Monday, June 18, 2012

Be Wary of the Natives.

Every once in while I hear about legal departments shaking things up and decentralizing – moving lawyers to sit with the business units they support.  It makes sense, the in house lawyers get to know more about the business, the players and proximity alone will lead to them getting wind of things they wouldn’t have before.  That makes the lawyers happy and the internal client happy – what’s not to love? 

The problem comes when the lawyer goes “native”, they start to identify more with the business unit than the law department.  They see first-hand the pressure of meeting quotas at the end of the month/quarter/year, or getting in that supplier fast so production isn’t held up.  At first, this insight will help them be better at their jobs.  They’ll be able to more accurately prioritize work and separate the real risks from the perceived ones.  But there’s a danger of becoming too tied up in the business side of it.  Real risks are downplayed because the business folk don’t think they’re a big deal.  Unit priorities begin to outweigh company priorities.  And the work starts to suffer.  The same thing happens when lawyers are improperly incentivized, but that’s another post.  For now, let’s focus on how to get the benefits of a decentralized law department without risking losing good lawyers to the natives.

First, both the lawyers and the business unit need to be reminded periodically that the client is the company and not the unit.  Give them some cross departmental work to focus on periodically.  Make at least one project a quarter be about a different business unit. 

Second, keep lines of reporting clear.  Lawyers work for the legal department, period.  They should always report up to the GC, not a unit leader.  Give the business unit input on annual reviews, but ultimate evaluation should be performed by the legal supervisor. 

Third, stay on top of what they’re doing.  Hold weekly status meetings to keep tabs of what each embedded lawyer is doing.  Help them prioritize workload based on the overall company goals, even if they conflict with the business unit goals.  And back them up when the unit complains. 
Finally, foster a good team.  Most business units do team building of some sort, even if it is informal lunches with co-workers.  Being on a team gives a sense of belonging and drives loyalty.  Make sure your lawyers get the same sense of team from you.  Take them to lunch occasionally; do team building outings or meetings, organize a softball team or some other activity that fosters the team environment within the legal department.  Make sure they understand their primary team is the “Team Legal” and it will go a long way towards keeping them out of the grip of the “Natives”.  

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