REUTERS | Christian Charisius

Four practical steps to improve effectiveness in your legal team this week

Doing more with less has been the rallying cry of the in-house world for over ten years. The challenge of increasing regulation and decreasing budgets has never gone away and is now our permanent state.

But doing more with less feels impossible when your desk is permanently swamped with work. Firefighting gets in the way of thinking strategically and thinking differently. Most teams can still make big efficiency improvements but it requires painful self-reflection about the real value of a lawyer and equally hard decisions.

Lawyers are a highly trained, highly motivated and a highly paid resource that should be deployed strategically. However, even in-house lawyers can get stuck on a treadmill of low-complexity matters such as reviewing and approving non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Worse, they are often doing low-complexity work that everyone thinks is high or medium complexity. That is where the biggest savings in cost and time truly sit.

Where is the value?

Find the valuable work, and do that.

A glib statement that seems obvious and yet is often overlooked in the day-to-day pressure of work. Finding the value doesn’t need to be a complicated costs drafting process. It can start by simply plotting your work using Maister’s 3E’s of professional work.

Imagine a pyramid divided horizontally into three segments. The small slice at the top represents the truly expert work of the lawyer. This is the ground-breaking work that can only be done by a handful of people. “Expertise” work is the most complex, the rarest and brings the most value.

The middle section, which is slightly bigger, is the “Experience” slice of work. These are not the most complicated tasks but are best completed by someone with a lot of experience as they may require decisions and judgment that cannot be easily mapped on to a decision tree. Work travels down the pyramid, so this is where the “Expertise” work will move to once it has been completed a few times.

Lastly, at the bottom of the pyramid is the largest section: the “Efficiency” work. This is low-complexity work that can be codified into processes and checklists, and carried out by paralegals or even technology.

In an ideal in-house scenario, the very tip of the pyramid should be outsourced to external law firms, the middle of the pyramid should be carried out by the internal legal team and the bottom of the pyramid should be done by a mixture of paralegals, legal process outsourcing and technology solutions.

Work will travel down the pyramid over time as people become more experienced with the complex work, eventually codifying it into processes, checklists, training and even computer automation. In-house teams are hugely incentivised to move work down the pyramid because lawyer time is such a precious and expensive resource.

The first thing to do is examine the work you do, from the complex matters to the process driven ones, and see where they sit on the pyramid. For anything that sits in the bottom third of the pyramid (Efficiency work), you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this honestly need doing at all? A surprising number of tasks add little or no value. Now is the time to check if that applies to anything in the bottom of your pyramid. If you find worthless tasks, stop doing them.
  • Does only part of this need doing; is the rest wasted effort? Sometimes only a small part of a task is valuable. Can you unpack what is necessary and simply stop doing what is not? Can you change or streamline a process to get rid of unnecessary work?
  • Can this be put into a process or template and someone more junior trained to do it? There are many options for outsourcing low-complexity work (for example, north shoring or even just training your own people to carry it out). Many tasks can be done by bright and well-trained graduates with proper support and training.  Are you missing out on delegating because you have assumed work must be done by a lawyer?
  • Can this be automated or done by technology? Many of us already have access to a lot of technology and use a fraction of its functionality. Is there an existing technological solution in your company that you don’t know exists or a cost-effective solution on the market?
  • Are you gold-plating work unnecessarily or is “good enough” better? Lawyers tend toward perfectionism. High quality work is important and has its place but it is important to recognise what is “good enough”. For Efficiency work and even some Experience work (the medium complexity tasks in the middle of the pyramid), the gold-plated perfectionist service adds no value and wastes time.

Moving Efficiency work to more junior staff, technology or even outsourcing it altogether might involve some initial time investment or cost. However, the gains will appear at the top end of the pyramid when you shift work down from external lawyers to your in-house team. This reduction in external legal fees will more than likely offset your time and cost investment lower down the pyramid. It will also improve staff retention rates as the in-house team enjoy more interesting and challenging work.

Assess your work again

Nothing distorts lawyers’ perception of their value more than the chargeable hour. Even if you have worked in-house for a long time it is likely that you are still carrying this distorted view with you.

Look again at the pyramid and instead of finding reasons to keep the work in the categories you started with, find reasons to move it down.

Even some Experience work can be done by a well-trained non-lawyer or paralegal.

Empower the business

Demystifying the law for the rest of the business is a key part of the in-house lawyer’s role but go a step further and empower your legal colleagues with the law. Are there precedents or guidance that you can produce to give them the tools to do Efficiency work or even Experience work from the pyramid?

Empowering commercial colleagues to undertake low-complexity legal work with your support will:

  • Ensure the business is better educated about risk and can contribute more fully to finding solutions.
  • Free-up lawyer time to be spent on more complex work.
  • Give the business a better understanding of the value of legal work. Rather than the hourly rate model, which treats an hour of low-complexity work the same as an hour of ground-breaking legal work, everyone can visualise the difference and value in the layers of the pyramid. More sophisticated consumers of legal services make everyone’s job easier.

Set targets

Achieving more with less relies on pulling apart deeply ingrained aspects of a lawyer’s nature and re-shaping them. For example:

  •  Cutting out tasks that don’t add value.
  •  Saying “No”.
  •  Delegating work.
  •  Reviewing the value you truly bring.

Setting targets will put change at the front and centre of your team, rather than being the project that is left behind because everyone is too busy. Remember: “what gets measured gets done.”

Targets will vary from team to team. You can set individual targets for lawyers or small teams (for example, delegate six items of work per month to a paralegal or designate entire categories of work to be passed down to more junior staff or business colleagues, such as all NDAs). The key is to be clear about what you need to be doing and how you are going to measure it.

Becky Annison

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