The rise of the in-house legal team
If you are a regular visitor to the Halebury blog, you will have seen our recent conversation with BT General Counsel, Dan Fitz. From speaking to Dan and his counterparts across the legal profession, it is clear to see how the role of in-house legal teams is changing.
How times have changed for in-house lawyers
Go back just 15 years and the role of the in-house lawyer was viewed, in some parts, as a second grade career path for those that wanted better hours; the route perhaps for an easier, more pedestrian life where you gave (and paid a hefty price) for law firms to do the bulk of the work, particularly that of some complexity. Yet today the in-house role is coveted.
The move by a number of senior lawyers from private practice in-house, along with the ‘more for less’ culture that has pervaded business since the global economic crisis, has changed the in-house legal market. A new breed of in-house legal team is combining the best elements of private practice with a more collaborative approach to delivering legal services. As a result, many in-house legal teams have gone from cost centres to revenue generators. They have become enablers and the value in legal services is ever more apparent.
General Counsel now part of the Management Team
One welcome trend from this new approach has been the elevation of the GC to the Management Team, reflecting the business-wide reach legal teams now have. We have seen in-house teams ripping up the rule book and approaching the provision of legal services from a blank canvas. Such an approach recognises that every business has its own unique way of doing things and the legal team can build a provision around that. Anyone who says it can’t be done need only look as far as Dan Fitz at BT and how he’s developing BT Law.
The challenges for in-house lawyers
However, a new approach is not easy to embed and is not without its challenges. “But we have always done it this way” is no longer an acceptable attitude to the delivery of legal services. That applies whether you are in private practice or in-house. We are sure that when Tyco, one of the first legal in-house innovators, secured their partnership with Eversheds there were teething problems. However, fortune favours the brave and those responsible for the provision of legal services have to at least be willing to innovate.
The 3Cs – Commerciality, Collaboration and Chemistry
It takes a combination of commerciality, collaboration and chemistry to drive innovation. Successful in-house teams are often seated open-plan with colleagues from other disciplines, allowing them to open their ears and eyes to how others operate across the business. This is particularly prevalent in the TMT sector where we operate; here the legal team is likely to be seated amongst the sales or technical team. While we can understand that many lawyers recoil in horror at such a thought, it shows the lawyers’ role as an integral part of the business and allows for a far more collaborative approach.
Many people talk too about how people buy people, yet there is much more to it than simply getting along with someone. In our experience, building true chemistry is not for the faint hearted and is certainly not about a day in the field building a raft or a good session down the pub. It requires time and effort. Seek first to understand and then to be understood is a guiding principle here.
And yes, sometimes clients or colleagues just want the answer to their immediate problem but that might not always be right for the business. This is where you will be glad you have worked on chemistry as it will be essential to push back and play the longer game. Think more about what is best for the business, rather than what is best for me, is another guiding principle.
While this innovative approach is in its relative infancy, we see it as an indicator of how in-house legal teams could start to rival law firms by offering their services out to other businesses and becoming not just revenue savers but generators too. A revolution in legal services is not just on its way, it is already here.