/ Legal operations

Communications: thinking outside the inbox

This is one of 13 chapters from our eBook, 'Legal operations: how to do it and why it matters'. Download the full eBook here or explore the other competencies below.

Foreword | Introduction | Financial management | Vendor management | Cross-functional alignment | Technology & process support | Service delivery & alternative support models | Organisational design, support & management | Data analytics | Litigation support | IP management | Knowledge management | Information governance & records management | Strategic planning

Jason Macarthur, Senior Consultant, Legal Operations and Transformation, takes a look at how you can take communications outside the inbox with new ways of communicating. The views in this article are the author's own, and do not represent the views of Juro nor those of CLOC.

In-house legal departments are making a shift happen globally. Fueled by a belief in a ‘better way’ of working, and awake to the value of procurement, the corporate buyer of legal services is on a mission. Gone are the days of in-house legal departments operating in self-serving silos, dictating the pace of business, and being largely unaccountable. At the heart of the shift is a shared vision - legal service delivery should be organised to deliver value to the organisation’s business units and the consumers of its products and services. While big companies like GSK and DuPont have been transforming legal buying since 2008, the rise of legal operations globally is a recent phenomenon. Unprecedented collaboration and sharing of ideas and learnings between motivated GCs, change agents, academics and thought-leaders has spawned a global movement that’s delivering a platform, culture and business case for change.

In this fast-growing community, peers and newcomers often ask me: “What’s the single most critical factor in legal operations?” “Procurement or resource management?” “Process or project management?” “Alternative suppliers or pricing?” “Cloud platforms or bespoke solutions?”

All these things are important considerations, but none is core. In my experience in legal consulting, LegalTech, BigLaw and NewLaw, the single most critical factor is communications. Communications are driving the global networks and movement I describe above, while internal communications are driving a change in the culture of the legal department and its value proposition to the business.

The purpose of legal operations is to optimise performance, risk and cost. It’s a journey, with short and long-term objectives, and multiple initiatives along the way. Whether ‘innovation’ or not, it boils down to doing new and different things to optimise legal service delivery. It can involve anything from basic process improvement to outsourcing the entire legal function to a managed services supplier. The benefits to the business, and its customers, are what really matters. Communicating those benefits at the outset, and managing stakeholder expectations, is non-negotiable for change managers.

How hard and how fast?

The capacity of the corporate legal department to innovate, and the rate of transformation, really depends on two key factors. Firstly, maturity - understanding options and impact, and the ability to assess risk and reward. Secondly, agility - organisational systems, process, capabilities and culture that reduce viable options and inform priorities and timing. Legal operations managers are asking the same questions with regard to their organisational maturity and agility. What can and should we do, in what order, and how hard and fast should we go? To answer those questions takes thorough investigation, multiple conversations with stakeholders and, perhaps most importantly, very good listening.

The late Peter Drucker once said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and legal innovators should take heed. The culture of traditional law runs deep and strong. Resistance to new technology, process mindset, project management and fixed pricing is still common amongst senior lawyers, and the ‘old way’ of working is fiercely defended. The key role of legal operations is change agent, and communicating the value of new approaches is critical. Getting the internal team engaged and on-board early is vital. If push-back comes from external law firms, and relationships are tested, in-house lawyers need to know and support the change process and be able to tell the innovation story. If the internal team isn’t on board, you can bet your external providers won’t be.

Legal operations leaders need to sell the vision internally and externally, and have a simple, compelling story. This is often unfamiliar and difficult territory for CLOs and GCs

Communications and influence are vital to shaping the culture that legal operations needs to execute the chosen strategy. Legal operations leaders need to sell the vision internally and externally, and have a simple, compelling story. This is often unfamiliar and difficult territory for CLOs and GCs, and may require input from marketing, corporate affairs and other departments. Without co-ordinated, multi-layer communications to sell the vision and ensure buy-in and adoption, most initiatives of legal operations are destined to fail.

There are many communications platforms that legal departments can employ both for everyday operations and transformation initiatives. Lawyers, researchers and process experts need electronic access to information that’s simple and quick. At the heart of efficient legal departments are processes and related know-how-guides, precedents, templates, forms and training materials - which are readily accessible and regularly updated, usually via an intranet. This is the legal department’s ‘bible’ - the one source of the truth. It’s the place new employees go to find out how things get done and by whom, without having to ask.

In communicating with the rest of the business, lawyers have long relied on email and in-person conversations. Some in-house teams publish newsletters on the company intranet to get their message to a wider audience. The best in-house departments are going much further to break down barriers, build trust, and ultimately foster better working relationships.

The great email escape

With lawyers’ inboxes rarely pretty, and email volumes creating a daily challenge for business managers, it’s worth considering new ways of communicating for different kinds of messages

To do this, it’s worth widening the scope of platforms beyond email and the intranet. With lawyers’ inboxes rarely pretty, and email volumes creating a daily challenge for business managers, it’s worth considering new ways of communicating for different kinds of messages. Some legal departments use project collaboration platforms and in-app messaging for all project work, capturing project communications and related documents in a central and accessible way. Similarly, for change communications, particularly around initiatives such as process mapping, technology pilots and training, it’s well worth experimenting with social media and messaging tools such as Slack and Yammer, which allow tailored communications to select groups. Not only can you take the pressure off everyone’s inboxes, you can engage with the business in a more conversational, two-way or multi-party conversation, which helps demystify and break down the legal silo. What’s more, these platforms tend to provide a bit of fun for the lawyers and their stakeholders, which goes a long way to getting everyone’s attention and leading to genuine adoption.

It’s also important to be flexible in how you communicate legal information and processes to the business. Managing legal processes at scale isn’t necessarily about defining ‘one way’, or prescribing every single task over which you have jurisdiction. Getting the balance right between autonomy and systemisation will help to keep stakeholders engaged and motivated - and more likely to comply with advice from legal.

Communicating with large groups of stakeholders is still a perennial problem for lawyers. Many lawyers baulk at using VC apps such as Zoom and Google Hangouts, preferring the relative anonymity of the teleconference. Just getting lawyers to switch on their laptop cameras in meetings can be an uphill struggle. This can be a real problem in a world of distributed teams, flexible working and globalised workforces, where the key to productivity is genuine trust, kinship and engagement. Many legal team meetings still take place the way they did 30 years ago. The rise of tech-enabled legal services companies and the advent of global delivery systems and a generation of tech-savvy workers make the old approach no longer acceptable. Lawyers have to find time to learn to use the apps and devices that will make them more efficient. Being too busy is no longer a badge of honour.

Just getting lawyers to switch on their laptop cameras in meetings can be an uphill struggle. This can be a serious problem in a world of distributed teams

Changing this mindset can mean making painful decisions about the legacy systems that stand between old and new ways of communication. It’s quite simple for a new fintech company to grow a small legal function that lives on Slack and Trello, but much harder for a century-old manufacturing corporation to do the same. Whatever the pain tolerance, the ‘more for less’ environment based on process transparency, predictability and business acumen will leave poor communicators in in-house legal teams dangerously exposed.

The momentum for making this happen, particularly in larger, more mature organisations, has to come from the top. Having strong leaders, willing to put themselves out there, try new things and challenge the status quo, is crucial to making change happen and communicating it properly. The importance of culture in legal, in particular in-house teams, is often underappreciated - but its impact can be huge. Legal leaders who excel in communicating, particularly to dispersed and culturally diverse teams, will succeed where others fail.

Bearing bad news

Your status as a collaborative business partner will occasionally be threatened by one of the burdens that all in-house lawyers must carry - being the bearer of bad news. At some point, every employed lawyer will have to stand up and say what their CEO, board or business unit manager doesn’t want to hear. It could be surfacing the bear trap in a merger target’s due diligence, or spotting a looming class action that would seriously undermine brand and reputation. That’s a question of integrity, and fulfilling a duty to both the employer and the profession. Communicating the message effectively and persuasively is one of the most valuable soft skills a lawyer can have. Imparting bad news poorly is a shortcut to destroying relationships, losing trust and undermining business confidence in the legal department and its leadership. The key here is to make sure you share pertinent information as early as possible, and as clearly as possible, focusing on facts and their implications. While legal operations is helping lawyers to add value in so many new ways, it’s important not to lose sight of one of the oldest roles a lawyer can play - being the bad cop.

Mastering communications in the modern environment, with new providers, ‘more for less’ and technology all adding challenges and opportunities, won’t be easy for many lawyers to do. Change management is always difficult and can lead to lawyers becoming disillusioned. As we gain a more mature understanding of the role of communications in legal operations, it would be useful to build communications training into legal education. Teaching lawyers how to use modern solutions, as well as the soft skills they need to deploy them with the right messages and at the right time, would be an addition to legal training with the potential to pay dividends.

GCs and business leaders contemplating the legal operations function, required capabilities and maturity can find immediate help online. CLOC’s 12 core competencies (including communications) and ACC’s maturity model (including change management) are both excellent guides. What they describe isn’t the role of a single person; rather, its the application of ordinary business principles to legal service delivery. For legal operations leaders, embedding a new mindset and vision, and embarking on change with inherently risk-averse stakeholders, requires leadership, empathy and resilience. For in-house teams to create and deliver value, they must learn to describe it. Only the best communicators and storytellers will thrive.

Explore the other legal ops competencies covered in our eBook, Legal operations: how to do it and why it matters:

Foreword | Introduction | Financial management | Vendor management | Cross-functional alignment | Technology & process support | Service delivery & alternative support models | Organisational design, support & management | Data analytics | Litigation support | IP management | Knowledge management | Information governance & records management | Strategic planning

Download the full eBook here.

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Jason Macarthur

Jason Macarthur

Jason Macarthur is Head of Legal Solutions at DWF. He was previously Head of Legal Operations at MinterEllison.

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