Empowering the masses to aid expansion

If there was a consistent theme that seemed to be running though my recent trip to Calgary for the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s annual meeting it was that in order to expand their departments in-house counsel know they need to evaluate what they’re currently doing before they can ask for more help. That means in-house should always be looking at what they are doing for the business units and questioning if it’s a service that can be moved off their plates and made part of the general knowledge and practice of the organization.

In her presentation at the CCCA with Janice Odegaard of Suncor Gail Harding of Canadian Western Bank pointed out that if her department can empower the business units to do more, that frees up her team to add value in other areas so that when they do need to get additional resources they are perceived as a department adding value to the company.

Harding was also part of our 9th annual roundtable. She and the others on our panel shared their similar approach. Bryce McLean of Pason Systems said his CFO “constantly reminds me to be responsible for the growth and convenience we’re giving the business because it’s sometimes too convenient to have a lawyer down the hall.”

In McLean’s opinion, general counsel in particular need to make sure the business knows what the legal department is there for, and what it’s not there for. “It doesn’t need to be about strict rules or policies, but making sure you’re working on things that are appropriate, but still requiring the business to make their own decisions, and to only come to you where it’s really necessary to get legal advice.”

Bonita Croft of Trican Well Service noted: “If you take the time to tell people why you’re giving certain advice, they tend to be able to use that and not come to you every single time when the same problem comes up.”

If law departments are hamstrung doing the same contract review or other repetitive tasks they can’t expand to take on initiatives that can really add value to the business.

The challenge is even more complex perhaps for Karen Jackson of the University of Calgary. When you’re working with taxpayers’ money it’s not just making sure the university realizes the value that the legal department adds, but, most taxpayers think of their money going to a university to fund teaching and research and a terrific student experience. “They don’t really understand why any of their money should be going to legal services.”

And rather than continually coming to legal every time the same issue comes up, Croft looks for every opportunity to train internal clients on how to manage those issues in the future, whether it’s creating precedent documents, or giving them checklists or just being the “help desk” but not necessarily writing the document for them every time.

There are a lot of methods these in-house lawyers have applied to help manage the volume because that’s the constant challenge in-house — you don’t need a lawyer doing everything all the time, particularly if you have smart business people who really can take what you teach them, and apply it in the future.

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