In-house counsel: Is it time to train your clients?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Legal departments overwhelmed by the tasks brought to them by their business clients may want to consider rolling out some training to better handle routine matters that aren’t necessarily the domain of the in-house counsel.

During a session at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual meeting in Orlando yesterday, four in-house counsel spoke on a panel called “Training Your Clients,” and offered tips to business clients so they can spend more time on more strategic matters.

The panel discussed the importance of defining a service delivery model with internal clients, developing a training plan, prioritizing training topics, conducting the training and sustaining behaviours — all with the goal of not just taking some of the load off the in-house team, but making clients better members of the overall team.

In-house teams generally take on one of three different models: functional (structured along legal specialties such as employment law, intellectual property, etc.); client-facing around business units; or a hybrid in which some lawyers focus on the business with shared-service lawyers who provide specialized legal services across the company.

“You need to define what is a legal issue versus what is a business issue,” said Amita Kent, regional lead counsel with Merck Canada Inc. in Montreal.

It’s also a good idea to determine with the business units and the legal team what tasks are considered preventative versus reactive efforts.

Perhaps most important though is to know what the overall business strategy is, said Marcy Hingst, assistant general counsel with Bank of America.

Once the overall strategies of the company is known to everyone, the legal department can focus its efforts on serving the business units that are pushing strategic objectives forward and be able to react to higher risk issues.

In dealing with the business units, Hingst suggested one way to reduce the kind of items that don’t really require the in-house team, a system be put in place so each unit knows exactly how much their requests cost in terms of legal team hours.

“Do your attorneys allocate their time back to the business units?” she asked.

Putting a number on it can make clients think twice before knocking at your door for every little thing.

There’s also benefit in having a better working relationship with the business units and established expectations. Kent talked about how Merck recently moved from having a service-level-agreement arrangement with its internal clients to a “collaborative working arrangement.”

“We try and look at what matters are ongoing, what are the budget constraints, the scope of work overall and try to define the role of what the client brings to the table,” said Kent. “It’s a good opportunity to say to the client, ‘Tell me all of this and I can better determine how to deal with the work and it won’t be a waste of time.”

The panel also outlined some of the top proactive training areas in-house should focus on when dealing clients — areas that can help keep the company out of trouble:

• attorney-client privilege
• e-mail etiquette
• data privacy
• regulatory issues
• use of social media

Importance of each topic will vary depending on the organization, but once identified as a priority, in-house departments should clearly define their training goals.

“Establish a schedule of when training is to be delivered and determine how often is it to be refreshed, which sessions are one-offs and which should be recurring,” daid Elena Kraus, director of commercial transactions with Walgreens Co.

Finally, she emphasized the importance of getting feedback from the internal clients who received training.

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