Philip Flynn: The future of in-house
Philip Flynn, founder and owner of legal consultancy PF Solicitors, explores the future of in-house legal services.
The nature and make-up of legal functions/departments varies considerably from growth stage companies, to larger multi-nationals. This is driven by more obvious factors, such as the size of the business and the industry in which it sits. A further driver is also the general attitude towards legal within a business, and whether the provision of internal legal services is well articulated and understood, or seen simply as getting in the way of the ‘real’ work of selling.
Over the last six years I have worked with and in some of the world’s largest companies, and have experienced what makes for a successful interaction between what I would call ‘upstream legal’ (convincing the CFO that legal is worth the spend), and ‘downstream legal’ (convincing the head of marketing that you were not put on this earth just to upset their day).
Seeing the innovation in development across the UK and North America, my experience of the Irish market is that it is somewhat behind the curve, with a low level of innovation and adoption of B2B legal technology products. Here, in my humble opinion, are three important ways of developing the in-house legal function over the short to medium term.
1. Improvement of management buy-in
Moving the internal view of the legal function away from being seen as a blockage to business development can be a tricky task. Some people will have made up their mind long ago, and the concept of legal as a cost centre draining away resources, rather than one the assists with product development, can be deeply ingrained.
Sure, building a self-serve intranet for the business is a good idea, but convincing those who might use it, to use it, can be quite another task. Also, even a half-decent construct is going to require time and internal resources, without any revenue generation, putting legal back in the cross hairs.
One way of rounding this issue is by adapting the natural legal skill-set (for example, project management) and then lending that skill to the business (along with a can-do attitude). In the past, I’ve witnessed personality, and not legal acumen, as a key blocker for developing the relationship between legal and the management team.
Positive ‘kick off’ meetings for projects, regular updates on their progress and the application of ‘soft-skills’ can make a world of difference across a high pressure environment. In order to develop this, you need to staff a legal function first and foremost with candidates who spend less time citing caselaw, and more time focused on being organised, communicative and personable.
2. Adoption of legal technology (the Holy Grail)
If ever there was a topic to divide the legal community, the implementation and application of ‘legal tech’ is surely it. In a recent study published by Gartner, they estimated that spend on legal technology budgets will increase threefold through to 2025, driven in in the main by legal departments facing “unprecedented pressure both in terms of managing legal workload and driving efficiency in their departments”.
As legal departments expand this use of technology to support workflows and meet productivity, or so the argument goes, the need for a friendly human face will disappear. However, there is a large difference between low volume expert advice, and high volume robotic drudgery. In short, AI may be able to find you something, but it’s currently unlikely to be able to tell you what it means. Specialist legal work is typically lower in volume but higher in complexity, and it’s arguable whether it will ever be suitable for standardisation and automation.
However the legal technology race continues apace, with a current round of new market entrants, and what appear to be relatively arms-length tie-ups, such as:
- Pocketlaw entering the UK market;
- LOD and SKYE partnering, to bring together legal advice delivery and the design of technical products;
- Pinsent Masons entering a reseller arrangement with ContractPodAi;
- Crafty Counsel entering into a ‘content partnership’ with Lexis Nexis.
In terms of adoption of legal technology, I’m approached on a semi-regular basis and requested to introduce new legal technology to clients. Issues around product demonstrations aside (please don’t show me all the buttons), the adoption of new software can pose a challenge for internal IT teams, who need to be brought along on the journey.
From a operational perspective, I’m always curious how the product fits in the overall legal technology eco-system, and what is in the pipeline in terms of bolt-ons or product development that means, ultimately, there will be ‘one solution to rule them all’!
3. Developing the legal panel
Arranging meetings with external counsel can become a trying experience. Business owners turning up in your office asking why two partners from a law firm were invited to a meeting, but four showed up. Explaining the vertical, rather than horizontal nature of how larger law firms (everyone is an expert in their own area, but now you’ve got four experts in four fields) can often be a self-defeating conversation. It doesn’t take much more than a half-decent salesperson long to work out what is happening.
A really interesting development I read about recently is ‘The O Shaped Lawyer’, a new initiative, based around the ‘five Os’ – ‘Open minded, Original, Opportunist, Ownership and Optimism’. Adopting this methodology, Easyjet recently publicised their alternative approach to panel appointment. Rather than the standard Invitation to Tender and beauty parade process, they set the firms the following (slightly terrifying) challenges:
- A 5 minute pitch video: They wanted to get a sense of the wider firms we might be working with, and how the teams in a firm might respond to a request to prepare such a video.
- Voicemail advice: This was a chance to understand if a panel firm could communicate complex concepts briefly, and to not only the internal legal teams, but the wider business. Because of the format, the firm were forced to provide practical legal advices only, and quickly!
- The business simulation: The panel firm were asked to imagine they were stranded on a mountain range with only a few items, and then set a series of multiple choice challenges to allow them to descend the mountain safely. Unsurprisingly, the point was to observe not whether the team could complete the ‘mission’, but rather how they would make their decisions.
The point of the above, or certainly my view of it, is to see if the people you will ultimately be relying on, potentially in a crisis are, in fact, the right type of people for you. Unusual? Yes, but very innovative. While this is certainly an unconventional methodology to panel appointment, it does makes sense to test teams against ‘real world’ situations. In my experience, that is when you will often need them the most.
- Philip Flynn is the founder and owner of legal consultancy PF Solicitors.