The legal function 2.0 – staffing for the future
A convergence of developments in the legal world is influencing the profile and demands of in-house lawyers. This is prompting General Counsel to look afresh at their teams to ensure they remain fit for purpose, says David Saunders, Head of Client Development at Konexo.
Without question, the legal landscape is in the midst of great change. Internal legal teams are seeing workloads grow and become steadily more complex. In addition, the increased globalization of law and regulation means that, today, in-house lawyers are expected to be able to operate across geographical boundaries, particularly in highly regulated industries where responses need to be tightly coordinated internationally.
Legal teams face the co-existent pressures of engaging in more strategic and complex areas of work, and needing to achieve more with less to address perennial cost challenges. At the same time, the expectations of lawyers are evolving, so keeping these professionals interested, motivated and challenged is another essential consideration.
Law Society figures published in 2018 confirm that in-house solicitors represent the fastest-growing category of legal professionals, predicted to account for one-third of solicitors by 2020. And while they must follow the work, lawyers will also want to feel they are developing a spectrum of relevant skills and experience they can be proud of and carry with them through their careers.
The type of work they do, and where they are employed, are as important as the salaries that emerging generations of legal professionals can command. Technology, or external providers’ use of technology, can help take the strain off routine legal work and deliver it more efficiently. This appeals to in-house solicitors, freeing up their time to focus on areas where they can make a real difference for the business.
Increasing influence demands different skills for in-house lawyers
Certainly legal teams, in common with other functions like accounting and HR, are expected increasingly to provide strategic input and be a proactive influencer to the business, guiding decision-making and providing supporting management information.
This changing status, from cost center to trusted business partner, involves a closer working relationship with other advisory functions, including compliance, finance and risk management. Research conducted by Eversheds Sutherland in 2018, via in-depth interviews with 140 in-house lawyers, found that over a third (48 of these lawyers) had seen their role increase in scope and influence since their appointment.
This evolution of the role demands new and more varied skills. Beyond an up-to-date knowledge of the law, today’s legal professionals need excellent communication and influencing skills, the ability to liaise effectively with business stakeholders, an understanding of the business agenda and commercial considerations, problem-solving skills, project and change-management experience (including capabilities in global regulatory intervention), a predilection for lateral thinking, and a flair for people management. Those who aspire to become General Counsel also tend to be courageous and curious, keen to take on new challenges and branch out into different areas of work.
Legal teams will also need to become more fluent in technology – not just tools that make their own lives more efficient (e.g. case management, contract creation and review tools), but also applications that their colleagues across the business use every day. This will enable more instinctive and habitual collaboration with other parts of the organization, while also enabling audit trails and increasingly sought-after management information to be captured.
Redesigning the legal function
Our prediction is that General Counsel will continue to position their teams towards more strategic work, moving higher up the food chain as other mechanisms, such as technology or external providers, take over more of the lower value, lower risk legal workload. This could even be pushed back out to the business, as technology makes processes more intuitive and automated.
As companies plan for this continued evolution, they may need to reshape their existing legal operations to reflect the way the market is going, and start developing the additional skills and qualities that future teams may need.
Resisting change is futile. Disruption is already happening, very visibly, across professional services and the in-house legal market. The key to keeping pace with the developments is to have a full picture of current capabilities and a clear vision for how this needs to evolve. This, combined with a practical plan and the right kind of help, will enable the transition to be as painless as possible and achieve the desired positive outcomes.