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Iain Brown

Head of MLS Legal Delivery, Pinsent Masons Vario

Empowering general counsel to manage expanding in-house legal responsibilities

Empowering general counsel to manage expanding in-house legal responsibilities


Iain Brown explores how to effectively manage growing in-house legal workloads through strategic partnerships and innovative solutions

I’ve heard many in-house lawyers compare themselves to an orchestra conductor, who has the responsibility to coordinate their musicians to play harmoniously. Like conductors, General Counsel (GCs) need to keep their legal team and its external counsel aligned to ensure the business achieves its strategic objectives. This is becoming an even more difficult challenge for GCs, especially as budgets tighten and the increased responsibility their departments have been given.

Workloads are also likely to get bigger. In its "Legal Department Operations Index" in September 2023, Thomson Reuters found that more in-house teams were having to take on work originally done by private practice, due to higher billable hours and the business becoming more stringent with budgets.

In-house lawyers may become more stretched and, in the long-term, struggle to have the headspace to focus on the strategic legal value they should be providing.

This puts a spotlight on what work is integral for the in-house legal function, and the value it’s providing. A survey by Juro and Wilson Sonsini found 67 percent of GCs felt their in-house teams were focusing more on low-value work, while neglecting tasks such as advising the business on the legal risks and opportunities of new ventures or existing projects.

The expectations of in-house lawyers have changed, particularly over the last decade, and they are no longer just relied upon to spot risks and give general legal advice to the business. They’re also being expected to make commercially minded decisions to generate value as well as the business viewing the in-house team as a profit-driven centre.

Organisations needs their lawyers to be enablers and strategic business partners. In summary, this means the in-house lawyer is not solely relied on to give legal advice but is expected to drive efficiency, focus on reducing risk and costs and to leverage technology to support their objectives. Some have deemed this new breed of lawyers as T-shaped – with in-house legal experts needing specialist legal expertise, adjoined by strong soft skills, an ability to use technology, conduct data analytics and use project management skills.

This drive to bring more work in-house could also have been viewed as reflective of how the relationships between in-house lawyers and private practice teams have evolved due to these demands from businesses. As in-house lawyers have been expected to do more with less, so have they demanded their external consultants provide more than just traditional legal services. They’ve needed their lawyers to be strategic partners, who can advise and open new commercial opportunities, while driving organisational change through a range of services.

Private practice and flexible legal service providers are starting to offer solutions which can help those in-house legal teams who are having to reconsider sending some projects to their external counsel due to cost constraints. These solutions are looking to take on much of the recurring, lower value but essential work which takes up large parts of the to-do list for many in-house legal teams.

In the market, there is greater focus on providing solution-focused services, not just pure legal advice. Lawyers and other professionals investigate the client’s pain points and then build a bespoke delivery model around them. At its most effective, it’s an end-to-end service which supports clients in hitting their strategic goals.

Private practice and flexible legal service providers are starting to offer more solutions which can be temporary or long term and give more certainty around costs with alternative pricing models such as subscription models with service levels being agreed and documented at the outset.

Their remit might also cover tasks such as supplier contracts, NDAs or DSARS for example and the delivery model may combine lawyers and other legal resource, technology and new processes to complete them. Outsourcing these day-to-day tasks, in a cost-effective way, will help GCs and senior in-house counsel find time to focus on their more complex, strategic legal projects and business challenges.

It's natural that some GCs will be concerned that outsourcing tends to lead to a lack of control, particularly when they’re reassessing and looking to keep a tight control on strategy and spending. But, done right, these teams are just an extension of an in-house legal team.

There are also other solutions that can help GCs with increased workloads, that can work in conjunction with managed legal services. These could be integrating change management approaches to drive efficiencies, using freelance lawyers, legal project managers and adopting technology like automation and AI to speed up time-intensive tasks.

As GCs look to support the business through economic difficulties and the demanding regulatory landscape, with a tighter capacity in-house to do so, there are cost-effective and dynamic external solutions that can be used to their benefit. Like an orchestra conductor, they’ll be able to guide their company through the score, to produce an excellent performance.