Corporate legal departments across Europe are navigating great change, with the role of in-house counsel evolving at a rapid pace. A greater focus is now being placed on advancing legal operations and legal innovation – necessary to tackle new, complex challenges brought about by COVID, data privacy, and more. Optimizing processes, embracing new legal technology, and improving time-efficiency and cost-effectiveness are top priorities for corporate legal teams in 2021.
However, for corporate legal departments to truly embrace operational sophistication and innovation, they must first address some fundamental challenges, namely talent development. Before leveraging complex technologies like AI, in-house counsel must first focus on broadening skills, developing talent, and building strong processes for legal innovation within the legal department’s team. Furthermore, in-house counsel must develop key soft skills to keep up with the new challenges of this role and to gain support for legal innovation within their organization.
- Become better strategic business partners
The role of in-house counsel is constantly evolving with new challenges for companies in the past year acting as a catalyst for change. From new labor legislation brought about by COVID and remote work, to increasing legislation surrounding data-privacy and data governance, in-house counsel must now navigate a legal landscape that is constantly in flux.
Most corporate legal departments are equipped with great lawyers who can provide excellent technical legal advice. However, without a clear strategy on how to be most effective, these lawyers are often only brought in at the last minute or find themselves overburdened with too much administrative work.
In-house counsel should no longer only act as providers of technical legal advice within their organization. Rather, they should move up the decision-making value chain to become better strategic business partners, working closely with senior management to make better decisions and policies that will safeguard the organization. By being proactive and collaborating with different departments consistently, in-house counsel can influence decision-making and policy to protect their organization from legal issues, rather than being ushered in at the last minute. In-house counsel must position themselves as a nimble, strategic asset to the C-suite to drive real change in their organization.
According to ACC Accelerate Innovation speaker James King, General Counsel at Randstad, in-house counsel should be ‘guiding the business, and protecting the company’. They can add more value than just technical legal advice by being more involved with strategic choices on what the company should and should not be doing. Corporate legal teams need to anticipate and educate their boards of future threats and plan and carry out their strategy, all while communicating effectively to those outside of the board. According to King, creating a mission statement provides necessary direction for in-house counsel, and from here, training objectives and requirements for legal innovation can be more clearly defined.
- Communication is key
To advance legal innovation within your organization, you must first develop the talent to be innovative. Many new lawyers are still being trained in very conventional ways, focusing only on technical legal expertise, and overlooking many of the key skills and competencies needed to succeed in today’s dynamic business environment. According to ACC Accelerate Innovation speaker Eugenia Navarro, Legal Operations IN ON Director at ESADE: We are not just technical legal advisors – we need more skills, and we need to develop our teams and ourselves as legal counsel.
When it comes to investment in technology, legal departments are often not seen as a priority by top-level management. Communication skills are crucial for in-house counsel when garnering support from management for legal innovation. In-house legal teams not only need to possess legal expertise and deep business acumen; they also need strong interpersonal skills to be successful. Gone are the days where the GC and their team focused primarily on interpreting law, driving compliance, and addressing risk. Now, in-house legal lawyers must be great communicators who are able to partner with directors, both in good times and times of crisis, build relationships of trust with key players, and put forward the benefits of legal innovation and legal technology investment for the entire business.
Furthermore, building additional ‘soft skills’ like presenting skills will unlock great benefits, as it is important for in-house lawyers to highlight their contributions to the company and the value they add for their organization. Without these skills, the work of in-house counsel can too easily go un-noticed and under-valued, which raises challenges down the line when trying to rally support for investment in legal tech and operations. These skills are not taught in law school or in law firms, so it is critical that in-house leaders continually hone these skills and work to actively fulfil the requirements of a modern CLO and GC.
- Taking ‘smart risks’
To drive change within your legal department and accelerate legal innovation, in-house lawyers must become better experts in monitoring and accessing risk. Introducing new technology or disrupting traditional ways of working carries with it great benefits, but also some risk. According to ACC Accelerate Innovation speaker Marie-Cécile Martin, Head of Legal Academy, Syngenta: To unlock the advantages of legal technology and carry your legal department into the future, it is important that in-house counsel become a less risk-averse population and take more ‘smart risks’.
While a large part of corporate legal departments’ job lies in evaluating risk, it is important that they become less risk-adverse when it comes to advancing and embracing new technology. Understanding the pivotal role of technology for legal departments in 2021, developing technology skills and literacy, and how that technology can be applied to help meet the specific market demands of your company’s legal department will be instrumental.
Having these three fundamental elements in place will help create an environment within the legal department for technology to make the biggest impact and flourish. While we all want to jump to the newest innovation, considerable time, money, and complications might be avoided by taking a moment to think critically if these factors currently exist.