Survival Guide for Sole Counsels in an In-House Environment

Fiona KonetzkyFiona Konetzky
Written by
Fiona Konetzky
March 19, 2024

As a sole counsel in a dynamic and challenging economic environment, you are faced with a myriad of legal challenges. This guide aims to provide you with practical strategies to navigate and excel in your role.

First things first!

Are you starting a new job as the sole in-house counsel of a company and don't know where to begin? Due to the difficult economic situation, the number of employees in the legal team has shrunk to one person? Don’t panic, you will handle this, but you can't tackle everything simultaneously!

→ Understand your role and tasks

Making yourself familiar with your role and tasks sounds like common knowledge, but you should take some time to review this from a bird's perspective to not get lost in all the requests, pending tasks, and urgent to-do’s.

Ask yourself: Where do you see a need for action? What does your management expect from you? What tasks have been handled by your predecessor? Based on that try to identify the key areas that you need to focus on. But as said, you can’t tackle it all at the same time. You need to prioritize the key areas based on their urgency and importance.

One way to approach this is to assess the

  • legal key areas: e.g. data protection, contract management, IP rights, corporate housekeeping tasks, labor law, etc;
  • based on their maturity levels: e.g. initial, advanced, optimized;
  • and their criticalness: e.g. low, medium, high;

for your company.

You can draft a matrix and score each key area to get a clear picture of what needs your attention first, second, and third…

Key areas that you have identified to have a low maturity level, but are critical for your company should be tackled first. Based on the matrix, come up with a priority list and execute the to-do’s step by step.

→ Align your tasks with your company’s strategy and risk appetite

After you have created the maturity/criticality matrix, schedule a meeting with your line manager and - best case - your respective C-level executive to discuss your assessment and the priority list. Understand their expectations towards the legal department as well as their risk appetite and align your legal strategies accordingly.

Once that is done you can roll up your sleeves and get started!

Don't work in a silo and challenge the status quo!

→ Connect with your company’s stakeholders

Legal serves as an internal service department, whether you like it or not. Building relationships with your key stakeholders across various departments is essential to avoid working in a legal silo, that is not aligned with the wider business needs. Try to understand other’s needs and pain points when collaborating with you.

→ Act as a business enabler by applying legal design principles

This insight will help you to put off your legal glasses and to tailor the legal services to meet the business requirements. Demonstrate to your stakeholders how legal can facilitate business operations rather than acting as a roadblock. Showcase the value of legal services in enabling strategic initiatives and fostering growth.

Dare to challenge the status quo of existing processes and procedures. Apply legal design principles when (re-)creating processes, templates, or anything else. Yes, “legal design” is a buzzword, but worth exploring! “Legal design is the application of human-centered design to the world of law, to make legal systems and services more human-centered, usable, and satisfying.” as Margaret Hagan, Executive Director at the Legal Design Lab from Stanford Law School explains. I could write a whole article on how legal design has completely changed the work of my team recently for the better. If you are interested in this, contact me or research online, there are great resources available.

Especially as a sole counsel, the timely investment in making the interaction with legal more customer/user friendly pays off. It shall save you time answering over and over the same questions and explaining the same legal topics to your stakeholders.

→ Manage your stakeholders’ expectations

Communicate with your stakeholders what falls under your remits as a sole counsel and what doesn't. This means: setting realistic expectations regarding timelines, resource availability, and the scope of legal support.

I have often experienced that the legal department is used for "reading and understanding content", which sometimes goes hand in hand with a shift of responsibility. This should be avoided. Make it clear that you have legal matters under control, but if necessary, clearly distance yourself from taking on tasks from other departments.

Focus on digitalization and automation

Making use of technology in the legal field is essential to stay on top of your game as an in-house counsel. Even if you are the only person on your team, exploring digitalization and automatization opportunities for your day-to-day tasks is worth it.

→ Collaborate with your IT team

Being mindful of your budget, you can't always purchase all the legal tech tools that would make your life easier. But you can use the resources available at your company. Partner with your IT team to understand what tools exist and what technology can be potentially also used for your purposes.

This could be an existing ticketing tool and/or project management tool, which can be used for legal intake and matter management. Maybe there is a workflow software in place that you could use to streamline your contract management and other tasks. Also, think about document discovery to capture metadata, maybe your company uses any technology that would allow you to leverage this data of your work. If your company has an e-learning platform, explore the possibilities to record and automate mandatory legal training sessions for your colleagues. As you can see, there is a lot of unlocked potential in each company that you should investigate to strive for efficiency and automation.

→ Contract Lifecycle Management Tool - A Must-Have

If you do not yet have a contract cycle management (CLM) tool in place, this is what I would start with. Having a CLM solution as a sole counsel is essential and will be a game changer for your daily work.

CLM means that the software covers the whole lifecycle of a contract in your company: From creating contract templates, drafting contracts based on templates, reviewing and negotiating contracts, collecting internal approvals, e-signing the contracts, collecting metadata, archiving contracts to creating meaningful reporting of the contracts processed. All this can be done by one tool and saves you tons of time if implemented correctly. Most importantly, it allows your stakeholders to process contracts without the help of legal! No matter if they are working in account management, business development, finance, HR, IT, marketing, sales… If you provide them with the contract templates needed and set up the CLM tool in a way that suits your business procedures, they can serve themselves.

If you already have a CLM tool, that’s great! Make sure that you get the best out of it. Also, your stakeholders should be familiar with the solution. Assess if the CLM tool meets your and your stakeholder's needs and talk to the provider to find solutions if it doesn't. And if that does not help: There are so many solutions out there, each with a different USP, find your right fit.

Last but not least: Connect with peers and industry networks

When I started as a sole counsel, I was drawing in work and did not even think of connecting with peers or networking… There was no time for this, I thought. Only after I had the chance to recruit an amazing team, I started connecting with peers via platforms like Openli and others. Looking back, this was a mistake. I can see now how much benefit these communities bring to an in-house counsel, especially if you are the only one.

Make use of the templates and knowledge shared, find sparring partners to discuss certain legal but also business-related topics and get different perspectives on how legal matters are handled in other companies. The network can also help with keeping yourself up-to-date when it comes to new legislation or industry standards. This is invaluable and will support you on your journey.

As a sole counsel, you play a crucial role in safeguarding your company's legal interests while enabling its growth and success. By prioritizing tasks, optimizing processes, embracing digital tools, and fostering connections with stakeholders and peers, you can navigate the challenges of your role effectively and contribute significantly to your company's journey.

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