-three percent use esignatures tools and nearly a half (44%) leverage contract lifecycle management tools. These are examples of wins that lay the foundation for the next frontier of technologies, such as ediscovery software, which with a few simple steps helps drastically reduce the cost of litigation and is already in use by 20% of respondents.
With the three shifts in approach outlined in this post, and other insights from “The State of Collaboration in Corporate Legal” report, we think 2024 can be a year of progress.
Download your copy today for a wealth of other findings about collaboration trends and challenges in-house legal teams are tackling in the coming year.