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8 Steps To Improve The Perception Of In-House Legal Counsel
by: Allison Rosner of Major Lindsey & Africa  -  Major Lindsey & Africa Articles
Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Historically, in-house corporate legal teams have unfortunately been saddled with a bad guy reputation of sorts. At best, the legal department has been viewed as a mandatory support function tasked with helping the organization temper risk. At worst, it's been seen as a cost center and bureaucratic roadblock that stifles creativity and jams up the sales and marketing pipeline.

However, during the pandemic, the tide started to turn for corporate in-house legal departments. In large part, this was driven by the increased responsibility taken on by general counsel, who tackled challenges far beyond the legal realm — including employment, health and safety, risk analysis and more — and in doing so, led the charge in demonstrating the legal department's mission-critical value.

Now, there's an opportunity for the legal department to continue to capitalize on that momentum. Your legal team has the potential to be a generator of revenue and a stronger, more strategic ally and partner to your business clients.

This is an important goal to focus on for a number of reasons: It can improve the quality of your team's work; keep your top talent engaged, productive and happy, which is key to retaining them in the long term; and demonstrate your team's alignment with the organization's growth trajectory and strategic objectives.

In order to make this happen, the business and legal departments need to be nimble and adapt together as aligned partners to facilitate success for the organization as a whole. Accomplishing this, however, could require a seismic shift in how the legal department is perceived by other stakeholders across the organization. How do you accomplish this — where do you even begin? It's time for you to break down the walls.

Here are eight powerful ways to set the wheels of transformation in motion:

  1. Define, or redefine, your team's purpose and mission.

    The first step in changing the outward perception of the legal department is to think inward. This means defining and communicating a meaningful purpose for your team. This should cover more than just mitigating legal risk, and be anchored to the bigger vision of the organization.

    A mutually understood purpose helps bring team members together with a collective mission and lends meaning and direction to the work they do every day. Lawyers who understand their team's purpose know their efforts make a difference for the organization. Establishing a clear purpose can help give your department an identity, better engage team members, and improve morale and motivation.

    To start, brainstorm with your lawyers and staff to nail down the intrinsic value your group contributes to the company. What specific challenges do you solve? What would the consequences be if the legal team didn't exist? How does your department support the company's long-term success?

    Use those insights to draft a mission statement that reframes the legal team as a value-creating, business-integrated, collaborative resource. Review the mission statement regularly to ensure it remains relevant. When your team starts to think of itself as an essential partner, the rest of the organization will, too.

  2. Instill and promote a customer-service mindset.

    Your legal team must always view the business as its customer, not its counterpart. This relationship should be rooted in a service mindset, with a perpetual goal of creating value for business clients and keeping them happy and satisfied. A customer-focused culture starts at the top; it's the job of the general counsel to set the tone and expectations for the team.

  3. Learn the business inside and out.

    No legal department should operate in a vacuum. Make sure every member of your team is familiar with the company's product offerings and has a solid grasp of its overarching goals, obstacles, risks and competitive landscape. Understand the business's strategic plan, mission and vision.

    Your lawyers and staff should be able to speak the same language as clients, which lays a foundation for trust and healthy working relationships. Present your department as an invested partner by joining key business meetings across functions and attending trainings and conferences. Speak directly to senior management and key clients to gain a better understanding of their needs and how the legal team can provide effective support.

    Take the time to really listen. This will help you align your department's priorities and targets with those of the larger organization. When your team is fully immersed in the business and its vision, your legal support and counsel will be that much more impactful.

  4. Deliver responsive, high-quality work.

    We've all been in the role of customer before, and we know the importance of a fast, accurate response. You want the business to feel confident that when they reach out to your team, they'll have a reliably positive experience.

    When a prompt answer to a request is not possible, reply to acknowledge receipt and offer a reasonable ETA on a resolution. Be sure to provide status updates along the way. Responsiveness helps cement trust in your legal team and shows clients they can continue to count on you.

  5. Communicate clearly and concisely.

    The primary consumers of your team's communications are parts of the business that likely do not have legal expertise. Business moves at lightning speed these days, and there's no time for mix-ups and misunderstandings.

    To keep your clients happy, keep your interactions brief and to the point while maintaining completeness and accuracy. Stick to plain, everyday language; avoid muddying the waters with complex legalese. Use familiar commercial terms, common industry terms, established organizational acronyms and known financial terms that will resonate with clients. Clear communication saves time, reduces conflict and keeps everyone working toward a common goal. Remember, less is more!

  6. Prioritize your team's workload.

    When operating in a fast-paced corporate environment, be sure your team and processes are designed to support the work that matters most and the critical needs of the business. Oftentimes, in-house corporate teams are lean and business requests start to pile up and can feel like an insurmountable mountain.

    This means it's essential to take a closer look at departmental activity to see exactly what your people are working on every day. Look for inefficiencies or skills gaps that are hindering the team's ability to focus on and execute priority tasks.

  7. Help your clients help themselves.

    To refocus your team on high-priority work, consider ways to provide the business with self-help tools and resources. Empower the business to take on routine requests like contract review, and provide templates to enable automatic generation of preapproved contracts to reduce your team's involvement.

    Take initiative with legal technology and implement contract life cycle management, eDiscovery, eSignature and legal request intake tools, which can dramatically improve customer satisfaction by accelerating turnaround time for more day-to-day service requests.

    These solutions eliminate common bottlenecks and your clients across internal functions will be off to the races, approved legal tools in hand. This will enable your team to focus on what matters the most and provide value to the business.

  8. Check in with the business regularly.

    Develop a process for soliciting regular feedback from clients to gauge customer satisfaction, both structured and informal, to better understand your team's performance and assess any gaps that may exist. This will help you keep your department rebranding efforts on track and enable you to continuously identify where you need to improve.

    Use tools like digital surveys to gather data on key performance metrics, such as understanding the business; clear and concise communications; responsiveness and availability; risk assessment; and overall client satisfaction. The resulting increased awareness of the business's perception of your team will ensure you are always focused on how your team can achieve alignment with the business's objectives and always provide the utmost value to the business.

    This feedback can also be used as a part of employee performance measures and to guide the refinement of departmental processes and structure.

    Changing your legal department's reputation from a cost center to a value driver takes time, focus and plenty of teamwork. There will, undoubtedly, be bumps along the way, but your department will see drastic benefits with continued, strategic action. A proactive, purposeful, customer-first approach will help your team evolve into what you know it's capable of being — a value-added, indispensable, strategic partner that's instrumental to the company's growth and success.

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