This post was originally published by The Lawyer in November 2014
It’s time for GCs to forget the heroic ‘I do everything myself’ culture and concentrate instead on driving their business, and that means outsourcing.
A significant privilege of what I can no longer call my new job at Lawyers On Demand (LOD), is the number of GCs and other in-house counsel I get to meet, of all shapes and sizes (the in-house teams that is, not the lawyers themselves).
But one of the flip sides of life on the sell-side is that occasionally meetings I’m looking forward to can get rearranged on short notice, because the in-house lawyer we’re scheduled to see has been called to fight a fire.
I can’t help but put on my *ironic smile face* when this happens.
Those of us who work in or with the in-house side of our profession hear all too often about the pressure that in-house teams are under. The amount of work they have to do. The increasing focus on corporate governance. The reliance on them by the board to stay the right side of the line. The sometimes unfair passing of responsibility from ‘the business’ to the in-house lawyer. The long days and late nights. The lack of light at the end of the tunnel. The inability to stop and take stock. The contractual churn. The lack of resource to do all this with. This is a running machine which never gets switched off.
But at the risk of stretching the theory of the challenger sale, I sometimes wonder if in-house lawyers bring some of this onto themselves. Or at the very least, if they don’t do as much as they might to resolve the position they invariably find themselves in.
It’s a truism that many in-house counsel do face the pressures referred to above. They’re difficult to deal with every day. It therefore surprises me how in-house counsel often, in fact almost always, feel compelled to say, “we keep as much work as we can in-house”.
Those of us who’ve worked in-house have all said this mantra. It’s a badge of honour, you’re not a real in-houser until you’ve said it out loud, “I do it all myself”. Maybe it’s a form of addiction therapy, “My name is Tim and I’m a workaholic”. Or less succinctly, “I’m an in-house lawyer with more work than I can ever hope to do and we do as much of it as we can ourselves sitting on this burning platform”. Done, well said, you’re now a proper in-house lawyer, you may wear your badge.
The fact that work might occasionally be outsourced, that the in-house team sometimes is thinking about asking for and may even get outside help, is like the in-house lawyers’ omertà. No-one in the family must admit that happens, because that is tantamount to admitting failure, to giving credence to the belief that the in-house team is not capable of doing it all. Because that’s why we were hired isn’t it? To do everything.
This feels like an early nineties flash back. Back to an era when lawyers who left Big Law for the then relative novelty of the in-house legal department were whispered about as lawyers who “couldn’t hack it” in a law firm. Even by 2000 when I moved in-house, there was still a sense from some that I was leaving the first class lounge for a career trip at the back of the plane. As a result we did do as much work as we could possibly manage in-house, because it countered the view that we weren’t good enough.
The world has changed. It’s now the in-house lawyers who have the most coveted positions in the profession, who are dealing with the category ‘A’ work, who have the ear of the CEO, who are working on deals that tomorrow will make the front pages of the newspapers (or iPad app, if you prefer). Yet even though everyone now recognises it’s the GC whose career is at the front of the plane, many in-housers are still unable to let go of the belief they must do it all.
As lawyers, we don’t like to think of ourselves as mere service providers. Yet in a corporate context, this is certainly where the legal team sits. We are no more or less special than our colleagues in IT, Finance, Marketing, Communications and HR. It’s funny isn’t it. You don’t ever see any of those teams trying to do everything on their own.
But in the in-house legal team, we like to do it all ourselves, so we can keep polishing that badge of honour.
In-house lawyers can arguably learn a thing or two from our colleagues in IT. The CIO is in many ways a curator of technology services. The routine big-infrastructure stuff tends to get outsourced. Contractors may be used for specialised skill gaps. The big suppliers come into play for high risk projects. And the IT Executive team drive the technology strategy. It’s a sensible mix of in-house and external expertise, a horses for courses approach.
My guess is that many GCs would see themselves as having failed if they were seen as curators of legal services. But I don’t think this is right. I think it’s time to consign that badge from the early nineties to the dustbin. Conduct the orchestra brilliantly, don’t be a one man band, unable to play anything to a decent standard.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of the in-houser who outsources everything, the so-called ‘telephone operator’ as I once heard that type of lawyer memorably referred to (great phrase). But I am in favour of looking at how to put out the fires which constantly burn in most in-house teams which, in many cases, are easily extinguishable with a little thought. I’m in favour of taking a step back, of looking at who is doing what, where and why.
Does it really make sense for that lawyer over there to be submerged in sales contracts? Do you really want junior lawyers churning through NDAs that no-one ever reads anyway? Why is that transactional lawyer having to get involved on the DD on a project when they could add far more value elsewhere? Does it make sense to always use your panel firm for most things, just because you always have and they discount their “standard rates”, whatever that means? Does your in-house team even need to be touching that bucket of non-strategic contracts? Why aren’t they spending more time on the strategic work over there? And the perennial old chestnut, how long does overflow you can’t get to have to be there before it ceases to be overflow and becomes value-reducing BAU which can suck the life out of the legal team.
The last decade has seen the rise and rise of the in-house lawyer. It’s a privileged position. The quality of work has never been higher for GCs and other IHLs. But neither have the stakes. The best in-house legal teams help drive their business forward by deploying expertise efficiently and allowing themselves time to understand and influence the business drivers. But many can’t achieve this, because they are drowning in ‘too much work’.
The CEO didn’t hire you to do everything yourself. The CEO hired you to help drive the business forward as quickly as possible, whilst keeping it safe.
It’s time to throw out that badge of (dis)honour and decide what type of legal team you want to be part of. For those who don’t take the time to just stop a minute and have a look around, there’s a risk that someone else might end up doing it for them.
It may just be time to get a new badge.