How to build a more proactive in-house legal team, and why it’s a good idea to involve the wider business

May 12, 2022

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As an in-house lawyer, your role involves navigating the present, while also keeping an eye on what’s on the horizon for your team and the wider business. Managing the business-as-usual requests, mitigating actual and potential risks, and dealing with unexpected issues are all in a day’s work, so it’s helpful to have some foresight of what’s up ahead whenever possible!

Progressing from a position where you’re constantly reactive and responding to issues as they arise — aka putting out fires — to a place of having a plan of how to conquer your current and incoming work is a very powerful move.

Being proactive means you have the tools to predict and manage your work. When you build this on a foundation of productivity and engagement within the team and across the business, there’s also the ability to really impact business outcomes. Being more proactive means you can enjoy the advantages of being more prepared, such as addressing unanticipated issues with ease and creating space for higher-value and more strategic legal work.

Read on to learn about:

  • what being ‘proactive’ looks like
  • how to move from being reactive to proactive
  • empowering the wider business to act in a more proactive way

What do we mean by ‘proactive’?

Chances are you already have proactive elements to your ways of working. Often, these are things you ‘just know’, such as recognizing that the finance department is extra busy around tax time or that the end of the year sees an uptick in workload as the business attempts to get legal sign-offs before the holiday season.

It’s not always easy to determine what’s up ahead, and yet with some smart operational and strategic moves, it’s certainly possible. Every organization could benefit from integrating ‘corporate foresight’ into its regular operations rather than confining it to less regular strategic planning sessions, say Keith Ferrazzi and Kian Gohar, authors of Competing in the New World of Work. They suggest teams develop simple processes and monthly reviews, using accumulated data and industry knowledge to work on solutions and design action scenarios. From this action emerges a new skill — the ability to ‘see around corners’, and the opportunity to mitigate risks and find new possibilities.

Being proactive and seeing around corners involves directing the business in a much more intentional way than in the past, and leveraging productivity gains (such as time and effort) and technology to get in front of legal issues and deliver results.

How being in-house allows you to be proactive

In the legal industry, being proactive is a way of working that’s largely unique to the in-house role. A lawyer in private practice has their workflow and deadlines decided by their clients, which means it’s more of an on-demand type scenario. But as in-house lawyers your client is the business and, thanks to the way businesses operate, there’s certain predictability surrounding many of the legal activities, especially when you adopt legal technology that gives the heads-up of incoming intake and upcoming deadlines.

This means there are many opportunities to get in front of your work, providing an even better — and more proactive — service to the business.

How to be proactive and stay ahead of your work

An in-house legal team that’s productive and engaged has the ability (and the agility) to manage a fluctuating workload proactively. While there’s always the reality of work arriving in the legal department unannounced, there’s also the opportunity for some work to be anticipated and planned for. When you consider that contracts have designated renewal or expiration dates, some deadlines recur every year, and cyclical projects often have predetermined timelines, there are quite a few predictable tasks you can prepare for in advance.

Imagine using this knowledge and starting the year — or the week — with an overview of what’s up ahead!

The timely management of resources

Managing resourcing within the legal team requires looking at all the information you have to hand and using it to make decisions about skillsets and expertise required, capacity, hiring, outsourcing, and leveraging legal IP.

Using this information to proactively manage your team is when the real impact becomes visible, both within the team and in the wider business.

Data is key to understanding the needs of the business, and when this knowledge is captured in a system of record, it can be used to inform your workflow. If you’re using a legal workspace, the data is captured as you work, without any extra effort. By collecting and surfacing rich data, you can then analyze it and produce reports of useful metrics and insights to inform decisions.

Data points such as who is responsible for issues, where work is coming from, when it’s likely to land on someone’s desk, key dates, and estimated turnaround times all contribute to having an understanding of what’s happened in the past so you can prepare for the future.

Using data to get ahead of your resourcing means you’re able to make proactive decisions like:

  • sharing the workload between team members before anyone burns out;
  • deciding to outsource with plenty of time to negotiate the RFP and scope of work;
  • assessing whether a generalist or specialist role is required;
  • evaluating which departments in the business deliver a consistent stream of work to the legal department, and those that may need more support or are unaware of how legal could assist them.

Working with the knowledge above, together with data points like risk, priority of contracts or other legal work, you have the opportunity to become an incredibly proactive legal function.

Leveraging the power of your internal capabilities also leads your team to be more proactive. For example, a healthy stock of legal capital, one of the rewards of optimizing your productivity, means knowledge, skills and expertise such as previous matters and advice is retained within the legal team, makes the most of existing resources, and saves time by not having to start from scratch when seeking a solution.

Use business trends to pre-empt legal needs

Your in-house legal team is in the privileged position of having visibility of what’s happening across the whole business. This means you can observe business trends and activities and use this knowledge, together with past experience and data, to predict what the business needs from the legal team. When all of this knowledge and data is captured within a legal workspace, trends are visible, providing a valuable way to predict patterns of activity.

By having information and insights through a legal workspace, you can ensure the team has the resources, capacity, and skillset to manage upcoming work, and provide an efficient service to the wider business.

Empowering the business to be proactive

There’s a common complaint in the in-house circles that legal is the last to know when there’s a problem in the business. Unfortunately, being late on the scene means legal may need to deal with an issue that’s become more complex, posing a greater risk to the business.

The good news about being proactive is that it’s not only up to the legal team to work in this way — it’s also possible to empower the wider business. However, for this to be a successful move, other teams within the business need to know what to do, when to do it, and how.

There are several ways to empower the business to work alongside legal in a more proactive way:

  • have a great relationship with the wider business by being engaged and active outside the legal department. The more developed communication is within and between teams, the higher the likelihood is that you’ll be informed of any upcoming dependencies on legal. This means you can plan how and when to incorporate the wider business’ needs into the legal team’s workflow and ensure that expectations and deadlines are realistic for all involved.
  • become part of the process early, even if that means knowing that the legal team’s not needed just yet. Having a structure in place where the legal team is invited as part of the strategic planning sessions and input is welcomed at the beginning of a project or issue, means knowledge is shared throughout the process, and there are no unexpected events along the way, or if they do arise they are more easily dealt with.
  • have an open door policy where your legal team is easily accessible, whether it’s in real life, virtual, or in a hybrid setting. Create the opportunity for direct communication; it’s no fun being the last to know or hearing about a potentially risky project at the water cooler!
  • adopt legal technology that enables your legal team to work with the wider business in the most optimal way. This could include self-serve intake as a way for business users to deliver their tasks to the legal team, having contract automation for low-risk high-volume contracts such as NDAs, and utilizing knowledge management portals as a way for the wider business to answer some of their legal queries. Integrating with the tools the business already uses is also key to ensuring they are comfortable with the technology they’re using, so Slack, Salesforce, Microsoft Teams, and other integrations are certainly a wise choice.

Adopting a new way forward with legal tech

Learning from the past enables you to inform decisions for the future, working in an environment of continuous optimization. When your legal team is working in a proactive way, you’ll be able to see around those corners, and then take the right steps forward to produce the best results.

Working in a proactive way saves time — and saving time by using the right legal technology also means you have the capacity to work on systems and processes that allow you to work in an even more proactive way.

A legal workspace enables you to be proactive by providing a centralized work management system of matters, knowledge, documents, collaboration, tasks, projects. It also provides contract management, e-billing and outside counsel management, intake and self-service, and reports and insights.

Using a legal workspace provides a more connected legal function, both within the team and across the wider business.

Curious about how being more proactive leads to a more connected legal function? Learn more by reading The Connected Legal Playbook: Your guide to becoming a more productive, engaged and impactful legal team in an increasingly complex legal environment.

“Being proactive is about getting ahead of issues before they’re a big problem; switching the mindset from reactive to proactive. How can I get involved in the process at the right time, rather than waiting for people to come to me?”
Matt Vaughan (Executive VP, LawVu)


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