Mike Russell

Legal operations: make friends with cross-functional alignment

Scaling legal
July 1, 2019

Legal operations is so important, we’ve written an eBook, 'Legal operations: how to do it and why it matters', with experts exploring its key competencies.

Mike Russell, Lean Leader, Legal Operations, Ingersoll-Rand, shares his insights on achieving cross-functional alignment. Don’t forget to follow us for the latest insights. The views in this article are the author's own, and do not represent the views of Juro nor those of CLOC.

Cross-functional alignment is one of the legal operations competencies that would seem most mysterious to a lawyer from 50 years ago. Legal, as a function, didn’t need to be aligned; it was there to give clarity to other functions on what they could and couldn’t do, as prescribed by law and interpreted by attorneys. But the modern business environment made it impossible for that attitude to persist. Earlier in my career, I was part of a team challenged to streamline a corporate legal department of nearly 2,000 professionals in more than 70 locations with up to $1bn in managed legal spend handled by more than 1,200 law firms. If legal is to exist in-house at that scale, and escape its historical reputation as a cost centre and a blocker, then failing to align across the business’ functions is not an option.

You don’t know until you land in a company how aligned and optimised its various functions are. The impact of a poorly aligned contracts function is visible immediately, but something like product liability is hard to troubleshoot until problems occur. It’s important for an in-house lawyer to get a sense of this as soon as possible, and identify the most valuable areas for legal to align across the business.

The IT crowd

The encroachment of technology into in-house legal has taken longer than it should have, but there’s no doubt that it’s transformed what we do, and how we do it. The wholly digital nature of providing legal services in-house means that the first function with which you need to become aligned is IT. It’s fair to say that many of the best things we do as in-house legal, in terms of efficiency and process improvement, are driven by technology. This means that knowing and appreciating your colleagues in IT is crucial, to foster a mutually beneficial relationship.

You need friends in IT who know what you need any why, and why it matters to the business that your project takes precedence

Some legal departments are fortunate and will have dedicated IT resources, but many companies operate a shared services model; in such an environment, IT dedicating time to legal necessarily means another department taking a back seat. You need friends in IT who know what you need any why, and why it matters to the business that your project takes precedence - for example, the business impact of a faster contract closing cycle, or the risk mitigation that an IP management system would bring. Without alignment between legal and IT, you risk being an item on a to-do list that’s never addressed.

Done right, the relationship works both ways. When it comes time for CIOs and GCs to report on objectives to their C-suite peers, there’s always a focus on customer-facing business enablers and security compliance. Having a lawyer with a seat at the table, who can explain in detail why IT and legal have agreed on a particular solution, and the real ROI and time savings that come from tools like matter management and e-billing software, is a huge help. If in-house lawyers are aiming to add value, few things are more useful than helping to explain that value at the C-suite level.

Finance is the next obvious function with which legal needs to achieve alignment. It’s no longer good enough for lawyers to be unaware of who their budget controller is, nor to maintain ignorance of what legal spend actually means. I make it my business to sit down with my in-house lawyers and ensure they understand what a dollar of legal spend really accomplishes, where it actually sits in company books and budget lines, and the consequences of that spend. Particularly for a public company, legal spend and its impact on top-line costs can have a significant impact on shareholder value - making this real for in-house lawyers will make cross-functional alignment, and efficient service delivery, much more likely.

What can leadership do to enable cross-functional alignment, and how do you get started on quick wins with achievable projects? This preview is an excerpt from Mike's chapter in our eBook on legal operations. Don’t forget to follow us for all the latest.

Mike Russell is the Head of Global Legal Operations at Expedia Group

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