Legal Advice – How to increase your chances of being listened to and connecting with your colleagues.

Background and Introduction

I have recently been consulted about best practice tips for delivering legal advice to the business both from a sole in-house lawyer perspective; and how to set up team approaches to this to ensure consistent advice is delivered to the business.

For those with teams, it is highly recommended that you and the team agree ‘Working Protocols’ for delivering advice to the Business. This may vary from internal client to internal client or between different types of matters following discussions between the team and your colleagues.

Working Protocols for legal service delivery would typically contain any of the following that is relevant:

• formats for provision of legal advice
• time frames for responses (for different matters/colleagues)
• business and culture terminology
• service level agreements
• feedback forms and tables
• policies for when external lawyers are engaged – may include standard letters of instruction on volume related work or specific transactions
• schedule of relationship management meetings with key clients
• time recording information
• document assembly systems
• legal project management policies and systems
• how IT case management systems are used.

Here are some tips for delivering legal advice the business will listen to:

1. ‘Seek first to understand, then be understood.’ Stephen Covey. Before delivering any legal advice – actively listen by being in ‘receive mode’ during the information flow from your client; and then repeating back what you have heard before proffering any advice, solution or recommendations. Leading on active listening is the fastest way to build trust with clients.

2. The advice must use the language of your organisation to demonstrate that you know and understand the business. This is another basic step to establish or maintain your credibility to be listened to. Therefore collate the terminology/jargon of the business unit(s) you advise and keep these in the Working Protocols of your service delivery process.

3. In your Working Protocols, you would keep templates to be used for each client or type of matters.

4. Do not be afraid to take time out to research/ask for external assistance or consider important matters referred to you, particularly if you have been ‘highjacked’. Craft some phrases or stories that you are comfortable delivering to your client to gain this crucial time. For example, you could use this analogy which every one is familiar with – ‘Think of me like your family doctor. Some questions I can answer immediately and some I will need to refer to a Consultant”

5. Always include an ‘executive’ summary, as the first page, which should include your conclusions. Depending on your client and the matter this may either contain options and/or your recommendations.

6. Where possible your advice or briefing note should include relevant risk/benefits focusing on the ‘rewards’ of the proposed recommended action on the front page. You need to address ‘what’s in it for them’ to accept and implement your advice from their perspective.

7. Further time/legal costs to the particular matter should be mentioned if further action is required, whether internally or externally. If you have any flow charts for particular matters (such as an employment tribunal case) then include these – do not assume your client knows how long it takes.

8. As clients do not, normally, want to have to read the legal analysis then this should not appear on the first page. The appropriate places for this is if not included in your advice note is in:
a. an appendix attached to the executive summary; or
b. kept on your transaction file; or
c. a central department knowledge depository (preferably software supported depending on budget allowed for this or the organisation’s systems you have access to; or
d. a combination of these.

9. Wherever it is retained it would be good practice to include a succinct précis of the instructions/information on which the advice was based.

10. Where you want to establish a team standard advice format for the business – design and agree a format of advice/briefing note in a team meeting (preferably one which does not deal with any other items of business and you have previously asked them to bring their ideas to the table).

11. Take into account that ‘One size does not fit all’ and that you (and your team) may have to prepare different formats for different clients. This can be done alone or as part of setting up your team’s Working Protocols (this term implies these can be changed if and when a better system comes along).

12. In your legal team internal discussions ensure that they have assessed their clients goals and objectives as well as the client’s level of authority and understanding of legal knowledge and procedures. This will also assist sharing of information about client preferences within the team; and facilitate best practice discussions both within the team and with your clients at different levels within the organisation.

13. Once agreed within the legal team, then discuss and agree the results with your clients. This can be conducted at all levels within the organisation. This is especially important if you want ‘buy in’ to a change in how you want to serve your business colleagues in achieving the organisation’s goals. This may lead to a fruitful discussion on how best to instruct and involve you as well or it may be agreed in isolation – so be prepared.

14. If you are a sole in-house lawyer then you would just agree these with your internal clients; and these may be wrapped up in a service level agreement (SLA’S), depending on the culture of the organisation. SLA’s can take a long time to negotiate and can be viewed as fixed. Therefore just be careful when setting these up that they do not become too bureaucratic or onerous. Our recent GCRC* survey showed mixed feelings about the usefulness of SLA’s in the in-house community.

15. Also consider do your require a central ‘electronic’ depository of advice/precedents by topic delivered to the business which is accessible by both legal team members and the business. If so on what basis do you grant access. Is this different for ‘expert’ departments such as HR or Procurement or Investment Bankers, etc. A significant amount of time is wasted trying to locate relevant precedents/advice emails/briefing papers in email folders or paper matter files, normally under pressure.

16. If you have a ‘central electronic depository’ you can also include any of the items referred to at the beginning of this blog. If you don’t already have standard documentation on your system (confidentiality agreements, letters of employment etc) consider online document assembly that can be completed by your internal experts (Contract managers, HR managers). This could also assist with workflow – you will need to consider how it would fit in with your department and organisation.

Appendix A – Suggested headings for your template discussions with team and clients

1. Brief summary of question or facts.
2. Relevant options (minimum 3-5 maximum) with risk and benefits or Summary with detail in an attachment to the advice note and/or the file.
3. Conclusions – where possible confined to yes or alternatives see point 2 above.
4. Costs/Time implications of recommendations; and any time/cost savings by delivering this in-house or doing business a different way.
5. Process or Time Map as an appendix, where appropriate.

*This short report will be available in 2014.

Any questions/comments on this blog to ann@beyondthebrief.com

Beyond the Brief is a specialist business offering strategic coaching, leadership; management and interpersonal skills training for the legal profession. Ann also delivers team away days as well as facilitation process meetings for in-house teams. Two software products (SMARTPANEL and Agelixa) that GCRC and I recommend to support your effectiveness as an in-house team.

The GC Research Club (GCRC) blends social media expertise, a wealth of specific industry knowledge and metrics management into a cost effective approach to creating value, improving productivity and protecting and growing your department’s contribution to company and reputation. We harness in-house legal networks to create value, improve productivity. We help our clients gain the competitive advantage through customer participation, workforce collaboration, and business partner optimisation.