High focus, a pragmatic bias and technology are keys to navigating cost-cutting pressures in-house

Cost-cutting and workload can at times be inversely proportional: ALS provider

High focus, a pragmatic bias and technology are keys to navigating cost-cutting pressures in-house
Dodd says in-house lawyers in cost-cutting environments should attend only essential meetings.

In uncertain economic times, the great conundrum for in-house counsel is that cost-cutting and workload are inevitably inversely proportional.

Faced with this dilemma, Mark Dodd, head of market insights at Lawyers on Demand, an international alternative legal services provider, canvassed some of the in-house lawyers on the firm’s 4500-strong legal professionals roster to determine how in-house counsel might best thrive in today’s budget-tightening environment.

“What we discovered was that high focus, a bias toward pragmatism and the use of technology are the keys to navigating the cost-cutting pressure,” he said.

High focus, it turns out, begins with prioritizing.

“In-house counsel must understand that they have so many jobs that they can’t possibly do everything,” Dodd said. “But prioritizing ruthlessly is not their natural instinct, partly because many of them are perfectionists.”

Arguably, this advice applies to in-house practice generally and is not limited to cost-cutting scenarios. Still, budget tightening often comes with new or intensified tasks, such as restructuring, supplier renegotiation, and employment law matters, making prioritizing even more essential.

Here, Dodd suggests that the Pareto Principle can be helpful. The principle holds that in many cases, roughly 80 percent of consequences or outcomes derive from 20 percent of causes or efforts. That demonstrates the importance of identifying value-laden efforts when prioritizing; for example, managing bet-the-company litigation or key commercial contracts are items that could fit the bill.

Even value-laden work, however, can have wasteful steps in the process. Simplifying processes by removing these steps, such as double-handling information, attending unproductive meetings, and getting to the point in communications by making the necessary actions plain instead of perfecting the reasoning behind the advice, can enhance efficiency.

Contract negotiations, Dodd suggests, are ripe for simplification. While the common or even instinctual practice may be to start with a meeting, it can be more efficient to eliminate it, instead circulating marked-up documents that include explanatory comments.

 “Consider saving negotiation meetings for the real roadblocks in the contracting process, especially if meetings require long lead times to arrange,” Dodd says.

And while lawyers intuitively advise colleagues to seek them out earlier rather than later, doing so can be counterproductive in a cost-cutting environment. Instead, Dodd suggests that in-house lawyers should stay clear of “non-legal” scenarios, such as internal meetings threshing out contract specifications or negotiating sessions that only involve pricing.

“In these situations, it may be better to simply stay up-to-date on the decisions and conclusions reached at these meetings,” Dodd says. “There are times when lawyers might prefer to be in the conversation, but in lower risk situations in a time-pressured environment, they might better save their attendance to when they’re essential to the conversation.”

Budget tightening also breeds an increase in competing deadlines. This means that in-house lawyers frequently don’t have the time and resources to “gold-plate” work, as external lawyers might for clients willing to pay for perfection by the hours. Dodd’s advice here is to “learn what to care about,” which comes from experience or guidance from senior lawyers.

Legal research aids can be critical here.

“By getting an instant and legally current position, you can focus your time on tailoring your advice to your organization using your bespoke knowledge of the law and your business to create pragmatic opinions for management,” Dodd says.

Cost-cutting pressures mandate that in-house lawyers avoid or minimize their involvement in committees, taskforces or project teams that welcome lawyers for their generic skill set even when their specific legal talents are not required.

“You end up with more time for the core legal work,” Dodd says. “So decide what to focus on and stay really focused.”

Soft skills matter too.

“Boosting morale with humour and positivity can be pivotal in helping with the stress, fatigue and uncertainty that pervades budget tightening,” Dodd says.

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