The perception of in-house legal departments as insular and mysterious can impede their ability to best serve the business. And while perceptions don’t always reflect reality, a repositioning of legal as an equal in the organization can have a dramatic effect on both the lawyers’ job satisfaction and overall efficiency in the business.
Just ask Kikelomo Lawal, deputy general counsel at Interac, Canada’s national debit card network. For the past six years, Lawal has overseen Interac’s legal, compliance, and regulations department. She knew her team of 10 lawyers, law clerks, compliance officers, and regulations writers were doing great work, but she also recognized there were opportunities for better communication between legal and the business units and improved efficiencies in workflow.
“At Interac, we don’t have some of the same challenges other law departments have — business units disregarding legal advice or avoiding the department altogether — but I wanted people in the organization to see us as members of the team,” says Lawal.
At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, Interac’s CEO, Mark O’Connell, launched an initiative to improve appreciation and understanding of the various roles and job functions within the 200-person organization. That campaign, coupled with Lawal’s promotion to deputy general counsel and her already close working relationship with the chief legal & development officer, Marc-André Lacombe, created a prime opportunity for rebranding the LCR department.
So she did exactly what you would expect from a Harvard-educated lawyer on a mission: she buried herself in research in an effort to identify a tangible framework for amping up service levels within Interac’s LCR department. “I did a lot of reading on law management, and there was a lot of good general information, but I didn’t see much on concrete steps.”
Frustrated with the lack of clear and concise strategies on how legal departments attack a rebranding exercise, Lawal decided to draft her own.
“I wrote down all my thoughts — concrete steps, misperceptions, misconceptions — all those things I thought we could get some traction on,” she explains. “I gave my team the hand-written document, and got their input on the content and on specific things I was asking the department to commit to.”
Her framework included a set of guiding principles for LCR, which spelled out directives such as, “Never let someone leave with the perception that you’ve put sand in their gears; they must know and believe that you have — or can get — oil to make things flow better,” and new service commitments to the business units around guaranteed turnaround times for drafting non-disclosure agreements, regulation interpretations, and consulting services agreements.
“We started with modest service commitments,” she explains. “For NDAs and consulting agreements, we have a worksheet that people fill out to make drafting easier. Our pledge is to turn those around within two days.”
She also set up a legal “inbox” to organize all incoming requests for new projects. Historically, people within business units contacted individual lawyers on her team directly when they needed LCR’s involvement, but that made a challenging job of tracking assignments and creating metrics around efficiency. “This is an essential repository for all incoming requests, and there’s less likelihood of things falling through the cracks.”
Lawal encouraged her team to adopt more constructive approaches in dealing with requests from the business units, and cautioned them about jumping to conclusions with respect to the merit of those requests.
“I tried to encourage the team to approach things from a positive perspective, but when analyzing issues, we always have to ask ourselves, ‘What could go wrong and how are we going to address that?’”
“It’s all of our responsibility to raise the profile of the department and have people understand there’s a reason why we do the things we do. At the same time, we need to recognize there are accommodations and adjustments we can make.”
Armed with a motivated team and a new framework for working with the business, Lawal knew she was off to a good start, but she also recognized that the success of her initiative was predicated on how effectively she could communicate these ideas to the business units.
Lawal came up with the idea of using a mind map — a diagram that visually organizes complex information — as a tool to communicate LCR’s new mission statement and service commitments to Interac’s business units.
She enlisted Disa Kauk, a Toronto-based graphics facilitator who has created mind maps for companies such as: GE, Bell Canada, KPMG, and others, to help in the effort. Kauk created mind maps that detailed LCR’s guiding principles as well as the department’s service commitments.
Lawal knew her success in the effort hinged on securing buy in, both from her team and from the leaders of the business units. “I wasn’t just speaking to the executive team and asking them to drive the message down to everyone in the organization,” she says.
In the spring of 2013, Lawal invited the entire Interac organization — employees and consultants — to an open house event where they could learn about LCR’s rebranding effort and how it promised better service from the team. “Everyone attended, from the CEO down. We had snapshots of our internal web pages that we had updated outlining the new approach. We ran videos and displayed Frequently Asked Questions, and best of all, we had the mind map drawn live.”
The feedback has been positive, says Lawal, and the results of the effort are starting to be measured in formal ways. She has created metrics — for turnaround times, business unit usage, and individual productivity of lawyers — that are measured on a monthly basis. She has also seen an increase in both the number of requests processed through the legal inbox, and, more informally, in the frequency of people “stopping by” the legal department.
“We’re not here to rap people on the wrists,” she adds, speaking to another common misconception about lawyers. “We wanted to promote a better appreciation for the skills the team brings, and a better understanding of each of us from a personal perspective.”
Keys to success
Looking to rejig the dynamic of your legal department? Follow Kikelomo Lawal’s three essential steps to ensure a successful undertaking.
1 Secure buy in from all members of the legal department.
2 Include everyone in the organization, not just the executive team.
3 Find a creative and engaging way of communicating your message to the business.