Sep 8, 2020

Strategic In-House Counsel: Going from Reactive to Proactive

By Ardy Taylor •

Working in a high-growth organization can be exhilarating and extremely rewarding. But at the same time, the constant and unpredictable changes that come with rapid growth also bring about unceasing waves of issues in-house counsel have to react and respond to.

When change is not managed efficiently, in-house counsel at high-growth organizations can find themselves embroiled in constant reactive tasks. This prevents them from performing more proactive, strategic activities that can position them as value-adding business partners. In fact, a Gartner survey found that 59% of in-house counsel today are purely performing tactical legal work and offering legal guidance, and are not involved in top-level strategy. 

This potential to be thrown off-track makes it important for in-house counsel to be good not only at managing change, but also laying the groundwork for sustainable processes that can put time back in their hands, allowing them to focus on long-term high-level strategic initiatives. 

What does it mean for in-house counsel to be a strategic business partner?

From a legal perspective, being a strategic business partner means incorporating the overall business goals and strategies in the guidance he/ she provides. So instead of purely dispensing legal advice, a strategic in-house counsel gets involved in high-level conversations about the organization’s future, mission and goals, and provides recommendations on how the organization should advance. 

For example, today’s corporate executives are looking to their in-house teams to contribute to business resiliency strategies, revenue generating strategic initiatives, as well as employee diversity and remote workforce plans. 

According to 2020 surveys conducted by BarkerGimore and Gartner, however, while 70% of CEOs want their in-house counsel to be more strategically involved in business decisions, just 8% of in-house counsel fill that role. 

One key solution to this problem, a Thomson Reuters study found, is that greater efficiency and productivity can help in-house teams focus on more strategic work. This can be done by implementing technology or re-engineering certain management practices as well as internal processes. 

At high growth organizations when rapid change is constant, here are 3 ways in-house counsel teams can rebalance their time toward strategic priorities by boosting operational efficiencies

1) Prioritizing business requests, setting expectations, and open communication with internal teams

One of the greatest challenges at a fast growth organization is effectively managing business needs that are quickly and consistently thrown at a small (or even solo) in-house legal team. (For example, when sales requires legal to draft an SOW to close a deal or marketing needs a vendor contract to be approved in order to meet an event deadline.) According to Gartner, most in-house counsel have their planned work interrupted at least 70% of the time by “urgent” issues, resulting in 44% of their time wasted on work they weren’t needed to do or should have delegated in the first place.

Empowering business teams to handle day-to-day requests like contract review and drafting is one simple change in-house counsel can make to cut down on wasted time. Contract management solutions offer template repositories legal teams can create for non-legal users to generate pre-approved contracts independently. This removes roadblocks for business teams, such as Sales, Procurement, HR, and Finance, and frees up time for in-house counsel to work on higher value-add projects, while ensuring the contracts being sent out are error-free and legally compliant.  

Aside from leveraging technology to automate contract generation, open communication and building trust with internal teams is also key. As businesses scale, effectively communicating why legal is prioritizing one task over another, as well as setting clear expectations on legal workload and priorities can help maintain a positive relationship with internal teams. 

For example, whenever a colleague repeatedly chases you on a non-urgent task, always respond by reminding them of the bigger picture, explain your circumstances and help them understand your priorities. A good strategy is to relay the message in a non-personal way. While it can be difficult to tell someone the thing they want to do is not the most important in the big picture, this constant communication can set expectations with your teams, encourage them to align better with your pace, and be more conscientious about spitting at you ad hoc requests that can throw off your timeline.  

Steve Siger, managing counsel at Thumbtack, explains, “It takes quite a bit of time to determine what ‘urgent’ actually means at a given company. The business partner is critical in helping legal figure out where their request falls on the continuum of needs, and open communication is the lynchpin to make it all come together.” 

2) Leveraging technology to create efficiencies and boost cross-functional dialogue

It’s no secret that in-house counsel can benefit from leveraging technology to streamline rote, repeatable work in order to free up more time to act as strategic partners to the organization. Especially at high-growth firms, a leaner team only heightens the importance of getting an extra pair of hands. Below are some technologies in-house counsel can utilize to work more efficiently, with better results, and at a lower cost.

Contract lifecycle management

The most forward-thinking in-house teams look to fast track their contract workflows — shepherding contracts through various approvals and business functions seamlessly via a contract lifecycle management (CLM) solution. A CLM solution helps legal teams automate contract review and approval; improve visibility; capture critical data points; and empower all stakeholders from C-suite down to individual contributors to participate in the contract process. Without a CLM, in-house teams are stuck in endless, time-sucking loops of paper-chasing, redline review and back-and-forth collaboration across multiple, disconnected platforms. 

By implementing a digital contract hub for the entire organization, in-house counsel can coordinate and connect every person, every step and every system relevant to contracts. This helps accelerate collaboration and frees up valuable time for in-house counsel teams. 

Learn how Outlaw CLM powers digital contracting for strategic legal teams

Intake and workflow automation 

Another must-have technology in-house counsel leverage is an intake and workflow automation tool. In-house counsel are constantly approached through different channels (e.g. email, phone, etc) with requests for legal advice. While many of these enquiries require legal attention, there are also many recurring ones which do not require case-by-case consideration. In absence of a standardized process for handling such repetitive legal requests however, all of them take up a certain amount of work and time for their manual processing and thus tie up valuable resources in the legal department.

Automated intake and workflow automation tools help in-house counsel triage much of the work coming onto their plates; enable efficient routing of work; reduce unnecessary email back-and-forths; enable tracking and reporting on requests; and provide centralized monitoring for outside departments, uniting the entire legal ecosystem. 

3) Choose the right technology for your high-growth business 

Of course, with technology adoption also comes the need to choose the right one for your organization from the get-go. In-house counsel at high-growth organizations need to consider the dynamic nature of their company and equip themselves with tools to support that.  

Choose technology that moves at the speed of business

In a fast-growth environment, policies, processes and templates change all the time. Therefore, in-house counsel teams need to choose a solution that can keep pace with a rapidly changing, fast-paced business setting. In-house counsel teams that adopt technology ill-equipped to respond to the pace of business are in a dangerous position and can hurt their own credibility.

While you may be tempted to choose the solution that has the broadest, most robust feature set, you’re also paying for bloat — features that you end up not using. Instead, look for tools that are flexible and can adapt to your processes. A solution that works for your business is one that solves your exact problems but is also agile and enables rapid modifications on an ongoing basis. 

Some of the questions you can ask in your evaluation include: Does the solution require extensive IT/ CX support? Can my team be largely autonomous in using the platform, without having to run to IT all the time? Can my team implement the solution and onboard quickly and simply? Does the solution enable granular control that can help my team modify contracts/ workflows on the fly while maintaining compliance? How easy and seamless is it to integrate with other tools? 

Choose technology that the whole team can get onboard with 

We’ve talked about how technology can connect in-house counsel teams with their business stakeholders in a cohesive, collaborative way to reduce the weight on legal’s shoulders. So the last thing you want in a new technology is your business teams not getting onboard because it’s too complex/ difficult to use, and defaulting to the original way of email/ manual requests.  

Choosing a solution that offers an intuitive, well-designed, consumer-grade experience is therefore crucial. When evaluating the solution, ask your key business stakeholders for their opinion. Evaluating the design, implementation and eventual support of the solution through the lens of user experience will also help you select a solution that your whole team can get onboard with.

Doing more with less 

The in-house counsel’s role has evolved from being traditional, reactive lawyers, to strategic, process-savvy business partners. And today, in-house counsel teams are expected to do more with less. 

But in an organization undergoing explosive growth, where there are rapid fires to put out and change is the only constant, it can be difficult for in-house counsel teams to find the time for proactive, strategic work. The unfortunate long-term result is a team that remains in a perpetual reactive stance and defaulting to muscle memory when challenges come up — the antithesis of being strategic. 

Setting an efficient process foundation from the get-go is thus important to enable in-house counsel to rebalance their time toward strategic priorities. At the same time, simple behavior changes can also make a dramatic difference in time management. A constant, open communication with business teams, adopting technology to automate time-consuming activities, as well as choosing the right technology from the beginning will form a strong foundation for a well-oiled, strategic in-house counsel team.

Ready to go from reactive to proactive? Automate your contracts on Outlaw.

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Written by Ardy Taylor

More about Outlaw

Voted G2’s #1 Momentum Leader for contract management, Outlaw provides pioneering end-to-end contracting solutions for the fastest growing companies such as Intrado, BeyondPricing, and Democracy International. From dynamic template-based generation through in-app negotiation, lifecycle management and reporting, Outlaw automates and customizes contract workflows helping companies reach agreement faster. Outlaw has been recognized as a legal technology leader in 2020 by the National Law Journal.

In 2021, Outlaw joined Filevine’s legal tech platform to radically improve the future of legal work. Together, Filevine and Outlaw become the first and only end-to-end solution to dynamically link documents, contracts, and databases with their surrounding business processes, resulting in easier workflow customizations, instant automations, and better collaboration.

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