How to Reposition the Relationships That Surround Legal Ops | Stéphanie Hamon
In your work with in-house legal teams, how do you encourage them to view their relationship to the rest of the organization?
The big picture here is that GCs now more than ever have to act as business partners. And by that I mean working alongside other departments, supplying the kind of insights that influence both operational and strategic decisions. Like anything else, though, you need to demonstrate a mastery of the basics before you have the credibility to take on more high-minded initiatives.
The first way to forge that sense of partnership is to provide more transparency around legal costs. Where are you spending the most? What’s the balance between internal headcount and outside counsel? These are topics that all of your business colleagues can relate to.
Then you’ll want to outline your plans for bringing more efficiency to those costs. Committing to hard cuts is always difficult considering Legal is ultimately not the one dictating the demand for its services. But what you absolutely can commit to is accurately tracking spend and taking targeted actions to reduce unnecessary expenses.
Once it’s clear that you’re managing your operations with the same rigor as any other business department, the conversation can shift toward mutual goals. What do other leaders across the organization expect from Legal? What are the strategic results they’re hoping to achieve in the next few quarters? That will give you a better sense of how your expertise can contribute to the company’s broader objectives.
My word of caution here would be to avoid the temptation to tackle everything at once. Take a few steps back and put together a progressive plan of action focused on incremental improvements. It’s always best to demonstrate success with a few small-but-impactful initiatives and then capitalize on the momentum from there.
How are your suggestions typically received?
It’s only been a few months in this role, but I can happily say that I haven’t yet had to convince any clients of the value I can add. Most of the GCs I work with know they need to strengthen the organizational strategy side of their role — they see that just being a solid technical lawyer who reliably manages risk isn’t enough anymore. But they appreciate that a resource like myself, bringing a different skill set and perspective, can help set the right foundations.
I obviously did my due diligence on the market beforehand and suspected that this would be the case, but the reality has been very reassuring. If my travel schedule is any indicator, then we’re looking at more than just a fad among a few GCs. What I keep hearing is a genuine desire to reposition the role of the in-house legal function.
As for external relationships, how do you like to see your clients approach their partnerships with outside counsel?
The first thing to understand is the profile of work you typically allocate to outside counsel. Most importantly, can your strategy be served by a primarily transaction-based approach? Or are you looking to form more ongoing partnerships with law firms? There’s no right answer. But clients who expect to seek external consultation on a consistent basis need to focus more energy on relationship building.
The moment you start talking about relationships, though, you run into a challenge of measurement. At Barclays, for instance, we addressed this by developing a scorecard that let law firms know what our definition of “good” objectively included. Some of the criteria were ultimately qualitative, but they still generated data points that could be compared and analyzed.
I also think it’s important to be transparent with the data we discussed earlier on legal spend. A lot of times conversations with law firms become this dance where you’re telling them you have no more work to allocate and they’re telling you they don’t believe you. If you can share basic data on how your spend is split, and where that firm currently features, it’s a much healthier place to start future resourcing discussions.
One of the more challenging criteria to measure must be diversity. How did you design your scorecards for that dimension?
With diversity and inclusion (D&I) in particular, you might actually need to move away from numbers for a moment. I worry a lot of organizations are losing sight of the bigger picture. You don’t want it to become a check-the-box exercise, because there are very valid business reasons why this is emerging as a central issue.
The challenges today’s corporate legal teams face are increasingly broad and complex. Take something like Brexit or Libor, for example. You can’t just task one-dimensional experts with solving such multifaceted problems. The only safe bet is to assemble a diverse group with perspectives that allow you to see every angle.
People don’t change their habits overnight, though. They need some type of catalyst. And considering clients hold the buying power, there’s certainly a lot they can do to drive the D&I agenda within law firms. But it’s not about blaming or shaming people toward improvement. A better conversation starts with confirming the current starting point and committing to incremental changes.
So when we tendered work at Barclays, we outlined clear diversity criteria we were hoping to see. And just as importantly, we continued to monitor work along the way to make sure firms were staying true to what they pitched in the room.
As you say, you don’t want to fall into a pattern of simply blaming outside counsel for frustrating outcomes. Is there something clients could take more responsibility for within these partnerships?
Well, probably the best thing you can do for your law firm is to clearly prioritize the solutions you’re expecting. But in reality that isn’t always possible. A lot of the time you’ll be looking to them for suggested direction. So really I guess the most important thing you can do is create an environment where candid conversations can happen.
You need to get to a point where honest feedback is valued rather than resented or avoided. The trick is to keep it within the frame of “how can we improve?” When everyone is open to accepting the answer to that question, then you’ll have the basis for a truly collaborative relationship. If not, you’ll stay stuck at the level of formal cooperation only.
As you’ve taken on new roles and responsibilities in recent years, is there anything you’ve changed your opinion on as a result?
Maybe it’s not changing so much as strengthening or reinforcing, but what comes to mind is a key skill set I think is still totally underappreciated: Empathy. Too often law firms insist they are showing clients empathy when it’s really sympathy. They try to do everything the client wants just to keep them happy. And sooner or later, that typically brings further frustration.
The humility to not only see things from the other person’s point of view, but actually apply those learnings in a way that leads in a new direction, is still so rare. One area I’m seeing this play out right now is the legal tech space. When you talk to clients, you quickly get the sense that most are simultaneously overwhelmed by the possibilities and worried that they may be missing out by not acting fast enough.
I think I’ve become a bit savvier around who does what and how to assess different offerings, but each client is different and you need to take the time to learn what things look like in their world.
Is there anything you wish the industry was talking more about?
I can definitely tell you something I hear too much: “It’s too hard” or “We can’t make that happen.” I know as well as anyone how complicated and messy change can be in this industry, but the resistance feels a bit out of proportion.
One of the things I really appreciate about the arrival of more legal tech startups has been the mentality they bring. They have an attitude of constantly trying new things, learning from failures, and continuing the pursuit. I’d like to see more of the industry adopt that spirit of experimentation.
And I’m not advocating for large or reckless risks here. I always advise clients to identify a place they can run a pilot before translating confirmed successes into other areas. But the missing ingredient that starts it all is still a bit of bravery.