5 ways legal teams can increase their impact for times of change

Times are hard. Corporates are under pressure to keep ahead in the performance game while facing pressure from potential, if not actual, recessionary times. All amidst a background of constant change.

So how can legal teams be best prepared to continue supporting their organisations, demonstrate their value and deliver positive strategic impact as we face uncertain and volatile times?

Expect Change

It brings to mind experiences from the aftermath of the global financial crisis (2007 version – I add this clarification since the last time I mentioned ‘financial crisis’ to someone, they asked “which one?”).

The signals from our business colleagues were twofold and at different extremes. First, they were going to expand the budget for my team in order to participate in the market land grab created by the collapse of Lehmans. Not long after that there arrived a mandate to the global group legal department to participate in a companywide cost cutting exercise. Talk about mixed messages.

Both situations, despite being at the opposite ends of the spectrum, served to illustrate a basic point which in-house legal teams and their leaders experience on an ongoing basis: situations can change fast, things are different from how they used to be, and any form of long-term stability is a luxury. Therefore, expect change…and then more change.

Seeing the opportunity in change

Change is often met with a level of resistance, concerns and a load of (in the initial stages) unanswerable questions about what is going to happen. The human response is generally one of discomfort. The uncertainty captivates the mindset and has a way of debilitating people.

The ability to get people to see the positive power of change represents a massive swing from resistance to positive engagement and therefore from slow and faltering implementation to swift execution.

In short, whatever change is afoot, the best gambit is to accept and get on with it. This is a perfect time for the ‘yes and’ approach. Here are our 5 best practice tools for legal teams to improve the outcomes when faced with change.

#1 Prepare for change

Change is largely a psychological phenomenon. As much as facts change, what really matters is people’s emotional reaction.

One antidote to this is: get people ready for change by making change and giving them ‘change skills’.

This, I know, is counterintuitive to lawyers – they look for certainty, stability in patterns of knowledge, they expect to be right, to have superior knowledge, they follow precedent. They live in a relatively rigid framework of activity and beliefs. Unfortunately, the organisational structures we develop to deploy and manage lawyers in legal teams often reinforce this rigidity by way of fixed clientele, fixed specialisation, fixed and limited knowledge and little stress-testing around changing existing patterns. Departures from the ‘comfort zone’ are few and far between. No wonder change feels difficult when you expect this rigidity to be the norm.

The solution? Think of ways to make the changes and get people used to deliberate change and the cycle of continuous improvement. Start with small initiatives and increase with time. Cross-train staff in new knowledge, swap roles, role share, mix things up. I know business clients get very uncomfortable with the inconvenience of having to deal with different lawyers from time to time, but I think this is also a mistake. As a whole, the organisation should have a vested interest in flexibility, adaptability, avoiding staleness and increased resilience.

#2 Develop the License to Operate

In-house legal teams serve a purpose. Often this purpose is not well detailed. There are some obvious points which purpose will address – the operational needs of a business, the required legal operations and the management of legal risk, but this list could be much broader.

If the change being faced by an in-house team is cost-cutting, the main question will be: how can we continue to operate AND manage the legal risk with less resource. But the question should be the other way round: what is the legal resource required to maintain the required level of legal risk management and protection? The obvious next question would be: ‘what is the required level of legal risk’. Frankly, I don’t think many in-house teams have the answer to this. But, if you do not find a way to correlate the concept of resource with legal risk, you are liable to lose the argument that the cost cutting exercise is impacting legal risk negatively. Equally, if you don’t have an objective basis for deciding these key questions, how can you be valued?

I advocate that in-house teams put a lot of effort into their License to Operate. This is a reasoned model for the justification, with facts and measurements, why the in-house team should exist which, amongst other things, should show how the in-house team’s capability (or lack thereof) impacts legal risk – positively or negatively. They say that what gets measured gets managed, but the License to Operate moves this to: what gets measured gets valued.

#3 Be creative

Creativity is the highest expression of human cognitive behaviour. It ought to be natural for everyone to want to be good at it. Yet often people are expected to protect their position and resist change instead of grasping opportunities to be creative.

Thankfully creativity is not a one in a million gift – it is a learnable skill. It makes sense therefore to educate everyone skill of creativity to democratise the creation and execution of great ideas.

A well-known method for boosting creativity is the introduction of constraints. The power to come up with new ideas actually increases as you reduce the resources and opportunities at hand – but it only works best for those who are already experienced creatives. It strikes me as a compelling proposition – if we are now going through tough times (constraints), the sooner we get creative the better the outcomes we can produce under these constraints.

#4 Design Thinking

I raise this for two reasons. First, it is a great context in which to learn creativity. Secondly it is a great method for creating change.

Design Thinking is not the only method or model to facilitate change, but, I recommend you adopt and learn your preferred models. Other examples from which to draw inspiration – which all have common DNA – are lean thinking, six-sigma, the Toyota Way and continual or continuous improvement. The point is to encourage a method which promotes the greatest participation as there is such great power in modelling and sharing patterns of behaviour. It is, after all, the basis of the most powerful of motivators – culture.

The distinguishing feature of Design Thinking is that it is empathic – it promotes the actual experience of people, and it accepts no unconfirmed constraints. We tend to live with hide-bound attitudes in that we will accept limitations without really questioning them. Design Thinking gets you out of that fixed mindset. It is also a good way of investigating and establishing the ‘value chain’ – what is it that your customers, stakeholders, team members value and it informs the decisions you make about the License to Operate.

#5 Get Off Road

Our work at Off Road Legal is based on the belief that there is very little evidence to say that the current approach to practising law is the correct one.

We are not saying we are right on this point or that we know better – we just appreciate that if you allow yourself to get into the mindset that ‘things are just fine’ you have opened the door to staleness and further along this path lies the idee fixe – we don’t need to change or think about change.

Instead entertain your own pioneering or adventurous spirit and allow for all possibilities. The more conservative amongst you might imagine that behaviour of this nature could be puzzling to business clients who expect sobriety from their lawyers. But remember this, the currency of business is not money, the currency of business is the creation and exploitation of new ideas. If you follow these ideas with a view to helping your business clients come up with better ideas, it is a great value creation opportunity for you and them.

And you could go further. With your creativity and openness you can start to study more deeply the value chain in what is within the control of the legal team. Might there not be opportunities to turn those special insights, with a little creativity, into something itself of commercial value and ‘sell’ it? This is already being done and I believe there are many more possibilities to uncover from this line of thinking.

About the author

Andrew Wingfield is a solicitor and co-founder of the legal services consultancy business Off Road Legal. After starting his career in a Magic Circle firm, Andrew specialised in managing in-house legal teams and conducting large change and transformation projects. Off Road Legal provides a range of services related to transformation, technology, implementation and value creation to support in-house teams and law firms in adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age.

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Find Andrew on LinkedIn.

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