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Trusted legal advisor

10 Sep 2020 / business Print

The in-house quest for the Holy Grail

A recent panel discussion organised by the Law Society’s In-House and Public Sector Committee discussed how in-house lawyers can achieve the ‘holy grail’ for the service professional – the role of trusted legal advisor.

Understanding your business clients and what they want is the first step towards enhancing the delivery of in-house legal services. That’s the advice of ESB group head of legal, Alan Daly, in a webinar recorded for the Law Society’s In-House and Public Sector Committee’s panel discussion in May.

Addressing the theme of ‘How to enhance the effectiveness of the in-house legal team in the current climate’, Alan suggests a framework for approaching this issue by asking ‘who’, ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’:

  • For whom are we enhancing the effectiveness of our in-house legal team?
  • Why does that matter?
  • What do our clients want (and how do we know that)?
  • How can we best manage the delivery of our services, bearing in mind the first three questions – and how do we, and the client, know if we are delivering or not?

Daly says that in-house legal teams are no more or less important than any other function working to drive the business’s objectives forward, and everything a legal team does must be aligned with, and have as its aim, the achievement of those objectives.

Therefore, he says, the value of the in-house legal team is not measured in how effective it believes its legal services are, but by the client’s perception of the extent to which the legal function is helping to deliver those business objectives (or not).

Business rules

In-house legal teams must compete for resources with other parts of the business and will, most likely, have to answer to a non-lawyer. “In short, we are not masters of our own destinies,” he says.

This is important because, in considering requests for legal resources – as for any other request for resources – business people make decisions based on business rules, including consideration of what they believe they will get back for their investment.

In the context of resourcing and delivering efficient in-house legal services, therefore, the client’s perception of the value of the services that the legal team provides is critical to winning more resources to provide and enhance those legal services.

It is imperative, then, that general counsel take the time to understand exactly what it is that the business expects from its in-house legal function – whether comprised of a large team with many practice-area specialists, or a single in-house lawyer working alone – and to understand what the business expects the legal function to deliver, and how it will do so.

This feedback can be obtained in a variety of ways, such as through training seminars and client workshops, issuing client satisfaction surveys, and working with the business to develop a mission statement for the legal function.

“These are crucial issues,” says Alan, “because if your legal team is not doing the right things from the client’s perspective – or not doing them in the way the client would like you to do them – then it’s pretty unlikely that your clients will think you’re doing a great job.”

Sector growth

While in-house teams undoubtedly save money on external legal costs, that factor alone doesn’t explain the growth of the in-house market in recent years, Daly comments.

In-house legal teams have a significant advantage over external advisors because they know their business – and its people – inside out. This gives in-house teams a great opportunity to ensure that the delivery of their services is based on a strong, trust-based relationship, rather than needs-based or service-based.

This, in turn, enables in-house lawyers to truly operate as trusted (and valued) legal advisors in a trust-based relationship with clients – the ‘holy grail’ for any service professional.

General counsel and their teams must proactively work to build that trust through long-term relationships, with a constant focus on the client’s interests.

“People like to deal with people they like. Get to know the clients, get to know the business, and always keep marketing the value of the in-house legal team and the services that it provides,” he advises.

Putting time and effort into developing these relationships is just as important as time spent training, or developing the legal product, Daly believes.

Building a successful team

This year’s In-House and Public Sector Committee chair is Anna-Marie Curry, company secretary and general counsel in Bord na Móna, who introduced the online panel discussion.

Curry has been in-house for 13 years, building a legal team during that time, and has recently moved from running a centralised to a decentralised model. A critical factor in creating a successful team is in getting the right people, she says, because working in-house is not for every solicitor.

“You need to be a team player and be willing to work with the business in that multidisciplinary environment,” she observes. “In-house work is not for those who want to concentrate on pure legal issues.”

She points out that there is just one in-house member on the 51-seat Law Society Council, yet the sector comprises one-fifth of the profession. This can lead to a feeling of disconnection from the Law Society. Anna-Marie is urging in-house lawyers to consider running for Council – something that the Society itself strongly encourages.

Critical support

Brian Connolly (director of legal services, Accenture) says that legal business support is critical during the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he urges in-house and public-sector lawyers to reposition themselves by being enablers and facilitators, rather than blockers or merely watchdogs for their businesses.

Legal staff should be right in the middle of risk assessments of working environments, he suggests. “Many people have seen that working from home can, and does, work,” he says.

Working from home may have been rushed in some cases as the coronavirus crisis developed, and this could have both security and health-and-safety implications, Connolly warns.

Working in a sub-optimal, out-of-office situation, without tech support, requires steps to lock down security, through encryption and the use of a secure virtual repository for documents.

He predicts that the workforce of the future will change as a result of the pandemic – and lawyers will have a role in advising on this. Outsourced contractors and suppliers will also be affected, he says. “As lawyers and as advisors to our organisations, we need to be getting ahead on that, thinking about it, and understanding the law and helping the business to apply it in an appropriate way,” he advises.

Connolly envisages that managing the return to work will also be a long and complex process. There will a lot of legal, operational, commercial and employee-relations issues to navigate, including invasive measures, such as temperature checks and facemask wearing, he warns. There will be an increased focus on workplace inspections, he predicts, in line with health-and-safety protocols.

He is hopeful that institutions will adopt a more technology-positive approach to their interactions with solicitors and the general public, because this will speed up decision-making and task completion.

Lawyers must develop and communicate clear policies and processes in relation to tech use, and practise it themselves, he says, and make sure that their organisations are doing the same. This is particularly the case in relation to information security and confidentiality, data protection, use of social media, and record management and retention protocols.

Be flexible

On increased flexible working, Connolly says that a better balance in work and personal life can be one positive benefit of working from home, with reduced commuting time and costs. And there will be organisational impacts too, with lower fixed costs for office space, equipment, car parking, catering, office cleaning, maintenance, and so on.

Lawyers can and should be part of the decision-making on giving employees flexibility in their working lives, he believes.

In-house lawyers are a cost-centre in organisations and do not generate revenue, he points out, so they must continue to add value to the business and demonstrate how they do that. “Be busy and be useful,” he advises.

Legal staff also have a role in communications and public relations, and in increasingly communicating with Government agencies, as regulatory and compliance requirements increase: “There may be big policy decisions to be made, and strategic decisions combining legal and commercial perspectives.”

But less physical interaction with the rest of the business means that legal teams will have to work harder to show their worth, and to stay coordinated, collaborative and committed, he warns.

He predicts an increased role for in-house staff in communications, public relations, government relations, health-and-safety and facilities management, technology, policy matters, and membership of the leadership team.

Staff engagement

Assistant chief state solicitor Dr Des Hogan explained that his office provides legal services to the attorney general and Government, with two-thirds of the 300-odd staff being women.

The Chief State Solicitor’s Office benefits from civil-service policies of a shorter working year and work-sharing – both available to staff.

Hogan says that good staff engagement helps in managing a legal team – he leads this area at the Chief State Solicitor’s Office. Early intervention and good communication are key to resolving difficulties, he points out.

New entrants to any organisation bring energy and will have an impact on culture, particularly in the first 18 months, he believes. Staff are key to the success of the office, and senior management should always seek feedback from them. Junior staff tend to be very focused on their role, salary and career, he says.

On the issue of dealing with client pressure, his sage advice is to “have a plan – respond; don’t react”.

Lawyers neither have the tools to create policy, nor should they be doing so, and this is the approach taken by the Chief State Solicitor’s Office. Matters of operation and policy must be sorted out by the client, he advises. After that, the legal advice comes into play.

“Serving our clients means serving the people of Ireland.”

Unified approach

Carol Drury (head of retail legal at AIB) says that, since the economic crash, all legal teams have been centralised at the bank, which has ensured that legal services are provided in an efficient, unified manner across the group.

Proving the worth of her legal teams has meant selling legal wares through ‘dotted-line accountability’ to business areas, delivering strategic monthly reports, training and workshops, developing an intranet presence, and creating a trusted-advisor relationship with the business.

Drury cautions that legal views should not be confused with any other strategic views proffered, and should be distinguished particularly in written legal advices.

Lawyers should learn to speak the language of business and never hide behind complex emails.

“Don’t hesitate in giving on-the-spot opinions – but be clear if something needs to be taken away for further review,” Drury advises. Legal staff need to show that they can ‘run with the business’, and this adds to the creation of a strong strategic partnership, she concludes.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie