The ACC-Smarter Law Solutions free benchmarking and consultation service (acc.com/smarterlaw) has proven to be a hit since its launch in 2019. While we are thrilled at the positive feedback we’ve received, we thought that it would be interesting to respond directly to hesitancies sincerely held by those who might otherwise use an external consultant to help them with a benchmarking or performance improvement process. So we gathered some common, frank reservations expressed by the legal ops community and sent them to Smarter Law Solutions CEO, Trevor Faure for his candid counsel.
“If I suggest to leadership that we should take on a consulting engagement to improve performance, then won’t leadership wonder why we just hired a legal ops professional? And won’t there be an acknowledgement that we are not performing well enough?”
The performance advisory industry is a multi-billion dollar global profession and all of the world’s leading companies use it for different aspects. For example, it is estimated that at any given time, each of the “Big Four” professional service firms support approximately 80% of the Fortune 100 companies, meaning that many such companies use more than one advisory consultancy at a time. High performing companies and functions do not regard intermittent support from independent specialists as a sign of “failure” any more than personal trainers only help the chronically unfit and unwilling! Instead, it is a sign of the maturity of both the professionals seeking to reach the next level of performance and that of the best consultancies.
However all that being said, there is also a reasonable level of scepticism about consultants partially due to several factors:
- the low bar of entry to consultancy, thus being open to non-experts and unproven theories, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman”: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, consult.”
- “The Law of Instruments” by Maslow, namely that for certain consultancies that are also selling a prescribed solution (i.e. legal advice, legal tech, interim staffing, contract management etc.), when they are selling hammers, every problem looks like a nail. Hence whatever question you think you might have, their answer will invariably involve a product or service from their core business but not necessarily your first, best answer. At best, consultants should be solution-agnostic with a transparent process that could lead to any solution that works best for the client whether they have a financial interest in that solution or not, and
- the consultant’s tempting opportunism to find problems where few exist. Valid advice sometimes comprises the analytical findings: “Nothing to see here” or “You can Do It Yourself” even if this might result in little or no further consulting work. This is why the basic ACC-Smarter Law service is free to ACC members.
“If I suggest to leadership that we should take on a consulting engagement won’t leadership think that I’m not qualified to run my legal department?”
There are a few sensitive truths worth exploring here:
Even if the performance improvement methodology and profession only came into widespread existence in the 1950’s, the legal operations role is much, much more recent and nascent. Less than 1% of all companies surveyed even have a legal ops function. Despite the positive proliferation of legal ops professionals, most have been in their role for less than a decade and very few have undertaken this role in 2 or 3 different companies, unlike say finance directors, procurement leaders or even HR professionals. For example, the Institute of Supply Management was founded in 1915 and administers two separate, exam-based professional certifications in order to practice in procurement.
Similarly, unlike these other examples, the fact that there isn’t a universally-recognised qualification for, or consistent path into a legal operations position means that different individuals bring different strengths – some are finance, procurement or performance improvement professionals translating these disciplines to the practice of law, some are legally-qualified professionals adding data analytics or technology expertise to their skillsets, some have backgrounds in administration, procurement or general management.
These truths may create a tension wherein a legal ops professional eschews external support in order to “prove” their capability, often for just the first or second time in a legal ops role, to sometimes cynical, overworked lawyers.
Furthermore, the broad scope of disciplines required for performance improvement in law is underappreciated. Smarter Law is described as spanning “Emotional Intelligence to Artificial Intelligence” as too often the profession focuses on technology and “left brain” data analytics as routes to improvement, missing the vital “right brain” human factors of personal development and behavioural change – and vice versa. A legal ops professional may be more or less qualified in one aspect or another and so being complemented by advisers with expertise in the other vital aspects is normal good practice. A seasoned finance director is comfortable calling in tax experts to augment their mature and established role, rather than fear that it would be putatively undermined.
The cliché that “lawyers only buy from other lawyers” has some abiding truth such that expert credibility often rests on the precedent legal experience of individuals, much as legal judgement relies on jurisprudential precedent. Advising a senior GC that they should reorganise their department or review their law firm relationships carries more weight if the adviser has run and reorganised large legal departments as GC, controlled hundreds of millions of dollars of law firm budgets or run law firms, regardless of what the objective, technical data might show. A popular example of this is a peer-to-peer GC workshop where individual issues are shared, commonalities discovered and practical solution paths designed (see smarterlawsolutions.com/workshops). There are surprisingly few GCs who do not believe that their department, role or company is somehow unique and so being able to see that there is nothing-to-very little that is “new under the sun” through the experiences of those who have sat in many comparable seats to their own helps broaden their perspective and accept challenging analytical findings and improvement advice more readily.
Taken together, the best consultants should boost the credibility and capability of legal ops professionals and be capable of holding peer-level conversations with their GCs.
“If I suggest to leadership that we should take on a consulting engagement won’t our staff be offended and/or worry about their job security?”
It would be ignoring basic human nature to think that some form of detailed assessment does not give rise to some corresponding degree of anxiety, except amongst the supremely confident, indifferent, or oblivious! Viewing performance improvement positively will often be difficult for those who naturally fear change or unfair judgements on their own performance and the validity of such sincerely-held hesitancy should not be discounted. This is why ownership of an improvement process is strongly emphasised. Between the two stakeholders of the business and the law sits the business lawyer as the vital, pivotal stakeholder. Therefore, each lawyer has the opportunity, nay obligation to define their mission then to analyse and improve its accomplishment, instead of less-qualified, relatively indifferent departments (whether established in 1915 or otherwise) doing it to them. Unfair judgements might then be avoided and eventual change focused on the opportunity of filling the glass to more than half full rather than the perceived “threat” of a half-empty measurement.
Bearing in mind this optimistic perspective of potential upsides, offence or worry are not the only typical reactions. There are also many staff who can already identify scope for improvement today – for both business and legal function – and are frustrated at the legal department’s inertia in addressing these opportunities. The current “Great Resignation” shows that a great number of people are willing to instigate major personal change if their organisations are unwilling to explore comparatively minor professional ones.
“If I suggest to leadership that we should take on a consulting engagement won’t other departments think that there are major issues in our department?”
A benchmarking assessment might well objectively and independently confirm the function to be a top performer, corroborating anecdotal, subjective views. Modern business functions are not run on selective impressions and intermittent feedback, however positive, and so the message to other departments is the universal maxim of operational excellence:
If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
Smarter Law Solutions CEO, Trevor Faure, consults with general counsel, law firms, and legal departments on performance and efficiency improvement. A GC since 1990, Faure led existential change at EY, Tyco International, Dell EMEA and Apple EMEA. He is the author of “Smarter Law: Transforming busy lawyers into business leaders,” and is a member of “The Times” Law 100 Panel advisory body, The International Bar Association Task Force, and is President of the Global General Counsel Academy.