4 Paths Legal Ops Can Take to Win Finance’s Trust
It always seemed logical to me that Finance should be Legal’s best friend. They’re the only two departments with a view into all others; they’re frequent participants in the company’s most sensitive conversations and play the unenviable role of the risk-averse voice of reason.
But, despite their common traits and experiences, an inability to understand the other’s native language often keeps these potential friends apart.
That’s why I’ve taken it upon myself to act as a translator in all my legal operations roles. I strove to open the dialogue, asking and answering every question necessary to eliminate confusion. I worked to win their trust, displaying the dependability and transparency that any friend would want to see.
After navigating this process at four very different companies, I can now connect the dots and spot a few consistent paths I’d recommend to any of my legal ops peers, hoping to strengthen their Legal-Finance relationship.
Embark on a Listening Tour
A bias for action is central to our identities as legal ops pros. We see opportunities for optimization all around us and can’t help but get excited about installing new systems and processes we know can make a difference.
In this instance, your first move should be to ignore that instinct.
Building relationships is already hard enough, so there’s no sense in immediately putting Finance on the defensive by sharing a laundry list of suggested changes. If you lead with listening, instead, you’ll counter expectations and keep your friend at ease.
Active listening is more than just good manners, though. It’s also what stops you from designing solutions in search of problems.
As someone who has worked for brick-and-mortar retailers, tech startups, and an entertainment brand, I assure you that every corporate finance team has quirks worth discovering. Even their common elements are often articulated in slightly different ways. So, create space for them to explain.
You might learn that a workflow you initially assumed was ripe for replacement actually makes sense in context. Or you might catch a seemingly subtle requirement that becomes the key to an entire initiative. But you’ll inevitably look back on your listening as time well spent.
(Re)introduce the Role of Legal Ops
Listening tours take a great deal of humility. They force us to leave the comforts of our department, defer to someone else’s expertise, and ask potentially annoying or embarrassing questions.
Given the relative newness of our industry, we must acknowledge the possibility that not everyone in Finance understands our role or even knows that it exists.
Helping finance understand legal operations’ essential function is a big opportunity. The relative lack of legal ops awareness means we have the power to make an enduring (and possibly first) impression. But it’s also a big responsibility because the expectations set here will set the tone for the future.
Help Finance learn your function to the same level you explored theirs. Highlight the most likely areas of overlap. Specify the unique value they can depend on you to provide. And root out any misconceptions that could leave them feeling confused or disillusioned down the line.
The inception or expansion of your team always provides a natural opportunity to clarify the role of legal ops for your colleagues. But don’t forget that implementing new processes or technologies can also become an opportunity to reacquaint the company with your capabilities.
Deliver On Time (and Correct the First Time)
If you want to be trusted, consult a thesaurus. Dependable. Credible. Reliable. The clues are all there. And the most straightforward way to win those endorsements from Finance is to provide consistently complete, accurate, and punctual responses to their requests.
Assuming you made sufficient time to listen earlier, the work here will be over halfway done. For example, maybe you have already confirmed that accruals are due on the 25th of each month, and vendors should be categorized by practice area when possible. All that’s left to do is what you do best — design the process that helps your people hit the mark.
Once you consistently get Finance the numbers they need, without reminders or revisions, they’ll quickly see Legal as a standout department that deserves trust.
Be More Transparent
We need to acknowledge one other critical factor regarding corporate finance teams. Many other departments tend to withhold details from Finance, shielding bad news as long as possible and providing only as much context as is strictly necessary.
In-house legal teams should recognize this dynamic better than anyone, which is why we are responsible for breaking the pattern and being more generous with what we share.
Admittedly, this is something I’ve consciously had to work on over the years. I won’t pretend I’m immune to the fear of Finance potentially clawing back the budget or denying a request after receiving new information.
But I also know that deviations from the original plan are often the best catalysts for lasting trust. Navigating uncertainty and adversity together has a way of building uncommonly strong bonds.
One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon was when I proactively flagged an area where Legal had an over-allocated budget. The resulting conversation gave Finance a closer view into how we thought through and justified expenses as a department. I’m confident this transparency was why we experienced minimal pushback in the following years.
They saw we weren’t a team prone to making frivolous requests or sitting on unexpected surpluses. They trusted that any allowances we did insist upon were worth funding.
And while I encourage you to share more than you must, I’ll also say that you can start smaller than you think. Include an explanatory note about the outlier in the middle of the monthly spend report. Flag a matter that’s trending over budget. Highlight a law firm that proved to be a difficult negotiating partner.
Humility and accountability on any scale are rare, refreshing, and easy to admire.
Four Rewards for Trusted Teams
The above recommendations will stretch your social and professional skills in new directions. The process of discovering them has undoubtedly tested me at times. But I promise that at least four advantages await any function that makes a trusted friend of Finance.
- Efficiency. When Finance no longer has to chase you for reports, clarifications, or corrections, they recoup valuable time savings they won’t soon forget. The same will be true inside your department. Your work designing standardized solutions to administrative obligations will leave in-house lawyers with more bandwidth to focus on strategic priorities.
- Autonomy. Once Finance trusts that you understand their priorities and sees that you deliver consistently reliable responses, don’t be surprised if they become a less frequent fixture in your operations. You’ll have earned the right to execute with greater independence.
- Flexibility. Any team with a record of humility, accountability, and transparency can call on Finance to help navigate challenging situations and discover creative solutions.
- Advocacy. Like any loyal friend, Finance will stand up or stand in for its allies during difficult times. During periods of economic recession or business contraction, there’s no other friend you’ll be happier to have made.
One Final Key to Faster Friendships
The paths I’ve described are accessible to organizations at any level of legal ops maturity. Empathy, curiosity, and humility are essential for a successful journey and are available to everyone. But I would be disingenuous to discount technology’s role in determining your travel speed.
I’m lucky to say I’ve only had to make the case for an eBilling platform once. Most of my companies already had a system in place before I joined. But as someone who formerly had to do without it, I know the difference is night and day.
Every degree of automation you can add to recurring tasks like tax calculation, cost categorization, invoice review, and accruals collection exponentially reduces the time you have to spend satisfying the basics. Every extra data point you can capture adds credibility to the updates, forecasts, justifications, and recommendations you share with Finance.
And if all that weren’t enough, the many sources of potential cost savings might ultimately inspire Finance to be the friend who helps you secure executive buy-in.