Building a Strategic Legal Department

By Concord Editorial   Nov 3, 2017
Strategic legal department represented by chess board and player

How does a legal team switch from being the last person you call when something goes wrong to a strategic leader of a company? We joined a panel of legal executives in all industries, ranging from finance to healthcare, to talk about the best ways to build and position the legal team as leaders within your company.

The state of modern business is something we talk a lot about here at Concord. It’s what first inspired our CEO, Matt Lhoumeau, to take action on a process he found to be archaic, and what continues to drive all of us towards changing the way people interact with contracts. Companies today are working at a faster rate than ever before, which often leaves compliance at risk. Growth suffers, while customers and employees alike continue to expect more than ever. In this new hypercompetitive economy, businesses need to have faster technology, greater scalability, and be smarter about how they work, while not sacrificing the compliance component.

Legal teams can play a huge role in this strategic company growth. But how, when Legal has the reputation of being the “bad guy,” or is the last one brought into the conversation?

Through a partnership with Argyle, we talked to five experts in the legal field: Darryl Gibbs, Associate General Counsel at AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company; Alan Konevsky, Senior Vice President and Strategic Initiatives Counsel at Mastercard; N. Ajoy Mathew, Senior Associate General Counsel at Children’s National Medical Center; Susan Steinthal, Executive Vice President, Deputy General Counsel, and Head of Consumer Legal at Citizens Financial Group; and Kyle Stone, General Counsel at the Illinois Department of Public Health. With a diverse range of company types and experiences, each panelist had an excellent perspective on how to design and position a legal team, and how to bring technology into the process to revitalize how legal departments work within a company.

While it may be ideal to build a team from the ground up, the reality is that often you inherit a team that’s been in place for years or even decades. As the GC for a government organization, Kyle Stone pointed out that you can’t always fire or hire as freely as you may like, which provides a unique set of challenges. If you’re unable to do the full restructuring that you may want to, one of the most important aspects of building a strategic department is listening to where your team fits in as a whole. Once you understand how you interact with other parts of a business and at what point in the process Legal is usually involved, you have a baseline for where you have room to improve and grow.

From here, integrating your team with the rest of the company is crucial. Susan Steinthal pointed out that Legal is often reactionary, and being part of what happens after something goes wrong is a huge part of her job. Being better at putting out those fires and how they handle them, however, is the key to building stronger relationships and helping teams think of Legal as an ally, not an enemy.

Positioning your team not only to be lawyers, but also closely involved in the operational aspects of a business is how Darryl Gibbs has positioned his team. Networking with other departments and building a relationship is a huge step forward in making sure Legal is involved at the right point in the process. Ajoy Mathew even deliberately sets up meetings with various departments just so they can brainstorm issues that might arise before they become a problem. That opens up a two-way street – when Legal needs help, the team already knows them, and they are often more willing to involve Legal from the beginning once that relationship is set up. Preemptively reaching out to departments goes a long way in building trust.

Once the perception of Legal as the “no” team changes to a team that is ready, willing, and has the knowledge to help, you’re in a much better position to be a strategic leader. Legal departments are increasingly taking a thought leadership role in companies, and building relationships that can subsequently help increase adoption of technology that is brought in.

Speaking of, where does technology fall into increasing Legal’s strategic role? It’s the cornerstone. A contract management platform allows Legal to be the department to solve the riddle of reconciling speed and compliance at a company-wide level. This uncaps growth and shifts the focus from being reactionary and tactical to becoming a trusted advisor and driver of growth. The approach your department takes towards technology is important as well. Alan Konevsky stressed that you need to remain flexible in how you handle industries in regards to changing regulations and technology. If you are a true partner in solving problems and encourage collaboration, other departments will come to you first. Creating a culture that encourages dialogue and agility will get those complex ideas off the ground and your company moving towards progress.

As a legal team, you want to be strategic, have the attention of the C-suite, and be a leader going forward. To do this, you have to bring the rest of the company with you into the future, whether it’s a cultural shift or implementing a new platform. With the right tools and methodology in place, you can take control of your positioning and be the strategic leader for your company.

Build the relationships that position Legal as an integral part business success and a strategic leader within the organization. Get the Essential Guide to Thriving in the Relationship Economy.

Other blog posts