Once dubbed the ‘business prevention unit’, in-house legal departments are now striving to become effective business partners in their organisations. Diana Bentley find outs from several GC how they are enhancing their profiles with their business colleagues.

Times have changed. Some general counsel (GC) once boasted that their departments functioned entirely as law firms within their organisations. Now in-house counsel strive to be the trusted partners of their business colleagues, committed to proving their business worth.

But how can they best achieve that? The question is a central one for law departments leaders, says Susan Hackett, CEO of legal consultancy Legal Executive Leadership, and formerly GC of the Association of Corporate Counsel. Embracing new perspectives and new ways of working is key, Hackett suggests.

‘Lawyers are trained to be lawyers, not business people. But in-house lawyers work in companies full of business people dealing with business, not legal, problems, so if they position themselves as people who work and think like lawyers, they’ll struggle to be successful and trusted contributors in a business. To address this, in-house teams should think about how to adopt a more business-like approach to their work.’   

By getting to know the business, establishing strong relationships with their clients and seeking to improve the delivery of their services, in-house counsel can change the way they perceive their role and opportunities to serve and boost their value within the organisation. Hackett: ‘Lawyers arguably have an historical problem appreciating the value or perspectives of other workers and disciplines, often dividing the world into lawyers and non-lawyers, and dismissing the value of work done by “non-lawyers”.

‘That may fly in law firms, but it’s dead on arrival in companies, where the clients whom in-house lawyers serve are people with different skills and priorities. Theirs – and not legal analysis – is the stuff that creates the wealth which pays in-house lawyers’ salaries.’

Lawyers, then, are well advised to manage their own operations based on their clients’ priorities and practices, she says.

A good starting point for lawyers is to embed themselves within leadership and business teams. Lauren Aste, chief legal officer and GC of Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), manages 31 lawyers in seven countries, and is a member of the group’s global executive leadership team. ‘There are various other leadership groups in the business and we’ve worked to ensure that there’s a lawyer in each of them,’ she says. ‘This helps us understand the business, see the roadblocks and appreciate the impact of our advice. It also helps us get to know and learn from our colleagues. This is important, as we see ourselves as lawyers who are part of the business team.’    

Dan Toner, GC and group company secretary at Spire Healthcare Group plc, also serves on the group’s executive committee. ‘It’s vital for me to be part of that. You have to have a seat at the table yourself, so that you understand what’s going on strategically and that your advice goes in at the right level.’ Toner ensures that all lawyers in his 11-strong team have exposure to top management. ‘It’s good for them and good for management to get to know the whole team. This helps us step outside the traditional legal role. I’ve always believed that legal should be an integral part of the business.’

Understanding the business  

Keeping business objectives a priority when handling busy legal workloads can be challenging. But for Stuart Kelly, group GC and company secretary at Network Rail, and manager of 26 lawyers in the UK, it’s a matter of commitment. ‘The legal team needs to consciously align itself to the organisation’s corporate objectives, and its own strategies and aims need to be built on that,’ he says. ‘If you do that, the business objectives will automatically stay front of mind.’ 

Practical procedures help. At CWT, Lauren Aste’s team holds monthly team video calls, with a rotating spotlight on team members to showcase how they are supporting the group’s new digital strategy. ‘These calls promote communication within our team and help bring our corporate strategy to life. Also, every week one of our lawyers posts a short video on our internal social media site explaining how we’re contributing to that strategy – be it driving our relationships with hotels, or educating on IP matters. This keeps the business continually abreast of our corporate objectives and elevates the visibility of each lawyer.’ Lawyers have video meetings with business teams whenever possible, which helps them feel part of those teams, even virtually.  

Having a deeper understanding of the organisation’s operations enables in-house counsel to anticipate problems and advance the business. Dan Toner throws his team members in at the deep end. ‘Our group sees three-quarters of a million patients a year. Every member of my team spends a week in a hospital, serving meals, even attending operations, experiencing life at the coalface so we understand the business.

‘It also means people will confide in us more readily when things go wrong, as we understand what they do. We stay connected with everyone in the business. We pick up the phone at any time and talk to everyone from hospital staff to senior management.’ 

Toner keeps his team focused on the key things the business wants from them, too. ‘One is: no surprises. We need to spot potential problems – and business opportunities – early on, so we have to be ahead of the game.’ He is proud of his team’s proactive stance. ‘Recently, we helped create a new means of insurance for surgeons. They were leaving the profession – a business risk for us – due to high premiums. We found a new underwriter and created a new market. Looking ahead is necessary not only to protect the business, but to help it thrive.’ 

Living the organisation’s values 

In-house legal departments are using a variety of approaches to help boost their value and demonstrate their business savvy, according to Susan Hackett. These include the better use of technology and the use of process and project management techniques to inform and improve the management of staffing and budgets, and to secure greater predictability in their work.

‘In-house legal departments can develop metrics and KPIs to measure their own performance and productivity in business terms, and use predictive analytics to better assess the risks to the company. They can retain and manage outside counsel and others based on their alignment with the department’s expectations and performance goals, rather than on reputation or hourly discounts,’ says Hackett. ‘The problem isn’t that there aren’t good approaches to change, it’s that change requires lawyers to behave differently than they’ve always done, and that’s hard for anyone, including legal professionals.’ 

Lawyers are also consciously forging good communications with others to work more effectively, and prove their willingness to work in less traditional ways. Lauren Aste’s team’s general rule is to write all communications with colleagues in a simple style. ‘We don’t use legal jargon. We try to provide succinct, clear advice that’s easy to understand. And we adjust our communications style so it’s appropriate for the people we’re working with.’ 

For Dan Toner, too, it’s essential that in-house lawyers adapt to working with a wide range of people in different environments, and develop their interpersonal skills. ‘We prefer to deal with our colleagues face to face or on the phone. There’s a saying: management by walking about. That’s our motto,’ he says.   

Motivating teams 

Building teams that enjoy their work and feel valued helps keep lawyers on course and motivated, the GCs report. ‘We have a strong collegiate spirit and have fun together,’ Toner says. ‘I try to give people opportunities to shine. Recently, we hosted a conference for 100 of our top people on healthcare law, and I gave it to a junior lawyer to organise. She did a brilliant job, and the praise she received was really a boost for her.’ 

Similarly, Aste encourages her lawyers to undertake non-legal roles. ‘One of my team recently co-MC’d a global leadership conference. It’s good to be seen as a business leader in other guises.’ Individuals and teams are well thanked for the jobs they do, she says. ‘I promote a culture of recognition. Our lawyers are publicly acknowledged in our monthly group strategy calls and my lawyers do a lot of public speaking, so that they’re seen within and outside of CWT.’  

So can training help lawyers boost lawyers’ business skills? ‘Some law schools, bar associations and commercial educators are teaching more business, executive and operational skills for lawyers, and some law departments are sending their budding legal executives to business school classes,’ says Hackett. But the real progress happens, she insists, when lawyers decide that they have something to learn and are willing to work differently, and the need for change is not expressed as an attractive idea, but is linked to continued career advancement. 

Dan Toner gets the group’s senior business people to talk to his team alongside more traditional training activities, and he conducts an annual group survey to determine whether his team is living up to company values. Lauren Aste’s team uses StrengthsFinder®, an online self-assessment programme, to better understand their core strengths and use them to benefit the entire team. For the GCs themselves, the best form of leadership development, they say, is observing others, doing the job, learning from their mistakes and developing good peer support networks. 

However necessary it may be to become trusted business advisers, the GCs insist that they must retain a keen eye on professional and business ethics – often, they remain the conscience of the company. ‘The values of our business are part of the DNA of everything we undertake – the thread that runs through all we do,’ says Stuart Kelly.