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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

July 2014 edition

New GC? Making a successful transition in your first six months

Patrick Johnson, JD, Serengeti Law

Patrick JohnsonThe first months in any new role has a tremendous effect on how an employee is perceived and can determine that employee's success. For a leader in a company, this effect is amplified because more people are watching and trying to understand the style and substance of how this person going to lead them forward. And make no mistake – a new leader's reputation is not established within the company yet and people are looking closely for cracks in her armor. For a new General Counsel that reports to the CEO and the board of directors, the pressure can be enormous. Following are some key actions a GC can take in the first few months on the job to ensure success.

A new GC needs to first get to know her stakeholders, both to make that valuable first connection and to understand their needs and what they are looking for from the legal department. These are the people that will judge your success, and, as always, first impressions count. In the first couple of weeks, you need to make time with the CEO and board members to understand what they think success looks like and, perhaps more importantly, how your success will be measured. You should also make time for your internal clients: executives in charge of the business units you'll be supporting. This is the oh-so-important start of building your network within the company that, at the executive level, becomes as important as the job you do in determining your success.

Next, get to know and assess your team. Many a great plan to overhaul a department has been laid to waste because a leader failed to get her team on board first. You need them to not only do the best job they can do, but to feel like contributors to any changes you intend to implement. Meet with the team as a whole to share with them your short- and long-term vision of the legal department. Meet with your direct reports one-on-one to get to know important matters they're working on as well as their pain points, motivations, and questions. Determine if there are opportunities to add or subtract headcount based on your team's workload and talents and find ways to let your talent thrive. If you're able to get headcount, surround yourself with talented people who will commit to working with you to achieve the department's goals. Remember: ultimately aligning people with their strengths not only builds efficiencies, it also builds morale.

Once you've conducted meetings with your stakeholders and team, you need to get the lay of the land, meaning you have to learn about the company's industry, businesses, corporate culture, and politics. In a law firm, knowing a company's business often isn't necessary; you're working on a discrete legal matters in your field of expertise. In a company (especially at the GC level) nothing kills credibility quicker than showing you are not intimately knowledgeable about your company's business. Learn how decisions are made, how to present information both to upper management and to your team (this is always a part of a company's culture and can vary wildly), the lingo, and the groups that are most valued and thus have the most power. Different groups may have different cultures as well – the sales team's culture may be entirely different from the engineering team's culture, for example.

If you're coming from a law firm, the whole corporate environment may come as a shock, even if you've worked with corporate clients for decades. If you're coming from another in-house gig, especially if you've been at your former company for a long time, you'll need to be aware that what is considered a "win" at your old company may not be viewed as such in your new environment. For example, some companies may only view visible, individual accomplishments as a success, whereas at a more team-oriented company may look at this as boastful grandstanding and may place more value on team success. Be prepared to quickly learn and adjust to your new company's culture.

The next relationships to assess are those of your law firms, specifically the law firms with whom you do the greatest amount of highly visible work. If these are inherited law firms, you'll need to determine whether you're comfortable with them and, if not, bring in firms that you do trust. There's no better time than having a new sheriff in town to clear out dead wood and re-establish pricing and performance expectations. Firms that you trust, value client service and deliver highest quality of work with the greatest value should be the winners. All law firms say they value client service; however, delivering on the client service promise consistently is something that few firms tend to do. Once you are comfortable with your firms, you'll need to let them know how work will be done moving forward with budgets, billing guidelines and, ideally, project management techniques.

Now that you have established key relationships, determined what will be considered successful performance and learned about the company and its culture, it's time to make a six-month plan with the goal of building credibility and creating departmental momentum. A new GC needs to get some quick wins during this period in order to let stakeholders know she's on the right track. She also needs to continue to get buy-in from her team that is helping implement these changes. A couple of keys to consider here: first, you can't boil the ocean in six months, so focus on a couple key areas to achieve wins and make sure to achieve them. Second, make sure that these wins matter to your main stakeholder(s), because a win doesn't make a sound if your boss doesn't care to hear it. A substantial win is the goal here, but ideally it should tie in to your overall, long-term business priorities and reinforce new behaviors that you're trying to instill in your department.

One win that should always be considered is whether there are opportunities to save money and increase efficiency within the department in a measurable way. Why measurable? You've already talked to your stakeholders to determine what they consider wins for your position, now you have to show them you've achieved this success. The only way to do that convincingly is to have data and metrics to back up your claims. The first place to start is looking at the operational and product delivery process of your legal department and whether the right technology is there to support it. How do your attorneys stay on top of their legal matters? How do they communicate with their law firms?

There are many matter management software solutions that allow for the creation of matters in one place in which outside counsel can connect and add matter updates, documents and important matter information. You can then get regular reports on these matters so you will never be in the dark or surprised about what is going on in the legal department. The value of this can be measured in a variety of ways: decreasing the cycle time for various types of matters, reducing the overall estimated liability of the company, reduction of claims due to targeted training by the legal department, and more.

Another quick win is assessing the department's overall legal spend and how to best manage it. Again, many matter management software packages also have an e-billing component, allowing all legal invoices to be entered into the system. There are several advantages to doing this. The first is you will have a complete view of the spending of the legal department that is accurate and up-to-date – reports you can't get from your AP department. Second, you can actively manage the spend going through the system, like outside counsel rate changes, expense code violations and matter budget violations, which are automatically flagged in the invoices. This is real money saved that can be reported up to a GC's stakeholders.

Furthermore, this software saves in-house attorneys time approving invoices because it's automatically routed to invoice approvers – no carrying invoices from office to office for approvals. The decrease in invoice approval time not only improves the relationship with the department's law firms, it can allow for a negotiated early-pay discount. Money saved from instituting alternative-fee arrangements on matters can also be tracking in this type of system. New headcount can be justified by showing that a new in-house attorney will save the company money by cutting back legal spend in a certain practice area. Using data and analytics from an e-billing and matter management system can also allow a legal department to rate its outside counsel and shift work to attorneys that do excellent work and provide greater value. These are quick wins with a very clear monetary savings that can be shown in a report to stakeholders. If there is nothing in place regarding this type of technology, simply choosing a system and getting it implemented may be one of your six-month goals. The reporting described above could then by the next six-month goal.

Other areas where adopting technology can increase efficiency in the department are an IP management system if there is a great deal of IP work. A contract management system for contract-heavy departments saves untold amount of time looking up contract, clauses and contracts dates for your in-house attorneys. If your company receives a great deal of legal holds, considering legal hold software can also save a demonstrable amount of time as well. It all depends on what your stakeholders are looking for, the nature of your company and its business, and how your legal department is currently set up.

Coming into a legal department and creating immediate change is a difficult prospect for any GC. Getting to know all the key players in the company, the company's culture and business, and your law firms are the key to understanding where you should focus your efforts during the first six months. Once a plan is in place it needs to get clearly communicated to both your stakeholders and your team to set expectations and get everyone on board. Quick wins in a legal department often include achieving legal results, increasing efficiency, saving money, and better allocating resources. Using technology (or using it better) is an important tactic in achieving these goals. After six months, if your network is in place and you've achieved your planned goals, your initial credibility will be established and the groundwork will be laid for pursuing other long-term goals for the legal department and the company.


About the author

Patrick Johnson is currently a Senior Marketer for Serengeti Law who writes and speaks on legal department management and technology. As a five-year veteran of Thomson Reuters, Pat previously served as an Account and Implementation Manager where he consulted a portfolio of more than 190 corporate law department clients on legal department management using Serengeti's Tracker matter management and e-billing system, as well as consulting clients on-site and conducting trainings and seminars nationwide on the best practices of the top legal departments worldwide. A graduate of University of Virginia School of Law, prior to joining Serengeti, Pat served as a corporate M&A attorney for five years. Prior to law school, he worked as an IT consultant and financial analyst in California.


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