It sucks being a cost center. While a good General Counsel can argue all day long about how much value the legal department is adding to the company, at the end of the day her legal department is still a cost center to the business. And if the business only sees you as just a cost center, then you will line up with the rest of the cost centers when the budget axe comes falling or the layoff machine gets cranked up. This means all in-house lawyers should be focused on how to constantly market the department to the business. This is important because while Legal is a cost center, it is – hopefully- an extremely valuable cost center and one the business believes delivers high value to the company (especially when compared to the cost of engaging outside counsel). Moreover, if the legal department can show that it is responsible for money coming into the company or significant savings vs. forecast, then you have an even better story to tell. Legal departments with a good story to tell occasionally get additional resources (as rare as that may be).
Unfortunately, the only experience most in-house lawyers have with the marketing of legal services are the “pitch” materials from Law Firm A or Law Firm B. Those materials don’t really work for in-house lawyers trying to show the importance and value added by the legal department. This edition of “Ten Things” will discuss some basic and straight-forward ways you can “market” the legal department to the business in order to help them understand what the department does, the value it brings to the company, along with developing friends and allies throughout the entire company – never a bad thing for a “cost center” to have in its pocket:
1. Have a great website. In 2016, all legal departments need to have a great website for their internal clients to interact with. For many employees the legal department website is their first (and perhaps only) interaction with Legal. If the website is bad, then the experience is bad too. I believe that a “great” legal department website is a simple, clean, and practical. Stay away from providing links to dozens of external sources, e.g., case law cites, regulations, etc. You do not want the business people doing their own legal research. Rather, be sure to cover the following “basic” services:
- Frequently Asked Questions. Poll your team for the questions they get asked most frequently from clients and build a set of FAQs around those. You can also survey your clients for ideas and suggestions. Then look to review the FAQs every month and update, add, subtract as necessary. For example, “What do we do if we get a subpoena?” is common frequent question. Additionally, the more information you can put into the “self-service” category, the less wear and tear on the lawyers and other professionals in the department.
- Contract Forms. If you have form contracts that the business must/should use, then put those on your website and make them available to the business. They should be in a form that “locks out” any changes other than fill in the blanks. There should be instructions noting that forms requiring alteration need the input/approval of the legal department. The most common form requested from us was a Non-Disclosure Agreement. We had a big “button” on our web site that said something like “Need an NDA? click here.” If something this simple saves your attorneys from having to find the same form and email it to the client, then you’ve already started saving time and money.
- Who does what? My experience is that the business thinks every lawyer in Legal is an expert in every legal topic. For example, the litigation lawyers must know about contract drafting and vice versa. While that may be true to some extent, you really want to make sure the clients are reaching out to the right lawyers at the first instance. The solution is to create a simple chart that sets out “who does what” along with direct contact information. This will direct the client to the right lawyer(s) at the first instance.
- Request for Legal Services form. Another helpful item on your website is a form that clients can complete and set out what they need help with from Legal. At one time, we had an online form that required the user to set out details about the request and attach the relevant documents. This allows the lawyer assigned to project to get up to speed much quicker. We also required that the user certify that they had permission from their SVP to contact Legal for help (this helped cut down on those requests that really need to be more fully baked on the business side before coming to Legal).
- Articles of interest. Finally, to the extent you prepare articles for the business about important legal topics, the website is the place to store them. We had something called “Legally Speaking” where every month one of the lawyers wrote a short article about a legal topic that we would share with the employee base. It could tie into compliance training some months, some new legal development important to the company, etc. Those articles were then all available on our website (and some tied back into FAQs).
2. Communicate frequently. It’s important that the legal department communicate frequently with the employees of the company. You ultimately want the department to be approachable and a place where employees know they can go for help. Ideally you can communicate with the entire employee base in some manner on -at least- a monthly basis. It might be a short article (as mentioned above), it could be a video where one of the lawyers discusses a key topic on screen. You can also host “lunch and learns” where you have a first come, first serve pizza lunch for 20 employees to sit down with lawyers from Legal and get an update on some key legal issues and a chance to ask questions or raise concerns directly with the legal team (you can even webcast the lunch so others can join in remotely). Training (in person and online) is another great way to communicate frequently with the business. Finally, consider setting up a table in the building (e.g., near the cafeteria) once a month manned by a couple of lawyers for an hour or two where employees can just stop by and say “hi” or ask any questions they might have. The important thing is that you want the employee base and management to see Legal is visible and actively involved in day-to-day interactions with their business colleagues and not off hiding in some corner of the building.
3. Send out a satisfaction survey. If you want satisfied customers you need to know what they think about your product. Since your product is legal services, you need to ask your clients how you are doing, what you are doing well, what you can improve on, etc. I wrote about how to prepare a client satisfaction survey in one of my earlier posts (click here to see it). You should send out a survey every 12 to 15 months. Then you need to share the results with your team and determine how to make improvements in the delivery of legal services based on the survey results, and you need to share the results with the executive team and – in some truncated form – with the employee base generally. If the business sees that the legal department not only asks for feedback but acts on that feedback, the satisfaction level with the department will grow.
4. Host client “boot camps.” One of the most popular things we did when I was General Counsel was host a series of “boot camps” for different business units.Basically, we would spend some time getting to understand key business and legal issues faced by that part of the business, any concerns or questions they had about Legal, and the contractual agreements they used most frequently. We would spend the better part of a day with the business unit getting to know each other better, discussing how each of us could help the other get more done, clear up any misperceptions or issues, and – most importantly – walk through the key contract(s) and “annotate” each one, discussing why certain provisions were in the agreement and their importance, getting feedback about which clauses caused the business “problems” with customers (and working on fixing those problems). We also discussed changes to the business that might necessitate different contractual language or clauses, or entirely new contracts altogether. The business appreciated our willingness to spend a big chunk of time getting to understand their business model and questions/concerns. My team and I appreciated getting a better working relationship in place where the business people understood the reasons why we could not change some parts of the contract we could not change, what they could do to help us turn things around faster, and why waiting until the night before a deal is due to dump a 50 page contract on Legal is not going to serve the interests of anyone, especially our customer.
5. Create a list of accomplishments/”What’s Going On.” For the most part, all of those awesome accomplishments of the Legal team generally go unnoticed by most of the business, usually because they just don’t know about them. If you’re waiting for someone in the C-Suite to “know” when Legal pulled-off something particularly good for the business, you’ll probably be waiting a long time. The solution is pretty simple: tell them. Every month I would ask my team (globally) to help put together a list of the important matters being handled by Legal at that time. We categorized them by Commercial, Litigation, Employment, M&A, Special Projects, Government Affairs, etc. Among the basic information we included a short description of the matter and what was at stake. I would then edit the list down (because it was a lot of information or there were things that we simply could not leave on the list for confidentiality reasons) and I would circulate that document to the executive team and senior vice presidents in the company. I would also circulate it to select vice presidents. This way, the key decision makers in the company had a comprehensive summary of “what was going on in Legal” that month and the value we were delivering. Not only did it give a good overview of everything going on in Legal, it often short circuited questions about “what’s going on with X” as every month there would be a summary of the status of that matter.
Additionally, at mid-year and end-of-year I put together a list of all of the significant accomplishments of the legal department for the first half and second half of the year as they tracked against the department’s goals for the year (click here to read my post about setting goals for the legal department). This would go to my manager (the CEO) but I would also share it with the entire executive team so they could understand what we accomplished in Legal (for their unit and for others) and how these accomplishments tracked against the goals we set for Legal, which in turn tied into the company’s overall strategic goals for the year (another key indicator of value delivered by Legal). The point was to show that Legal was rowing hard in the same direction as the business and we were part of the team.
Finally, as you put any list of accomplishments together, be sure to include any projects that led to money coming into the company, e.g., a recovery from a lawsuit, money for patent or IP license, a tax refund, etc. Any time the legal department succeeds in bringing money into the company should be highlighted. Likewise, if you can honestly show that actions by Legal saved the company significant money, e.g. by bringing work in-side, the cost of a lawsuit avoided, or lower spending due to switching to a different legal vendor, be sure to highlight that as well.
6. Get a seat at the table. A common complaint or misperception within the company is that the legal department doesn’t care about the business, i.e., they only spend time on “legal stuff.” What the business is really saying here is that they want the department to become more engaged in learning and understanding the business because that’s when the legal team can add the most value to the company, i.e., legal advice given with a deep understanding of the goals, risks, competitive landscape, and nuances of the business. This is actually an excellent point and it is an invitation to participate in the business that the legal department should eagerly accept. The easiest and most visible way to participate is to find ways for you and your team to be part of the various staff meetings, annual meetings, or other periodic meetings of the different parts of the business. A lawyer who does a lot of work for business unit X should be a regular participant at strategic and recurring business meetings held by business unit X’s SVPs and VPs. By participating in these types of meetings, lawyers will learn more about the business and the issues faced by that particular unit, including hearing first hand of potential legal issues. Likewise, you have the opportunity to advise the business in “real time” regarding problems or opportunities you see as you listen to the discussion. Imbedding Legal into the business in this manner is the best way to show that the department is fully engaged in the business, is interested in learning about what the business needs to be successful, and that Legal is approachable and accessible to the business.
7. Volunteer/Sponsor projects. Virtually every business needs volunteers for various projects. It might be for charitable causes in the community or it might be for a special project within the company. In many companies it is rare that members of the legal department either participate in or “head up” one of these projects. The usual reason given is “We’re just too busy here in Legal.” That’s a mistake. While the legal team is definitely busy, it is hard to argue that the legal team is any “busier” than other parts of the business. Part of the process of establishing a positive impression of the legal department is to get involved in projects outside the day-to-day legal work. Some quick examples:
- Mentors for individuals or clubs (e.g., “young professionals” club) within the organization
- “Special projects” within the company, e.g., a cross-functional team put together to help spot future business opportunities for the company
- Annual charity program (or a particular charitable event)
- Training sessions for employees not tied to legal issues, e.g., “public speaking and presentations,” “better writing,” and “how to spot dangerous emails.”
8. Be responsive. One of the easiest ways to market the legal department to the business is to increase responsiveness. The issue of “responsiveness” was always the leading “need to improve” feedback we received in our satisfaction surveys. After digging through the responses closely and speaking with business colleagues, I quickly realized that “responsiveness” did not necessarily mean turning projects faster (though that always helps). Rather, it was far more basic, as in “just keep me updated as to what’s going on with my project.” Simple solutions include setting a rule for your team that all phone calls and emails must be returned within 24 hours or less. Require that your attorneys provide an update to the client at least weekly, even if the update is there is “nothing new” going on or I cannot get to your project right this moment but know that it is important to us. When attorneys are out of the office, be sure to have an “out of the office” message turned on in email and voice mail. If you have an email system that allows you to send a different “out of the office” message to emails from inside the company vs. outside the company, be sure to put an “emergency” phone number in the “OOO” message going internally. And, of course, no matter when you respond always be courteous and professional. This is not always easy, I know, but it is noticed and appreciated. You’re service organization, so put ego and pride to the side and just focus on the fact that this is someone who needs help, what can you do to help them.
9. Visit regional/international offices. One thing I learned from my time visiting the company’s offices in different regions or internationally is that it is always a big deal when someone from headquarters comes to visit. It may seem like a non-event to you but for many it’s chance to show off their office and employees, to tell you what is going on in their region of the country or the world, and to hear from you about some of the key issues and opportunities facing the company and the legal department. Make it a point to visit the different office locations of your company. And when you schedule those trips or otherwise have a reason to visit an office, work with the local manager to set up a “lunch and learn,” a tour of the offices, drinks at the pub, etc. with some of the local employees. It just takes an hour or so but you will learn a lot, meet some really interesting people, and it will leave a huge impression with the local employees, especially those based outside the company’s home country.
10. Make a “buddy” in Finance. After the CEO, the most important friend of Legal is Finance. If Finance is bought in to what Legal is doing and the value it delivers, then you will have a much easier time when it comes to budget and headcount issues, and they will likely advocate for Legal with the rest of the senior management.For the General Counsel this means working closely with the CFO, ensuring that he/she understands what is going on in Legal, why things “cost what they cost,” what the trade-offs are in terms of success or risk in terms of the overall legal budget or on certain projects where the cost is expected to be high (or higher than expected). This means you need to be open about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and you have to be open to constructive criticism and new ideas. Most importantly, you need to be accurate in your spending forecasts because if you mess up it can really screw up the CFO’s day, especially if the screw up is big enough to affect earnings in a material way. Be sure to make a friend of the Finance person responsible for the day-to-day P&L for Legal. We made sure they were included in our monthly department budget and spending reviews and that they also knew about what we were spending money on and why. This kept surprises to a minimum. We also made sure we completed all of the administrative tasks Finance assigned to Legal. These were things Finance needed from us to do their jobs and my position was stop the grumbling as it was then incumbent on Legal to make sure it got done, on time and correctly.
Nothing above is wildly radical. And nothing above is expensive to do. It just takes time and a willingness to recognize that the value of the legal department is not the value assigned by Legal. It’s the value assigned to the department by the business and other staff groups. The General Counsel and his or her team need to be aware of this and constantly look for ways to “market” who Legal is and what it does for the company. Going out of your way to show that Legal is the “Department of Yes” and not the “Department of No” will go a long way to making your life as an in-house lawyer much easier.