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From Roadblock to Road Builder: 3 Ways to Change C-Suite Perceptions of In-House Legal

“Don’t worry what other people think, just focus on doing great work.” It’s a comforting thought, but it’s counterproductive advice for in-house legal professionals. Because if you can’t improve the perception of in-house legal among the names across the top of the company org chart, they’ll likely continue to consider the legal department an obstacle to business success, making reality worse for all involved.

First in line for budget cuts. Last to hear about key developments. Politely tolerated but purposely avoided. These dynamics are not only personally painful to in-house legal professionals, they also inevitably harm the business by limiting the potential value a legal department can deliver.

So to help steer your team clear of the dreaded roadblock reputation, here are three reliable tactics we’ve seen work for our customers.

#1: Redesign Your KPIs

What if the problem is less about performance and more about presentation? It’s a question worth asking before making any major operational changes. Because the honest answer might be that your team is already executing well and all you really need to bolster your reputation is a more effective method of communicating that success to colleagues.

A great starting point for a messaging makeover is your key performance indicators (KPIs). These admittedly imperfect instruments won’t capture the full value of your team’s efforts, but their collective voice will echo loudly across the C-suite. Best to be sure, then, that they’re telling the right story.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you start manipulating statistics or overstating accomplishments. I’m merely encouraging you to be more thoughtful when composing the performance snapshot seen by senior executives. And the most important criteria to prioritize here are brevity and relevance.

The more KPIs you report, the less likely it is for any one metric to be recalled by colleagues. And you can’t possibly change a perception if you haven’t left an impression. So be selective.

Once you have a short list, see if you can rephrase or reframe each metric in terms business colleagues can appreciate. Placing a spotlight on contracting efficiency, for example, could be a useful measure of legal operations progress and an indication that you’re invested in revenue-generating priorities.

Finally, remember that you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to crafting KPIs. In fact, volunteering for joint ownership of a metric introduced by another department is a savvy way to forge relationships and silence any doubts about whether in-house legal teams have enough skin in the game.

#2: Demonstrate Financial Discipline 

Even within the most diligent and competent corporate legal departments, sometimes performance really is the root of a damaged reputation. And in the overwhelming majority of such scenarios, spend management will be the primary factor coloring your colleagues’ perceptions and helping improve the perception of in-house legal.

This makes sense for several reasons. Unlike most elements of corporate legal operations, financial stewardship is an obligation shared and understood by every member of the C-suite. It’s only natural for them to fixate upon universal topics like cost prediction and budget adherence. 

Plus, if we’re being honest, in-house legal professionals have historically struggled in this area. Only in recent years have legal departments started discovering and developing solutions suited to the uniquely unpredictable nature of their work. And in the interim, their colleagues have had to adapt financial reporting and planning exercises to account for Legal’s incomplete or unclear answers. The perception generated by issues like these can restrict an in-house legal team’s potential. As Bill Novomisle, Director of Legal Operations at Cresco Labs noted in a recent interview, “Until a GC is viewed as an equal and effective financial steward within the business, there’s going to be a limit on what they can accomplish.”

The good news is that advanced legal spend management solutions are now widely available, and the case for adoption is clear. Proving your mettle as a disciplined money manager is the shortest path to an unimpeachable reputation.

#3: Make Collaboration Rewarding 

Refining your reports and controlling your costs can help you build up valuable reputational credit with colleagues, but personal interactions will still be the most influential factor over the long term. Simply put, you want every business team that collaborates with your department to leave feeling better for the experience.
Pursuing that lofty standard starts by acknowledging the primary reasons why people elect to work around Legal in the first place: They either don’t know when and how to engage, or they fear doing so will only delay the realization of their business goals.
The first scenario is a matter of transparency. You can’t let Legal continue to be a black box if you want colleagues to arrive at appropriate times and through proper channels. It’s your responsibility to make doing the right thing feel obvious and easy. 

The second scenario is a matter of efficiency. As all in-house counsel learn early in their tenures, developing a talent for issuing fast responses — even when provided with incomplete or imperfect context — is an absolute requirement for success in the role. It’s also a talent you’ll have to display repeatedly before cementing the desired perception among your business collaborators.  

If that all sounds like a very tall task, I can’t say that you’re wrong. But I can at least leave you with cause for optimism; the amount of technical and strategic innovation surrounding legal operations today really is staggering when compared to even just a few years earlier. The solutions are finally rising to the scale of the challenges.
And lastly, the direction of travel is ultimately more important than the speed of progress if you want to improve the perception of in-house legal teams. Even incremental improvements can be appreciated and celebrated by colleagues when framed effectively. Which is just one more reminder to redesign those KPIs — and be sure to track client satisfaction rates when you do.

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