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Leigh Dance has written, published and spoken extensively on many aspects of global legal services, at major global conferences and in business and legal industry publications worldwide, including The Wall Street Journal.  Click here for our extensive archive of past (we believe still insightful!) published articles.

Dance is author of Bright Ideas:  Insights from Legal Luminaries Worldwide, published by Mill City Press and available on Amazon.  Bright Ideas is a compilation of 23 original essays by leaders and influencers around the world.

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Global In-House: What Do People In Your Legal Function Do?

Many global corporate legal functions today aspire to transform. They want to adopt new technologies to work smarter, and handle growing demand without head count growth. They want to transform in order to be better business partners, to cut costs, to align better with corporate growth strategy, to rethink sourcing, to better serve business growth in new markets. One of the first steps on the transformation path sounds almost ridiculously basic, but you can't go far without it. What do people in your in-house legal function currently do? How do they spend their days? Having the answers will be a key input in guiding how your legal function may want to change.

Most In-House Teams Outside the U.S. Have No Dedicated Operations Resource In the United States, the operations role is increasingly common for larger legal teams, and is a valuable support to ask those questions and gather and help analyze the answers. But the exercise generally starts  where majority of the function is based, in the U.S. It gets complicated to get the answers in other markets. For corporate legal functions outside of North America and England, a dedicated operations resource in the legal function is rare.

A few years after I started working with legal departments that had in-house counsel in a dozen or more countries, I was surprised to learn that the services provided by in-house lawyers often vary significantly from one country to the next. The differences may have roots in the way that the legal team developed, or who it reports to, or who leads it. Sometimes the focus changes because of a regulatory experience or business loss or crisis in that country.

Legal Services Differ by Country for Companies with Lawyers in More Than One Country The law is local or country-specific, and business is global (albeit with regional influences), and we know that culture within companies varies. When companies acquire or merge often with enterprises that have different roots, history or in-house approach, the diversity of services that Legal provides usually increases. It's no surprise that for companies operating in more than one country, "What does Legal do?" may be answered differently everywhere.

The question often goes unasked, until the legal function faces budget cuts and resource pressures, and decides to embark on a transformation to gain efficiency and provide greater value.

Specific, Quantitative Information About What In-House Lawyers Do In the last few months I've been on the rampage, pushing global in-house counsel to make changes that lighten or redistribute workload, so that corporate counsel can aspire to sustainable performance. Every time we get into the specifics of how to do this, we trip onto the challenge of making important decisions about: What does Legal do? What does Legal not do? Within companies, long circuitous discussions can ensue, with exhaustion as the only result. What they need is specific, quantitative information. It will help form the legal strategy for the in-house function.

In the last two weeks I've participated in discussions on the future of legal services at corporate counsel conferences in London and New York. We often conclude with what can be gained by transformation, in order to make the legal function fit for the future.

General counsel and the outside consultants who help them agree that a crucial first step is to understand how each in-house legal professional spends her/his time. This can be done by asking individuals to complete daily pie charts, roughly measuring pieces of pie in connection with their actual work, for a week or so. Often a list is provided of labels to describe various tasks, to streamline analysis. Analysis of the findings then cuts by jurisdiction, pay scale, seniority, etc.

Prerequisite to Transformation Usually the data is a big surprise to the company's in-house counsel leaders, who see that a remarkable (and often disturbing) amount of time is spent on:

  • pure administrative tasks;
  • activities that may secure long-term internal client relationships but are unrelated to legal advice;
  • routine lower-level legal work disconnected with the individual's level, experience or salary.

Until the in-house legal function decides what it's not going to do, it's very hard to improve resource allocation or consider smarter approaches to sourcing—especially across jurisdictions. Armed with this information, leadership can address what services that in-house lawyers and staff will provide to clients, and what services should be provided by others or via a more efficient method. A few local exceptions can be made according to laws or important cultural and business practice differences.

Next time you get your global legal teams together, whether on the phone or face-to-face, it may be worthwhile to begin developing or improving on your legal strategy. More on that topic in an upcoming column.

Note: The author is grateful for the ideas and approaches gained in discussions with Sandra Mori, GC Europe, Coca-Cola; Stephen Poor, chairman emeritus, Seyfarth Shaw; Fabienne-Anne Rehulka, GC Europe, Swiss-Re; Paul Smith, chairman, Eversheds; and Jonathan Townend of Eversheds Consulting.