Dear in-house lawyers, are you up for this challenge in 2024?

January 5, 2024

Who needs New Year’s Resolutions, when you can have a New Year’s Revelation?

I’m starting 2024 by asking a couple of uncomfortable questions: Are in-house lawyers unwittingly perpetuating detrimental law firm behaviours, or are they themselves ensnared in a system that demands more than it provides?

The research across the globe is unfortunately pretty consistent: in Australia, the UK and the USA, more than 50% of young lawyers are intending on leaving their law firm jobs. The primary reason for the exodus of lawyers from law firms is gruelling working conditions. “Soul suck” as one article describes it.

This perennial departure of lawyers from law firms, often seeking refuge in corporate legal departments, can result in a disheartening paradox: Some find themselves inadvertently perpetuating the very practices they sought to escape, raising questions about the cyclical nature of dysfunction in the legal ecosystem.

Rather than apportioning blame and pointing fingers, I feel it’s more constructive to explore the underlying intricacies of this dynamic. To consider the role of consciousness, candid communication, and a commitment to change in fostering a more balanced collaboration with external law firm relationships.

In examining the dynamics, it is crucial to recognise that both in-house lawyers and law firm legal departments rely on external clients for their workload – they don’t themselves generate their own work. Both have professional duties to their clients, yet differing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), pressures and heavy workloads. However, I’d suggest that a junior in-house lawyer has more stakeholder relationships to manage in a flatter legal structure, versus her law firm equivalent operating within a very clear hierarchy.

Central to this issue is the delicate balance between urgency and convenience. In-house lawyers, positioned as the first line of defence, grapple with the challenge of accurately assessing urgency, while the fear of losing clients instils reluctance in law firms to refuse work, even when the urgency (and impact on its staff) is questionable.

This communication and expectations gap – between in-house lawyers and the business, and then in-house lawyers and their law firm service providers, fosters a culture of unreasonable deadlines and expectations for all involved. Both may be guilty of shying away from the hard conversation required here, and the brave partners that do feel that they are penalised, and then start losing the non-urgent work too to a competitor.

So, how can in-house lawyers – as the client – help to break what can only be described as a dysfunctional cycle, and redefine the status quo?

Here are some suggested steps for making the change:

1 – Acknowledgment of the Issue: Recognising the problem is the inaugural step toward resolution. Exploring models where clients pay extra for express legal services might introduce a paradigm shift.

2 – Service Level Agreements (SLAs): Establishing SLAs can provide a framework for clear expectations, fostering a more transparent and predictable working relationship, for all involved. As a General Counsel, we underwent extensive consultation with both our business colleagues and law firms to strike the right balance. Yes, there will always be crises and exceptions, but the aim is to keep these to a minimum.

3 – Data-Driven Evaluation: Tracking the frequency of late-night or weekend work can offer valuable insights. Analysing whether such occurrences were genuinely necessary or merely a matter of convenience can pave the way for informed decision-making and continuous improvement. Numbers don’t lie.

4 – Feedback Loop: Creating a reciprocal feedback loop, where in-house lawyers seek feedback from law firms on their experiences as a client, fosters collaboration and mutual respect. General Counsels, as leaders in this transformation, can play a pivotal role in reshaping briefing practices and mitigating burnout. As a General Counsel, in addition to more casual regular feedback, I’d send a survey to our “extended legal team” on annual basis to seek anonymised formal feedback on the way we were as a client.

5 – Communication. Communication is the lifeline of any strong relationship. As a General Counsel, twice a year, we’d host all of our “extended legal team” – comprising of law firms and legal tech companies – in one hybrid room to give them a report out on our team’s KPIs, new initiatives, and invite one of our business leaders to share insights on new business drivers eg. e-commerce so that as a whole legal team everyone was in the know and clear on the company’s objectives. In between these meetings, we had a WhatsApp group to share company or legal team news (once permissible) with our externals to keep them updated and in the know. These communication practices aren’t revolutionary, but they seem to be rare in Law Land.

I’m not here to judge. I’ve been on both sides of the coin. I’m fully aware of the energy it takes to to rewire, reset and reprogram (both yourself and others), when there’s KPIs (and profits) at stake. It’s also a time investment on the part of in-house teams – but a worthwhile one in my experience.

At the beginning of this New Year, there exists a unique opportunity for conscious change. It beckons us to reshape briefing practices, redefine expectations, and cultivate a legal environment that prioritizes the interests of both in-house lawyers and law firms.

The question that resonates is whether we are prepared to embrace change and construct a legal landscape that not only yields exceptional results but also values the individuals contributing their legal expertise.

Being a client can be a powerful source of positive change in addition to delivering excellent outcomes. Because, lawyers are humans too.

Dear in-house lawyers, are you up for this challenge in 2024?

Be Bold, Be Curious, Be Disruptive.

X Anna



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