Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Editor's Note: Originally published in February 2017, these tips are still important for today's legal teams. As the era of business transformation continues to unfold, their help will be instrumental in ushering new periods of success for their organizations.
There is plenty to be said about how the litigation attorney’s day-to-day has evolved with the advent of big data, increased litigation, and high-tech e-discovery. Undoubtedly, in-house legal teams have undergone the same evolution—so how has this changed what the modern corporation needs from its legal department?
In short, a highly effective in-house team requires more than just legal prowess. What other qualities are key in producing value for their companies?
#1: Understand the Breadth of Legal Specializations—And Be Prepared for Them to Change
“Except for very small companies, my view is that a general counsel should have at least 25 years of high-quality experience across a number of practice areas, including corporate, transactions, and employment, and at least reasonable experience with general compliance issues, intellectual property, insurance, litigation, and dispute resolution,” said David Hejna, general counsel at Relativity.
A legal team, David argues, is needed to provide key support to the GC and his or her many functions: “As a company grows, the GC hires, by necessity, more legal personnel to specialize in various areas.”
In addition to learning the ropes of these many areas, in-house legal teams must keep up with a constantly evolving landscape of regulation, globalization, and technology.
Lori Rice, a paralegal at a high-tech chemical manufacturing company, explains. “The laws are constantly changing. One of the challenges we face especially are international data privacy laws. With the Privacy Shield coming and Safe Harbor being invalidated, that’s a big issue for a lot of companies here in the US. Incoming in-house attorneys or hopefuls should have knowledge of existing data privacy issues and case law surrounding that,” she says.
Good advice for current and aspiring in-house legal professionals is to stay abreast of changes and be ready to adapt to the constant evolution of the law, always evaluating how those changes are going to affect existing processes and procedures.
#2: Be Thrifty and Get Hands-on When Necessary
Corporate legal teams feel the crunch to cut expenses along with every other business segment. They’re finding ways to be value-producing departments who can impact company effectiveness in big ways.
Says Lori: “The cost of defending the company can vary widely. In my experience, the law department has to work with departments outside of legal to manage legal spend. A few members of our department are responsible for assisting our financial management groups with tracking spend data, for example. To combat the fact that financial resources are limited but are needed to defend the company, we do what we can to bring in reduced risks and costs, improved data control and security, and time savings.”
The squeeze on budgets isn’t only coming from the business realm, though. The courts have also made a statement on what it means to put a reasonable budget on legal matters in today’s litigation landscape.
“Understanding the proportionality of a case is important now—that means knowing which cases are going to be worth going into an e-discovery battle and which ones aren’t,” Phill Souvanaphong, an e-discovery project manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, notes. “Think about what value your company will get out of every case compared to how much you’ll have to put into it.”
#3: Embrace Technology
Part of maximizing a legal team’s operational effectiveness is understanding and embracing the role technology now plays in their day-to-day functions.
“Technology is the key to high efficiency and productivity,” David says.
Depending on their collective skills, bandwidth, and budget, corporate legal teams can take a broad approach to technology adoption.
For example, Phill notes that his team “invests in the tech.” He explains: “We know we’ll use a robust e-discovery platform for just about every case, for instance, so knowing the technology internally is vital to us. We even use it to choose outside counsel for each matter—we ask how familiar they are with the tools we already have in-house, like Relativity.”
For Phill’s team, it’s all about maximizing ROI. “Because we decided to make an investment in those tools up-front, we require that outside counsel has knowledge of them as well.”
Meanwhile, Lori notes that, for smaller teams or those with different priorities, even a little insight can go a long way. “In-house legal professionals need not understand the back end of their IT infrastructure or software programs, but should understand the basic processes, workflows, and infrastructure on the front end to be able to talk to software vendors and ask the right questions. It’s important to ensure that vendors can provide you with the appropriate services and tools needed to perform your job duties timely and accurately before making an investment.”
Both Phill and Lori agreed that having enough knowledge to ensure efficient workflows—such as using analytics like email threading during e-discovery—helps legal teams be more productive and confident in their work.
#4: Match Your Excitement About Business to Your Excitement About the Law
David has noticed a positive trend in the way legal teams are viewed by the modern corporation.
“The legal role is an increasingly integral part of company, and we are increasingly viewed as proactive counselors who should be involved earlier as business strategies and policies are developed,” he says. “We interact with everyone in the company and take a collaborative win-win approach to understanding business goals and helping balance risks and benefits.”
In an article written for Inside Counsel, Nancy Jessen from UnitedLex agreed. She called GCs out on their responsibility to have a bigger impact on their companies:
If you are a GC and want to avoid the stereotypes and the “cost center” trap, you will likely need to retrain your own thinking.
Ask yourself these questions: Do you have a clear sense of your company’s strategic vision for the next five years? How can you add value to the company, the company’s business units, and create value for shareholders? How can the legal department help shape and contribute to that vision and make it a reality? Do you have a clear sense of how your organization and its competitors are actually making money? What exactly are your company’s customers looking for? How can you simplify all legal processes that touch both customers and suppliers to ensure that the business runs more efficiently? How does what you’re doing positively impact revenue?
While all of these questions represent a pretty radical new way of thinking for legal executives, they represent a necessary and long-overdue response to the new fast-paced, data-driven, hypercompetitive landscape that most corporations, and their legal departments, now occupy.
Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.