How legal can enable HR

Beth Clutterbuck, 24 November 2020

Collaboration between legal and HR is imperative, especially as the business scales. Relativity's CHRO, Beth Clutterbuck, explains how legal teams can enable and support people teams globally.

This is an interview from our eBook - Revealed: what the business actually wants from legal.

What was your first experience working with an in-house lawyer?

Before I worked at tech scaleups, I worked in more mature, big organizations like Citigroup, Honeywell and HSBC. That would be where I first encountered a legal team. In that kind of environment, my first impression of legal was really more focused on risk, compliance and setting the parameters of things you can’t do. In union settings, as an HR generalist there would be the extra layer of fear to make sure processes are followed to the letter.

But in fast-growth companies, particularly where the product or service is new or disruptive, you have to live in the grey, because there is no black and white. Chief legal officers I’ve worked with, and in fact lawyers in general in high-growth tech companies, are solution oriented. They don’t say no, but solicit your outcome, understand the risk appetite and suggest possible solutions along that risk spectrum. I’ve found legal teams in this kind of company to be solutions based, rather than looking to keep you in a legal box they’ve strictly defined.

How often do you work directly with legal, and on which kind of issues?

I probably work with legal directly more now than ever before. Our legal team has an employee relations lawyer who I really think of as being part of my team, helping me constantly with understanding the implications of various initiatives. I work with my legal partners at least a couple of times a week depending on what we’re working on – sometimes it’s daily.

I’m not necessarily asking them to get involved reactively to help me handle a given situation. That might happen from time to time, but more commonly they’re proactively helping with providing context on future projects – for example, if we’re entering a given jurisdiction, what do I need to know about data protection, employment law and so on?

“If you can’t leverage today’s technology to communicate and collaborate then it’s going to be really difficult to meet your objectives together”

How important is it for your team to work well with the legal team?

It’s vital. The reason I have, as a HR leader, adopted legal technology for contracts at several companies is that collaboration between legal and HR needs to be seamless and fast. If I’m working in London, and the legal team is in the US, then we must be able to synchronize what we’re doing through collaborative processes, otherwise we’ll waste half a day.

Talent is no longer defined by geography, so the ability to collaborate is non-negotiable. If you can’t leverage today’s technology to communicate and collaborate then it’s going to be really difficult to meet your objectives together. Legal needs to have this mindset too.

If you don’t find a way to work together effectively, what are the negative consequences?

The richness of the legal insight into what we’re trying to do would be marginalized. If it was too hard to work with the legal team, I wouldn’t ask for the input from the legal team in the first place, and I’d go ahead without them. My team and I might make mistakes, take risks or attempt to do things ourselves that really need legal oversight.

That could translate into missed hires, lawsuits, compliance breaches – or any number of issues that I couldn’t even foresee, as I’m not a lawyer. Without a good working relationship with legal you could be taking risks that you didn’t even know existed.

Are there parts of the legal process that you self-serve in HR?

Contracts are the obvious starting point – all the new hire contracts, promotions, salary changes and so on; once the basic template is agreed, all those documents are self-serve. Automation can help. For example, if you’re changing notice periods or post-termination clauses at scale, then those rules-based approaches can be automated. All of our legal compliance training and updates are self-serve for us – we gather the information we need from legal and then create content in HR to self-serve.

What are the issues where you find legal most helpful?

Plenty – I contact legal at least a couple of times weekly, maybe even daily. Ultimately it helps to push the risk tolerance of what you’re doing if you collaborate and communicate with legal frequently.

Often people don’t bring lawyers into what they’re doing because they don’t want to be told “no” or they feel like legal will slow the process down – perhaps the workflow isn’t automated and it feels too regimented. We don’t have that approach at all at Relativity – I see the chief HR officer, CFO and chief legal officer as the front line working to protect and grow the company. But that’s not universal. In lots of places, unfortunately, legal is still seen merely as a function that polices what people can and can’t do. It’s the same with HR and finance – so we really are all in this together.

Legal tell us they want to “enable the business”. How can lawyers best enable your team?

Work to understand the use cases from the stakeholders’ perspectives. Lawyers benefit from acting like salespeople – go in and solicit the requirements of the person you’re working with, understand their pain points and get clarity on the number one thing they can solve. Starting out with a customer-centric mindset, rather than just risk mitigation, is key – that’s what any collaborative support function should be doing.

How can legal teams make that happen?

A mixture of deep discovery and regular catch-ups. You should be putting in that work while you’re onboarding and then building trust as you go on. Getting to know each other as humans and having that steady drumbeat of delivery is how these relationships become mature and really valuable. Continually delivering for each other builds trust.

Legal as a function is the same as HR, in the sense that historically we waited for people to come to us, by which point something is already broken

Can you think of any experiences in the past where lawyers had room for improvement?

In the past I probably didn’t have the sophistication in my approach to understand how to bring in my legal partner more. In those large organizations earlier in my career it was so heavily structured, with legal departments that (from my point of view) weren’t necessarily user friendly. Ten or fifteen years ago, as far as I perceived it, legal was an impenetrable wall of “no”. When you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s really hard to bring in a partner.

The onus should be on the legal team to be proactive and help educate their stakeholders. Most of us don’t know the universe of things that legal teams can help with. We’re inquisitive but we don’t know the details.

What kind of qualities do you think a lawyer needs to work well with HR?

It would be incredibly counterproductive to have an adversarial relationship between the different functions. The best lawyers never start with “no”, they always start by asking what you want to do. If the answer still can’t be “yes”, they’ll spell out the consequences and why that’s the case, and help you get to an outcome that still achieves at least some of your goals.

What advice would you give to a lawyer joining a company when it comes to working with a people team at a scaleup?

Be very proactive from the beginning. Keep in mind that things will move and change extremely fast. Lawyers as a profession understand how to work really hard – that’s a result of the particular kind of training they go through. They’re used to working really hard and delivering with tight deadlines.

But I think they’re also used to receiving information rather than going and getting it. Legal as a function is the same as HR, in the sense that historically we waited for people to come to us, by which point something is already broken. In a fast-growth company, you need to be proactive because things break constantly – that’s what you have to do to grow fast. The more you’re out ahead of it informing people of the landscape, the more likely people will be to take a breath and ask legal for their expertise and judgement. Otherwise they won’t take the breath and when something breaks, everything stops. It is a much better approach to be proactive and avoid that!

This is an interview from our eBook - Revealed: what the business actually wants from legal. Download and find out what HR, sales operations, C-suite and more expect from in-house legal teams.

Topics: Legal operations

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