Be more startup. Why in-house lawyers should channel good entrepreneurs

How can you successfully lead an in-house legal team in 2017? And can technology help to solve some of the increasing challenges faced by those leaders?

It’s a good question. One that Nilema Bhakta-Jones and I addressed in part last week at the Alternative In-house Technology Summit in Oxfordshire.

It is something that over the last 10 years at least, we have almost endlessly debated between us and we’ve regularly shared our learnings, ideas and experiments. The conversation started out between just the two of us. Now we discuss that same question, those ideas and our experience, with so many different people and organisations. Change and innovation within legal services is something that we are both passionate about and this passion has driven many of our career choices since we first sat down together.

Here are some highlights of our on-stage conversation and the discussions that followed. (I will leave it to Nilema to explain why she blames BATMAN for many of the frustrations that in-house teams face… and if she doesn’t blog this herself, I will interview/interrogate her for a separate blog, so that you can see why she’s right and how BATMAN is to blame.)

You’re not alone and you’re not unique – which is actually a good thing

As leaders and future leaders of in-house legal teams, the challenges you often face, are not unique.

And I don’t just mean by contrast to your legal in-house peers. I mean they’re not unique, period.

For example, other teams within a business are likely to face similar challenges. Whether it’s sales, marketing, finance, business development or HR, to name some obvious ones, their need to lobby for their share of available spend, to process, filter and organise, large amounts of data and documents, meet stretch deadlines, to demonstrate value-add, train and supervise people, manage stakeholder (including customer and investor) expectations and perceptions, design, create and deliver projects … the list goes on, but I’m sure you get the gist. And that it sounds familiar.

There’s huge value and opportunity in comparing notes with fellow team leaders within your same business – especially with those whom the leadership of the business most values.

How do they manage it?
What are they using to manage it?

Can you piggy-back on what they do?

Whether it’s the technology or templates that they use, their terminology or their persuasive tactics that seem to convince senior management to invest in them, or the way they approach project management and delivery of results, if you can ‘buddy up’ with them, you’re likely to find it easier to get what you need for a lot less budget, effort and stress, not to mention the benefits to your practice and those you’re advising.

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The advice to ‘talk more like the business’ seems rather trite and is overused, but it’s no less sound for what it advocates. The more you can justify what you want and need in language and on terms that demonstrate how aligned with core business objectives you are, and how effective and valuable you are, and which provide a vision to which a board can instantly relate, the more likely you are to get what you want.

And never lose sight of what those who hold the power and the purse strings most want: essentially, it’s ‘yes’ to one, ideally both, of the following questions: (i) will what you’re asking me for save the business money? (ii) will it make the business money? Anything neutral or negative is likely to get short shrift, especially in the face of competing requests for money and attention by other business teams who are meeting those requirements with ‘yes’.

But it’s not just about emulating the best approaches and terminology that your business team peers use to persuade your CEOs and CFOs, amongst others. There’s so much more that you could do.

 

‘Be more startup’

My overriding recommendation to anyone running an in-house team – legal or otherwise – is to think more like an entrepreneur running a startup. Because but for certain labels, the things that tax you are not so dissimilar from the very things that challenge brand new businesses who are bootstrapping and negotiating their way to get what they need to be a success.

One of the best things that startups almost instinctively do is to openly collaborate; to find someone who has or does what they need, and then often barter their way into getting access to that resource, offering something of value in return and avoiding spending precious budget where they can.

Buddy up and piggy-back

What if you were to collaborate with your business team peers to get essentially the same things that you both want? Perhaps it’s a new piece of technology they’re already lobbying for that would also help you to be more efficient or maybe there’s an opportunity to share a resource?

If you can both advocate the benefits of investing in something, it’s likely to be even more persuasive to budget decision-makers. Several respected voices setting out similar good arguments are always more compelling than just the one, (particularly if one of those voices comes from a ‘favourite’ team as far as investment decisions go).

Don’t stop there. Look further.

What about your in-house peer group – your network? Do they have the same need(s) too? It’s quite likely that a number of them do. If not many of them.

What about putting together a kitty and effectively informally crowdfunding your needs and sharing the results together?

If technology is what you’re after, then this is a great solution. It’s so much easier to request budget when that budget request is founded on a clamour that represents a recognised and respectable need across other credible businesses whom senior management will appreciate. And you’re spreading the cost to make it almost a ‘no-brainer’ as far as the necessary financial contribution goes.

And unlike, law firms, you’re generally not in competition with each other, even if you might work for rival companies. So you have a far greater freedom to collaborate and share costs.

Beyond your peers

Don’t forget to consider some of the most rewarding, cost-effective and innovative solutions-providers either: the interns, graduates, work experience students. In return for work experience and mentoring, these ‘newbies’ can be some of the best sources of really affordable ideas and technology-based fixes for challenges you’re encountering.

And again, look to share what you create. Startups share. They open source. They empower each other. Others will be more likely to share with you, proactively, if they feel you’re part of the same ‘club’ and you make the benefits mutual.

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Be a test subject and get great deals

How do you feel about being a guinea pig for an early stage techco or an alternative solutions-provider? These businesses need to sell just as much as anyone. Your brand name and team status may be sufficient to persuade them to give you a great ‘early adopter’ deal if you’re prepared to be a test subject or a guinea-pig and to provide them with feedback and eventually, testimonials (assuming you’re impressed). This is an age-old and very well-proven tactic in business. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t deploy it too, if the chance arises.

This is a great way to find out whether something new actually works for you too. And if it doesn’t, you’re under no obligation to adopt it permanently. If it does, other teams within your business may be interested in the solution reached as well, which is another benefit from your efforts.

Data, data, data….

Don’t forget to collect as much data from the experience as possible. We are entering a new age where data, like content, is king, invaluable for so many different reasons. It’s time for the law firms and in-house legal teams to enter that dimension much more extensively. You already sit on tons of really useful data. Use it. Share it. It helps make you ‘sticky’ for your customers and it will help you refine what you do.

Be more social (and collect CPD points in the process!)

Go along to one of more of the many meet-ups that the startup community hold. They’re often free to attend and open to anyone, and they generally get the best ‘how-to’ speakers, as well as being a hive of networking activity. The co-work venues are popular hosts and many have great web-sites that tell you what’s on and whether you can attend without being a member. Google is particularly good at organising open meet-ups, as are many of the government and bank-backed accelerator hubs across the UK. Facebook’s doing it, Enterprise Nation are very active and supportive here too. Once you start looking, you’ll find you have a lot of choice.

And everyone’s there for a reason. It’s often to find solutions, share experiences, to learn and to promote themselves and sell. It’s a very friendly, open and embracing community. (You’ll notice a marked difference to the typical atmosphere at legal conferences and network events!). Go with an open-mind and just soak up the experience and the knowledge that’s being shared. Even if all you come away with first of all is ideas, a wider sense of what’s being invested in and where innovation is going next, plus a few new contacts and some valuable CPD points, well that’s time not wasted.

Embrace your inner entrepreneur – or intrapreneur?

In fact, own the title ‘intrapreneur’ and join a whole community of fully employed change experts who work with very little to achieve lots for the businesses in which they problem-solve and innovate.

There are some really great intrapreneur-based business networks now in existence, join one of them and benefit from the innovative ideas and tips and relationships that this diverse and very experienced community of leaders and game-changers embodies.

In-house lawyers make excellent intrapreneurs. I only recently discovered that this is the right description for what Nilema and I have been for most of our 20 year+ careers – and I suspect you’re no different.

Nilema is one of the best examples of a legal intrapreneur that I have ever encountered and a great role model for any head of legal wondering how to get started.

We are none of us the enemy of the other

Be honest with your existing legal services providers about what you want and need. They may be working on affordable solutions already. Many law firms have BD and investment budgets and they’re increasingly spending on efficiency solutions and supporting products that their clients can take advantage of. You may even be able to build new solutions together – ideally with them contributing the lion’s share of the budget in return for your agreement that they can commercialise the results to their other clients if they’re a success.

We all need to stop building in silos and take a more integrated approach to problem-solving.  If tech companies, law firms and in-house teams came together more often to brain-storm needs and solutions, imagine what we would create…

Have confidence – ‘shy bears get no honey’ 

If you don’t take the initiative and explore what others are doing and whether they’re up for collaborating, you’ll never know what you could have gained.

In my experience, people rarely say no to reasonable requests to help or to collaborate, particularly where there are mutual benefits.

As an inhouse legal community, you solve problems every single day. Problems that are generally a lot more complex and thorny than how to get the answers/ideas/solutions to running your team faster, better and cheaper, as you’d like.

You can do this.

And if you come together as a community, you’ll be unstoppable.

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Just spend an afternoon collaborating and crafting ideas with like-minded peers. Once you start, I can almost guarantee that you’ll work up sufficient momentum and enthusiasm to keep it up and get to great outcomes.

That’s how it happens every day in ‘startup-land’. Welcome to a more agile, collaborative, productive and frankly, fun, way of problem-solving.

Whether it’s your sales and marketing buddies, or peers in legal teams in other businesses, or collaborators within the savvy and agile SME community, bright young things amongst the intern and graduate talent pool, maybe even with your external providers – you have an army of voices, experts, manpower and novel ideas and options at your disposal.

Don’t wait for the movement to come to you. BE the movement.

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