General counsel are often expected to perform at the highest level (24/7). As a result, setting boundaries, ruthless prioritisation and learning to say ‘no’ are paramount in order to ensure retained focus on the areas that add most value to the business, manage resource/risk effectively, and to prevent burnout.
On 14th November 2023 Blake Morgan was delighted to host two roundtable discussions at “The Lawyer In-house Counsel as Business Partner” conference. The roundtables brought together a range of organisations across various sectors with individuals from all stages of their careers, who brought different viewpoints to dissect and discuss on the focus topic, “how to let go, and the principle of progress, not perfection”.
The key themes of our discussions were:
• How in-house lawyers can effectively set boundaries:
- The acknowledgment by legal advisers that perfection is not attainable but delivering as close to this as possible is the preference and is dependent on the maturity of the business.
- A popular suggestion was to approach each task based on the Pareto Principle, in that 80% of outcomes result from 20% of all causes. This helps lawyers identify inputs that are potentially the most productive and therefore to make these their priority, rather than focusing on the harder to achieve final 20% of a task. This would follow a ‘risk-based’ approach to delivering advice. The important point to note was that whilst a risk-based approach for internal and external legal advice may be preferable, sufficient legal work must be undertaken to ensure that the advice is right.
- Trust is required, both of the legal team, but also of the business, to empower and give autonomy to business units to perform what otherwise might constitute legal advice, but within certain defined risk frameworks, such as referring to guidance notes and training materials to assist in the negotiation of certain contracts. It is recognised that when new in role, or junior, it can, however, be tricky to build effective networks. Leaders in the business can help set parameters here.
- An effective instruction process is helpful to enable a focused approach by the legal function as well as providing a helpful audit and data trail. This, alongside productive communications, is critical for an in-house legal function which is in control, responsive and able to prioritise appropriately in accordance with business needs.
• Thinking about capacity and volumes, how do you ‘let things go’ and allow work to be self-serviced?:
- There is an understanding that in-house lawyers may be general practitioners, not specialists in a particular subject area and have a core critical function that cannot be outsourced; so they will require external legal advice to safeguard capacity in line with the business’ priorities.
- In-house legal teams should focus on legal advice, and empower the business units to make ‘commercial’ decisions, and identifying the parameters for that, all depending on the sector and risk appetite of that business.
- Through an effective legal instruction or ‘ticketing’ process, the in-house legal team can concentrate on incremental progress for the business due to better prioritisation. This also aids greater accountability, reporting, and transparency.
- Senior management can support the legal function to help agree and make the correct priorities where workstreams may clash.
• Learning to say ‘no’ when you are brought into conversations you don’t need to be part of, and which needlessly waste resources and capacity:
- In-house lawyers should be aware of, and be able to refer to, the strategic priorities for the business which will help support their prioritisation of legal instructions.
- The importance of personal connections and communications is not to be underestimated.
- The senior stakeholders as well as the GC/Head of Legal, can support the legal function to prioritise, and push back on certain tasks, through effective empowerment.
- Legal instructions should already establish the commercial position and risk appetite, which means that busy in-house legal teams are able to focus on the relevant legal advice, as opposed to commercial advice which can create inefficiencies and unnecessary workload.
As a final comment, the overarching observation was that C-suite and senior stakeholders should be able to facilitate the effective delegation of responsibilities by Legal, so that other teams become autonomous with certain delegated legal tasks, (but within a controlled risk framework). C-suite and Legal need to be clear what is for Legal and what is commercial. Legal need to be empowered to say ‘no’ in line with organisational priorities. Personal outcomes for in-house lawyers who are working to a ‘perfection goal’ without proactive intervention may include stress, burnout and quietly quitting. For the organisation, Legal is vital to identifying risk, mitigation strategies and successful outcomes.
Thank you to all of the roundtable attendees who provided such an engaging and dynamic discussion.
If you would like to contact Penny, Rajiv or Natalie concerning anything raised during the roundtable, or are looking for any in-house legal or company secretarial support, they would be very pleased to hear from you.
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