In the past, General Counsel (GCs) had clearly defined roles. But now, with 70% of companies having a digital transformation strategy in place or in progress *, the lines are beginning to blur.
In light of this rapidly changing business environment, GCs are being asked to take on a more diverse workload - and a greater amount of it too. This has brought about the urgent need for legal departments to become more agile; catering to business requirements in a more fluid manner.
If legal departments don't adapt to become more agile, they risk slowing down the business, putting the company at risk and wasting time on tasks that add little value.
To help you with this transition, we're exploring what it means to be more agile, why it's important for in-house counsel and how you can create a more agile legal department.
What does it mean to be more agile?
'Agile' has been a buzzword in business for a number of years now. Google will tell you that "agile" is when you are "able to move quickly and easily". And to be honest, with the assumption that it's with a view to achieving results, this in essence hits the nail on the head.
To move more easily, agile legal departments remove friction wherever possible; whether that's from internal communication, during the contract lifecycle, or when managing workload. Tasks are prioritized by urgency and return on investment, rather than by the order in which they landed on your to-do list.
To move more quickly, agile teams assume that tasks take as long as you give them. Therefore, agile GCs work in time blocks (e.g. two-week sprints) and have regular check-ins with a view to working smarter, not longer when it comes to completing tasks. To achieve this, legal departments communicate effectively, have streamlined workflows and embrace relevant technology. You can read our guide on why and how to embrace better contract management here .
In summary, agile takes larger challenges, breaks them down into more incremental tasks and then prioritizes them by their relative value add. Agile workflows and processes are designed to unlock efficiency but, most importantly, adaptability; catering to changing customer requirements, business priorities and market dynamics.
Why should legal departments become more agile?
Firstly, the primary role of the legal department is to protect the business by proactively identifying and mitigating risk. You can only do this if you manage to stay ahead of the curve, moving at the pace of the business and its environment. This is what being agile is all about.
Secondly, working in an agile manner makes workflows more streamlined and subsequently faster - something that both legal departments and business teams can get behind. This results in either the same amount of work being achieved with fewer resources or more work being achieved in the same amount of time.
Another benefit that has proven to be especially useful in light of the pandemic is the fact that agile working provides a regular rhythm to work. Routine check-ins, such as virtual stand-ups, have offered a means to continue to progress in the face of uncertainty.
Lastly, an agile approach helps in-house lawyers avoid wasting time on work that is no longer a priority, not yet needed or that might not be needed at all. By triaging tasks, you complete the most critical work first and see greater ROI more quickly. The short work sprints also allow you to adapt to the changing environment and business priorities which is great for legal projects.
How can you create a more agile legal department?
Becoming an agile legal department doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual process that involves a shift in mindset, processes and tools. Below, you'll find seven steps to kickstart your journey towards becoming a more agile legal department.
1. Get the team on board
If there's more than one of you in the legal department, make sure you all understand the value of agile working by sharing relevant resources, discussing examples and talking it through as a team. If anyone's not bought into the idea, you'll struggle to reap the benefits. Involve all the relevant stakeholders in the steps from here on in.
If you're a solo in-house lawyer, make sure you yourself are bought into agile working. There's nothing worse than implementing something just because you feel you should (and it'll show when you don't manage to reap the benefits from this new way of working). You can also check out our piece on how to be a small but mighty legal department here.
2. Decide on the length of your sprint
Whether it's two-week periods or monthly, choose a short timeframe that you will aim to complete tasks in. At the end of each sprint, you can reassess projects and reprioritize workload as appropriate.
You might want to consider how other teams in the business work and explore whether you can work in similar sprints. This isn't necessary but it will help cross-company collaboration and may make some workflows more straightforward.
It's important to note that not all projects have to be completed in one sprint - but for those which will take longer, try splitting it in to milestones and completing one or two phases every sprint.
3. Set regular check-ins
How often you want to set a dedicated time to reassess progress and priorities will likely depend on the size of your team. If you're a one-person legal department, it's still important to set aside time for this, but you might feel once a week is enough. Slightly larger teams might consider a daily standup.
Regardless, these check-ins provide structure in what otherwise might be a storm of changing priorities. They will allow you to take a step-change in strategy when required and give you permission to veer away from the original approach if a better option presents itself.
During a check-in, you might cover:
- What are our primary goals?
- What did we work on yesterday?
- What are we working on today?
- Are there any blockers?
- If so, how can we remove these?
- Could we be doing anything in a better way?
4. Focus on outcomes
Agile working sees such success because it's focused on results. Traditionally, many legal departments can get caught up on processes and procedures. Instead, agile legal departments focus on the outcomes, giving themselves permission to ditch plans that aren't working as well as they could be and approach tasks in a better way.
By focusing on the outcomes, the legal department can tap into their more creative side, solving problems in ways that use the tools and resources they have to hand at that particular point in time.
To make this shift, ensure you are always thinking about the end goal (which might be shared with business teams) rather than a narrow focus on the process that you're currently following. You'll need to normalize changing your approach in pursuit of a better route to your desired result.
5. Cross-functional collaboration
As a legal department implements agile working, you'll likely have a number of iterations until you work out what works best for you. Seeing as agile working is an endless loop of learning, adapting and executing, you should be sure to apply this to the agile methodology, as well as your actual work.
Moreover, at the end of the day, the legal department exists to serve the business. Therefore, it's only right that you look outside of the legal department to understand whether this new way of working is truly serving business requirements.
Ask business teams about their experience working with their new agile legal department and understand whether there is more that can be improved. You can then consider feedback and, if relevant, implement changes. Learn. Adapt. Execute.
6. Implement the right technology
As we know, agile legal departments move quickly. Technology empowers teams to streamline processes and have greater management of risk, allowing them to move at pace and become more strategic.
While some still find the idea of legal technology intimidating, thriving in-house lawyers are embracing technology, such as Tomorro, to help them reduce the time spent on lower-value yet necessary tasks while also unlocking value by offering more control and visibility over legal and financial risks.
To implement the right technology, first understand what problems you're trying to solve. Is it a workflow challenge? Are contracts slowing you down? Is negotiation creating confusion with swarms of emails? Identify exactly what's slowing you down and find a solution to your specific challenge.
7. Stick at it
You wouldn't plant a seed and expect a tree the next day. The same goes for creating an agile legal department.
Both solo in-house lawyers and larger teams take time to get used to any new way of working. Expect to work through a few kinks - it'll help you nail your agile workflow, understand your preferences and accept what is realistic for your unique circumstances.
Give your legal department time to get into its new rhythm and you'll begin to reap the benefits of agile working.
* Forbes , Dec 2019