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Building an In-House Legal Function From Scratch: Innovative Approaches to Ensuring Cost Control and Efficiency

How to Build an Innovative In-house Legal Function from Scratch

It’s nearly two years since I was hired by Tines as their first in-house lawyer and General Counsel, and tasked with building the legal function from scratch. I had worked with lots of tech scale-ups in private practice before, so I was used to fast service levels. But now here I was on the inside of one of Ireland’s most exciting technology companies, with no team or resources.

We had five homegrown unicorns in Ireland at the time and entrepreneurs were raising more funding than ever. I knew traditional methods and service levels wouldn’t cut it in this dynamic market, and that something more was needed to ensure this innovative business had the right legal support.

So what was my strategy?

Create a Legal Operations Function

Legal operations is the cornerstone of building an innovative in-house legal function from the ground up, because most of what you are doing in the early days is designing and implementing processes and improving efficiencies. Grab the CLOC Core 12 guidelines and start thinking about your service levels in this context.

Shift Your Mindset

You are there to support business growth first.

You must shift your mindset away from the traditional, siloed “department of no” approach and acknowledge you are a business partner first, lawyer second. Your colleagues are your customers and need you to help them achieve their business aims. Rapid scale requires fast solutions, so think innovation, low cost, high efficiency.

Strategically Outsource Legal Work

You’ll likely be a one-person band for a while, so find vendors that can take low-value, low-impact work off your plate. This will free up your time to focus on what matters most to the business, including strategic elements of growing the legal function. Alternative Legal Solutions Providers give you fast access to low cost legal talent and can be levered up or down depending on your needs.

Automation and A.I.

We in-house lawyers are living in the most exciting era ever because companies are finally designing technology uniquely for us. Take advantage of the benefits: replace process-heavy, mundane work with A.I. and automation and create a self-service culture—especially for contract management, which will keep you busiest in the early days, as your number one goal will be closing deals and bringing in revenue. Use tools you’ve already got, and buy one for CLM when you are ready and have budget.

There is plenty of A.I. software out there that can save you time and money on things like legal spend, matter management, presentations, legal intake, writing / editing and managing your workload.

Lean on the Legal Community

As the saying goes, your network is your net worth. Tapping into community is the single easiest way to expand the power of your legal function and prevent you feeling isolated in your day-to-day job. Legal is the smallest team in any business (especially true when you’re first legal hire!).

Join communities, attend events and connect with thought-leaders on LinkedIn for knowledge-sharing and guidance. Ireland had no community for innovative in-house lawyers when I joined Tines two years ago, which is why I set up ITGC.

Leverage Data

Data doesn’t lie, and data-driven insights are powerful.

You won’t have any on day one but you will after your first quarter, so track basic data points and use them to see where you can save time, but more importantly to show leadership that the legal team is an efficient unit and adding business value. Manual tracking in Excel is fine until you can get a tool to automate it.

Conclusion

Innovation is at the heart of building a legal function from scratch.

If you’re the first legal hire and tasked with doing this, remember: embrace the business partner mindset and run with it. Rapid scale is not for the fainthearted, so congratulations—if you’ve made it this far, you’ve nailed the hardest part!

Black and white photo of Sarah Irwin, Head of Legal at Tines and Founder and Chair of ITGC, smiling with her arms crossed.

Sarah Irwin

Head of Legal at Tines, and Founder & Chair of ITGC

Sarah is a community builder for in-house lawyers in Ireland at ITGC (Irish Tech General Counsel), a supportive peer forum she set up in 2022 to connect in-house lawyers seeking to disrupt the market, knowledge-share, and feel less isolated in their day-to-day work. Sarah is also Head of Legal and Company Secretary at Tines, an Irish cybersecurity automation tech scale-up, providing legal support across all aspects of the business including CommTech, corporate, employment law, and corporate governance.