5 steps to building a high performance in-house legal team

March 15, 2024

Áine Rafferty knows an in-house legal team is a critical component for many technology firms and has been recognised by industry peers for leading high performing in house technology teams. Here she provides some steers on how to make sure the team is valued by the other parts of the business.

The role of the in-house legal team can be pivotal in the success or failure of a company. Gone are the days that the base line for the in-house lawyer was to be a strong technical lawyer, or even a business partner. Businesses are demanding much more from their in-house legal teams. To be impactful, the in-house lawyer must be at the heart of driving business transformation and fuelling revenue.

1. Business first, law second

Legal can only be influential if they are in sync with their organisation’s purpose and goals. Before you do anything, ensure you understand the business goals and what part Legal will play in executing on those outcomes. Does the business want to launch a new product or service, increase revenue, and/or reduce costs this financial year? Map the legal team’s activity to the business goals and agree with your team the specific tasks that legal will perform using the SMART method. The tasks you commit to have to go beyond firefighting, they need to add tangible value. For example, to drive revenue within a quarter, Legal could commit to a frictionless contract experience by creating more balanced terms, ensuring quicker time to revenue. Ask yourself and your team daily, are the tasks on my desk today aligned with business goals and are we adding value, if not, re-prioritise them.

2. Run legal like a business

To flip the conversation that Legal are a cost-centre, focus on driving value and efficiency. Three mantras to guide your change journey are (i) automation, (ii) business to self-serve and (iii) take legal out of the picture.

By focusing your mindset on these goals, this can lead to the elimination of drudgery and maximising yield, ensuring lawyers are focused on high-value tasks. Look at each piece of work that you or your team invest time in and consider, does this really require a lawyer? Can the business self-help if I give them right tools or parameters? For example, simple documents such as NDA’s can be automated with tools such as oneNDA or DocuSign. FAQ’s can help reduce business as usual queries being sent to high value lawyers. Do Order Forms need to be approved by a lawyer or only in limited circumstances?  

Challenging the status-quo allows the legal team to focus on more complex strategic work. Start by digging deep into all your existing paper and processes, and critically analysing, where would introducing the mantra help create positive change for my team and the business? Once you are clear on what you are planning to operationalise and by when, then consider if you can use any software tools to support your new processes. Ideally start with software products which are already embedded within the business to save time and cost such as Sharepoint, Salesforce or even Microsoft Excel.

3. The data will set you free!

A business talks in the language of numbers, not words. To be a high-performance team, you will need to use data to guide your path to change and then communicate that data on Legal’s value to your wider business. Data will provide measurable insights on how the legal team works and this can ensure any new initiatives are based on fact not feeling.

Collecting data can feel overwhelming at first, especially when you do not have any tools or software products to support this. If that’s the case, use what you have. If you have a central legal inbox or Excel these can provide you with basic themes around volume, complexity and query type that Legal are supporting on.

A “front door” or contract management system may be the next step in your transformation journey on data collection where you can use software to track key metrics that matter to the legal team and the business such as queries by type (such as corporate, IP, commercial), complexity level, lawyer assigned, turnaround times, status etc. These tools oftentimes can produce automated reports which will save you precious time, rather than doing it manually.

Any data will start to give you insights, so start small if you can’t pull dashboards on day one. In the words of Marissa Mayer, former CEO and President of Yahoo!, “with data collection ‘the sooner the better’ is always the best answer”.

4. Part lawyer/part marketeer

Typically, lawyers don’t feel the need to market their value to the business colleagues, the work will speak for itself, right? WRONG! In today’s business environment lawyers need to deliver an excellent work product, but they also need to communicate that value to their business colleagues (ideally using data!).

The content of what you convey should be tied to business targets. Use metrics to help the business quantify the value and performance of Legal. Most in house legal teams have KPIs that focus on volume, quality, budget and turnaround times as a minimum. Start with those KPI datapoints as they are the ones that are tied to goals. For example, did a 10% reduction on external costs in the F/Y help improve the EBITDA goal?

Once you decide what to communicate, how you do it is equally important. The message has to be short and impactful. Consider quarterly infographics, roadshows, newsletters or internal legal websites as channels to express your metrics.

Communicating your department’s successes is a key way of establishing your strategic value and ensuring Legal are moved from a silo to a truly valued business partner with a seat at the table.

5. Last but not least

The legal team are at the heart of delivering high performance. The team must be 100% aligned on the culture, values, direction and purpose for success to happen. As lawyers, we tend to be a cynical bunch and these phrases may seem conceptual. Think about the impact of the colleague that never pulls their weight or a manager that doesn’t give clear guidance. That’s culture! If the team aren’t clear on what matters to them (values) or what they are striving for (vision) or why they are doing (purpose), the micro decisions made every day be each team member will either drive the team closer to high performance or away from it.  The All Blacks’ focus heavily on culture and living out their values both inside the changeroom and outside the pitch. For them, this isn’t about having singular rockstar players, it is about the team. The NDH Policy (best to google that phrase) was first popularised by the All Blacks around 2014, who, under team-building guru Gilbert Enoka, made famous performative acts such as star players sweeping the sheds after victory, ensuring their “no egos” value was lived out.  

High performance, whether  in sports or the corporate world, is not for everyone. The reality is  it requires hard work (for which there are no shortcuts), sacrifice, the ability to lean into pressure and above all to a have sense of humour!

Áine Rafferty is currently Chief Legal Officer of KX/SVP of FD Technologies Plc, a high growth global technology business with annual revenue of $400 million USD, employing over 2,500 staff globally. She is responsible for the global legal affairs of KX and serves on their Leadership team.  She led the team that won “Global In-House Team of The Year” 2023 Lexis Nexis, won “Global In-House Team of the Year” The Lawyer 2022 and was shortlisted for “General Counsel of the Year” at the British Legal Awards in 2022. Áine is a member of the Society for Computers of Law Cloud Committee.