Richard Armstrong, senior legal counsel at the London Metal Exchange, sat on our conference panel discussion on how to better align Legal with the organisation. Here, he offers five key practical steps you can take to get started.

If I learned one thing from the In-house Division annual conference this year, it was that all of us – regardless of sector, size of organisation, or position in a legal team – face similar challenges.

I was speaking at the conference on a panel about how to align your legal team with your organisation. From the numerous questions posed from the audience and discussions afterwards, it was clear that we were all thinking the same:

  • How can I make Legal be seen as a business enabler (not a blocker)?
  • How can I build relationships?
  • How can I align Legal’s priorities with the priorities of the organisation?

The difficult issues in our jobs are not generally the technical legal challenges. We tend to be very good at those. It’s the people-related issues. Like all service industries, law is ultimately a people business, especially in-house – we are not one step removed from our clients. We have to own the advice we give, ensure it is actually implemented, and live with the outcomes.

So if we want to be more ‘aligned’, or do a better job, we have to start with our people. And if you can, it’s usually a good idea to start at the top.

What do senior managers expect of the legal team?

At the London Metal Exchange (LME), we are very fortunate. The senior managers appreciate the importance of legal advice to the business, and they are sophisticated consumers of legal services. For instance, our CEO is a former investment banker with a very clear idea of what he expects from lawyers (both in-house and external advisers), and of what is possible (eg that not every question can always be answered definitively, but that you can at least advise on the risks). Management generally is realistic in what we can help them achieve. This is a great position to be in – the main challenge is simply to meet or exceed their expectations.

But you may have a CEO or managers with completely different expectations. They may not have any real idea what the legal function is for, what it can help the organisation deliver, or what its limitations are. This is fine – people are rightly focused on their own roles and priorities – and it can actually be a great opportunity to educate your colleagues about what a legal team should be, and to shape the role of your team within the organisation.

If we want to be more ‘aligned’, or do a better job, we have to start with our people – and it’s a good idea to start at the top

More likely, you are in the middle of these two scenarios. But even if management’s expectations of Legal accords broadly with yours, there are always a few areas where you want to shift perceptions about what Legal’s role or capabilities are.

Conversations with management about the scope of Legal’s role are an obvious step that you can take. These meetings may also have a positive side-effect of helping you to build personal relationships with key colleagues. But sometimes actions can be more effective than words. For example, many people would still be (pleasantly) surprised to receive a commercial or business view of a situation from their legal team, in addition to the ‘pure’ legal advice. If your team habitually adds this extra value, it will boost their reputation and the organisation’s reaction to them.

Don’t be a blocker

What does it do for a relationship if you always say “no”? Many in-house lawyers dread being viewed as a ‘blocker’ by their organisation: the panel received several questions asking how to avoid this.

The first thing you need, if you want to avoid being seen as a blocker, is time. What do I mean by this? If someone brings you a contract to review, that they must sign the same day, that you are seeing for the first time, it’s often going to be very difficult to say anything other than “no”. There is bound to be at least one issue with the contract that needs resolving, and even if you could fix it today, the other side is unlikely to be able to react quickly enough to agree the change. You needed to know in advance about this contract and its signing date, so that you could solve the issues in good time.

But that cannot happen without an awareness of what Legal does and needs, and a culture of working closely with Legal from the early stages of a project.

If you want to avoid being seen as a blocker, you need to raise awareness of what Legal does and needs

How do you achieve that awareness and culture? Cultural change takes time, and requires sustained effort, but it is achievable. Some of the practical steps below might help.

Five practical steps to help better align Legal with the organisation

1. Consistent messaging from your team

Discuss with your team any changes you want to make,  and make sure that they are on-board with them. For example, if you want the organisation to engage Legal earlier on projects, but someone on the team is saying things that give the opposite impression, this will undermine your efforts.

2. Develop flowcharts and guides

Do you want Legal to be known for adding value on business-critical issues, or as the people you go to for NDAs? Actually, the answer may be both – but the first is likely to make a bigger impression on colleagues, when you’re trying to show that you’re aligned with the strategic priorities of the organisation.

There are some repetitive standard tasks that a Legal team typically undertakes, which (after the initial legal work) are actually just following a process. NDAs are the classic example, and most of the process and admin involved can legitimately be passed to the rest of the organisation. This frees up your team to concentrate on their core mission.

At the LME, I developed a suite of standard NDA documents, template emails to send to the NDA recipient, and a flowchart on how to manage the NDA process (from populating company names through to signing and storage of documents). Everything was available on our intranet and launched with a series of training sessions. NDAs now only need legal advice in exceptional cases, saving hundreds of hours every year.

Look for other opportunities to standardise and systematise routine work, and to produce flowcharts and FAQs that cut down on routine questions posed to your team.

3. Deliver training

If there is a specific topic that you want to raise awareness on, consider giving a training session or series of sessions. At the LME, I have delivered training on our procurement processes, using it as an opportunity to repeat key messages about engaging with Legal early on and leaving sufficient time for negotiations.

Make sure to repeat the training in six months or a year. It strengthens the message and is an opportunity to reach new staff or those who couldn’t attend the first time. You’ve already prepared the training, and you can improve the presentation in response to any feedback you received first time around.

4. Roadshows / documents to introduce the team

These can be useful tools, especially if the Legal team is a new function, or following a re-organisation. In a ‘roadshow’, you might run a session for each key team that Legal works with, explaining what you do, how you can help, and discussing how best to work together. You could pair this with a document on your intranet that gives a short introduction to each Legal team member or sub-team, and their specialisms, so that colleagues know the right person to ask about a given topic.

5. Talk to people

None of these steps will be as powerful as the cumulative effect of 1,000 conversations that you and your team naturally have with colleagues, as part of your normal roles. Every time that you speak to a colleague, this is an opportunity to deliver a message about your team, and to more closely align yourself with your organisation and where it wants to go.

I would like to end by thanking my fellow speakers on the panel, especially Simon Dodds from Shearman & Sterling, who did an excellent job of chairing the discussion.