Adding Value – it’s more than just the “Bottom Line”
Giving practical and accurate legal advice: Absolutely essential. Being a productive member of the legal department: Valuable. Being productive and well liked personally by your colleagues inside and outside the legal department: Priceless!
In-house lawyers continuously face the challenge of demonstrating how they add value to the company. My experience is that there is no lack of hurdles, but there are very few tangible elements, that factor into the value-add equation. Sure – you can use productivity in the form of quicker turn-around times on legal matters. Or you can point to a reduction in outside counsel expenses. But the equation starts from the premise that the legal department is a cost center. And in the eyes of many business managers, the legal department’s sole function is to hinder the development of new products and services.
Nevertheless, the legal unit, like any other department, must hold itself open to scrutiny. One means of accomplishing this is by conducting “client satisfaction” surveys, where in-house clients can opine on the legal department’s performance. I recently presented this opportunity to approximately twenty of my corporate colleagues, all of whom have regular dealings with the legal department. Despite the fact that it was a very informal, spur of the moment survey, it provided encouraging feedback that otherwise would have remained unspoken.
This was a one-question survey: What do you like most about your in-house legal department? (Okay, the question may have been slightly slanted in our favor, but I figure we hear regularly from our clients on what they don’t like about the legal department. Also, a lack of response was interpreted, as “there’s nothing to like about the legal department”. ) One respondent suggested, “you'd probably get more responses if you asked "what (or who) do you like least?” And another respondent added, “You sent this to Marketing. You're a very gutsy lady, Jean!” Here are few more of the lighthearted responses:
“The only real downside with our legal team is they don't keep good snacks on their desks. I have to mooch elsewhere.”
“I like it when xxx ’s face turns beet red when he's angry. It gives us a clue if it's safe to enter his office or not.” “You're all just really good people and I thoroughly enjoy working with each of you. (Although, sometimes I do want to pop xxx's tires.)”
On a more serious note, what respondents most often conveyed was their satisfaction with the legal department’s availability, accessibility, and the legal staff’s ability to be “regular” folks, while simultaneously being able to respond intelligently to questions on various legal issues.
“Having in house legal counsel provides me with expedient advice for personnel issues especially in the area of legal summons, liens and garnishments. The laws change so quickly that the legal staff knows right where to go to find out the newest laws that prevail over my problem.”
“Everyone in the Legal Department has always been VERY efficient and knowledgeable about answering my legal questions regarding vendors, and I've never been turned down when asking for a quick meeting to get those answers no matter how busy they are.”
“The logic they use in crafting the language we need to do a deal.....”
“I like the open door policy.”
“The fact that you're REAL people. You don't think you're above everyone else just because you have a law degree and I can talk to you about important matters and you'll respond to me straight instead of all the mumbo-jumbo lawyer lingo that nobody else understands. I like the fact that all of you generally want to receive input or ideas and you even ask for it sometimes!”
“Every member of our in house legal department has a calm, professional, and friendly approach. Many times the need for their assistance is a highly stressful matter or one of urgent necessity. I personally have found I am able to feel comforted due to the manner they react to me in these situations.”
And my personal favorite –
“I think you guys are the bomb!
I’ve yet to come across a value-add equation or a law department metrics model where personal attributes, e.g. “likeability”, and department procedures, e.g. accessibility, are given appropriate consideration. However, asking for feedback and using the direct approach survey method resulted in valuable responses speaking to those factors specifically. Indeed, I would contend that the value-add equation and other metrics models should be built upon these attributes. because they directly impact the perceived value of the legal department. Being viewed as congenial, credible, and accessible are crucial factors for the success of a legal department. These factors can impact motivation, productivity, and overall, the company’s bottom line.
Of course, one of the most fundamental roles of the in-house legal function is to offer accurate and practical legal advice. But credibility is not always guaranteed by advising on complex or obscure areas of law. Credibility can be sought high up within the company, but it is your reputation, personally and professionally, that ultimately “cascades” down. Just remember, it’s priceless!
Colorado Chapter President 2008