The Ultimate Guide to Legal Operations: Part E

IHL Leadership Dilemma

by GLS GROUP July 02, 2020

leadership idea

The reality is that most GCs do
now recognise that they must manage potentially massive
changes to how they operate – something that is exciting on
the one hand, but also fraught with what
feels a lot like “personal” risk.

A rapidly changing game

Regardless of size, all legal teams need to increasingly adopt a “legal operations” approach to ensure that they can best use available resources to support their business whilst enhancing their value recognition within the business.

This has become an even more acute priority as the world struggles with a rapidly changing global landscape where accepted business models have proven far too brittle – efficient, potent and adaptable IHLs are absolutely critical.

Given the emphasis that typical CEOs and CFOs place on IHLs performing like any other business unit, IHL leaders must give serious thought as to how to improve IHL performance before someone decides to do it for them.

Going forward, having an IHL capacity that is responsible for billing, accruals, technology, metrics, forecasts, budget, etc. will not be considered a luxury but rather a basic necessity of a high performing IHL team.

As most IHLs are not likely to be able to afford a full-time person dedicated to each of these tasks, they will have to figure out how to split the role up among the existing team or to efficiently outsource to external support providers.

For most IHLs, the task of managing the enormous amount of change required will come down to the relevant General Counsel / Head of Legal. That is, IHL leadership, in all its forms, must now proactively rise to the occasion.

Inaction is not an option

Heads of legal are increasingly realising that doing nothing is simply no longer an option. Those that do nothing will find themselves either redundant or stagnating in terms of career progression.

now & later

Historically, whilst the CFO and CEO might have told the legal team how much budget they had, performance review and scrutiny typically did not make its way through the doors of the IHL. That was then, it sure is not now.

IHL leaders claiming to be "too busy with the day-to-day to find time to plan" will find themselves falling further behind "peer" departments and competitors that have deliberate plans to focus resources and effort.

As such, all IHL leaders need to pro-actively start to implement an active and dynamic transformation agenda as doing so is now simply part and parcel of the New Law IHL leadership remit.

Nevertheless, we still see considerable levels of inertia within the IHL community as IHL leaders are often still trying to get comfortable with the risks associated with transformation change - a legitimate concern even though it can be managed.

IHL leaders must accept and manage change risk

The reality is that most GCs do now recognise that they must manage potentially massive changes to how they operate – something that is exciting on the one hand, but also fraught with what feels a lot like “personal” risk.

In truth, IHL transformation doesn’t just pose operational and organisational risk – it does in fact pose a level of personal risk to IHL leaders who must preside over transformation change programs.

jumping gap

It goes without saying that the potential of personal risk for IHL leaders can pose a significant source of consternation for IHLs in terms of how they approach transformation plans.

The personal risk manifests itself in the “mind’s eye” of many IHL leaders as they worry that the wrong transformation recommendation or decision can prove to be unpopular, unsuccessful and costly.

Moreover, in today’s cost sensitive climate, no IHL leader wants to be responsible for a failed project that is ultimately regarded as a misallocation of finite resources.

Adverse project outcomes can blowback (fairly or unfairly) on GCs reputationally and professionally. Someone is frequently “hung out to dry” and a failed project tends to scuttle support for future initiatives.

Accentuating the challenges associated with the “fear of failure” is the average lawyer’s approach to “risk” generally. Lawyers tend to be exceptionally risk averse which can lead to “analysis paralysis”.

Lawyers tend to operate with far less of the metaphoric “fast twitch muscle fibres” than decision makers in other management domains.

Fear of consequences and slow decision making explains why increasing numbers of IHL teams have had transformation agendas forced upon them by centre management – relegating them to be passengers in the process.

We do recognise that, particularly in the current climate, it does take strength and conviction on the part of the IHL leader to back investment of resources (especially time) into new ways of doing things.

Processing and managing transformation risks as they apply directly to IHL leadership is a challenging area … until the individual leader realises that doing nothing carries far greater risks.

Finding a framework for action

So, how do we get a group of people that are not known for their radical decision-making agility to start responding in an effective and responsive manner?

As Ken Grady notes, “project management”” is a sexy buzz word in the legal industry right now, but "lawyers and law firms are generally terrible at it".

Well, the simple answer is to rapidly acquire the relevant information about what transformation entails and how to eliminate as many associated risks as possible. – We unpack some of these “risks” at Part K: 10 Things That Can Sink Your Legal Operations Agenda.

Fortunately, successful IHL Transformation programs can mitigate all related risks, including “personal risk” by leveraging informed decision making and insisting on “success based” implementations. Reading this Guide is a good “foundational” step.alarming question

A central tenet for effective IHL transformation is to keep lawyers focused on what they are really good at by introducing protocols into the overall IHL ecosystem that enable this enhanced focus.

Whilst new skills must be acquired to achieve this outcome, this approach is also a recognition that lawyers, when tasked correctly, can make a hugely valuable contribution to the business.

IHL leaders need to be really certain of the basis upon which they are doing things – they want to eliminate the risks of things going wrong, even if it results in less than agile decision making. We must accept and work with these traits.

Joshua Fireman also notes that lawyers have an “inglorious history of internal non-compliance” (whether it be document management, security protocols, filing meta-data collection etc).

So, the framework for action that we recommend does not necessarily entail anything too radical. In fact, it centres around working with the “strengths” you find in most IHLs teams in order to increase your transformation agenda’s chances of success. 

So we have developed a 5 limbed strategy that provides an effective framework for getting IHLs effectively engaged in the IHL Transformation process - we present that in the next section.

Getting IHLs engaged in transformation effectively – GLS’s 5 Limbed Strategy

In order to create optimal conditions for the IHL leadership to more comfortably engage in necessary IHL transformation, we have developed and recommend a 5 limbed framework for action as follows:

understand the upside: lawyers like to be conversant in “consequence” scenarios – so we need to make sure that the IHL community is super clear on the case for legal operations i.e. the benefits that it can bring to both the IHL team and the business that they serve (See Part D – Benefits of Legal Operations); 

let lawyers be lawyers: lawyers are super-efficient at acquiring new information - this will allow the IHL community to rapidly acquire the information they need to achieve a base line level of legal operations knowledge (this Guide hopefully contributes to that knowledge acquisition).

Debate legal

Indeed, this was one of the primary motivators for us to prepare this Guide – to fast track the acquisition of information that IHLs need to swiftly implement a suitable legal operation agenda;

correct transformation decision making framework: introduce IHLs to R.P.L.V. decision making, i.e. a methodology that can be bolted on like an exoskeleton to the “Business As Usual” work that IHLs are already doing to support their business. In this context transformation can become a welcomed “by product” of the work that IHLs are already doing;

Related Resource: See our White Paper R.P.L.V.: IHL Transformation Decision Making.

• encourage a self-authored change agenda: not just a “nod of the cap” to the typical lawyer’s love of “control” but also because self-authored change, implemented at a pace that matches an organisation’s ability to embrace new ideas, is almost always the most effective strategy; and

• guaranteed to succeed: each phase of an IHL transformation must be architected and implemented in a way in which guarantees success by utilising a “pass and proceed” methodology (we will talk more about this in Part K: 10 Things That Can Sink Your Legal Operations Agenda).

thought cogs

The IHL Transformation journey will run far more smoothly when it is implemented in a manner that is calibrated to the inherent strengths (and weaknesses) of the lawyers undertaking it and implemented in an incremental fashion.

During the balance of this Guide we will explore the above principles to varying degrees as we continue our tour through the fundamentals of legal operations. 

Fortunately, as you can see from the above, the disposition and tendencies of IHLs that have made them less “change” receptive can also, when framed in the correct light, be a success factor for IHL transformation.

Put another way, it’s about working with what you already have – a consistent theme in most GLS transformation recommendations.

For most, it is only after you have proved you can maximise all the resources that you already have that you can establish a credible case for more resources to tackle more audacious transformation projects.

Getting it right – a huge upside

IHL leaders who develop a track record for successful transformation projects and/or departmental turnarounds, will enjoy an altogether different career trajectory and economic outlook.

Going forward, an impressive IHL CV will not be one that merely notes that you worked at Company X, Y and Z - it will be all about “what did you achieve at Company X, Y and Z and how did it benefit those companies”.

New Law IHL CVs will feature successful instances of transformation successes and tangible examples of increased value scenarios that were delivered to the business that that those IHLs supported.

Again, given how desperately difficult things have become – for the IHL leader who can successfully embrace IHL Transformation and evidence a track record of success – the world will be their oyster.

Indeed, the GLS Group is firmly of the view there has never been a more exciting time to be part of the IHL community– profound change is occurring, which if leveraged, can deliver supersonic progression.

Essential Observations/Tips:

• Implementing a legal operations agenda can be scary as it involves personal risk for IHL leaders
• However, the risk of not transforming ultimately poses a far greater threat to the IHL leader & teams
• Default “lawyer tendencies” can promote both failure and success in IHL Transformation outcomes
• IHLs can rapidly inform themselves as to what is required to successfully transform and manage risks
• GLS recommends a 5 limbed strategy to IHL leaders as they embark on an IHL transformation 
• IHL Transformation success will drive IHL career progression



Now with the benefits of a legal operations competency understood, and IHL Leaders are better primed to embrace such change, we want to now focus on how you can more readily map out your own IHL Transformation journey.


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Copyright Global Legal Solutions 2020 
GLS Group - Nominated by Financial Times as the:
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Innovation through Technology 
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