By: Lloyd M. Johnson Jr.


When thinking about transforming the legal department into a strategic partner for the business, it helps to see it as a journey rather than an overnight change. And Nancy Jessen, senior vice president of Legal Business Solutions at UnitedLex, breaks that journey down into four increasingly sophisticated steps.

Jessen explains that law departments need to evolve from simply providing substantive legal knowledge to having business acumen; to efficiently and effectively providing value-added services to the business; and providing corporate leadership and contributing to company strategy and success.

If a law department is to complete this journey, the people who make up the department have to evolve along that same continuum. That is, they need to change. And as anyone who has worked to transform an organization will tell you, people’s resistance to change is often the biggest obstacle along the way. In reality, people don’t dramatically change the way they think and work just because their boss announces that they should. So it is up to the general counsel to foster, encourage and drive that change.

The question is, how do you do that? Carey O’Connor, senior vice president,
general counsel and secretary at Flowserve, the Dallas-based global provider of pumps and other flow-control products, has been working on just that issue. In her push to transform Flowserve’s legal department – and enable change across her 85-person staff –
she has learned some valuable lessons about what works when it comes to the people side of transformation.


Sell the Change

To begin with, O’Connor cites one of the fundamentals of effective change management: You have to make the case for change and paint the big picture of why the department needs to adopt new approaches. However, she adds, it’s critical to sell change at the individual level as well. “It is important to sell employees on how the change will improve their daily work experience, not just on how the change benefits the company,” she says. “For example, if one of our attorneys wants more work/life balance, I will discuss how optimizing the work we perform, if done correctly, will help him or her have more control over their schedule.”

O’Connor also focuses on helping employees broaden their perspective on the legal work they handle so they can learn how to think outside the box in terms of how to manage the work more efficiently. Instead of simply telling people to reduce costs by x percent or speed up work cycles, O’Connor recommends having individual discussions that help employees understand what it means to be more efficient and effective and, ultimately, focus on higher-value work. “Employees rarely think they are not efficient, so telling someone to just do more work in less time can cause a credibility gap between you and your employees,” she says. “I have found it is more effective (and, frankly, more fun) to brainstorm with them on how we can perform work differently. It gives us an opportunity to be creative and to be proactive in how we manage our work, versus always reacting to the work we are given. This helps employees feel they have a greater ability to manage their workload versus the work managing them.”


Tie Change to Career Paths

Of course, part of the overall message should be that people need to change if they want to advance their careers. “General counsel do not promote lawyers based on substantive legal knowledge,” O’Connor says. “That’s just not what the job is about. Being an in-house attorney is about solving business problems in a proactive, efficient manner. Substantive legal knowledge is important, but we consider that table stakes for our lawyers. A successful in-house attorney needs business acumen and organizational awareness in addition to functional legal expertise. This is particularly true for anyone who wishes to lead a legal department.”

In essence, the general counsel can make it clear that staying focused on that first level – legal knowledge – is a recipe for a stalled career. And helping attorneys understand where they are on that evolutionary continuum can lead to some aha moments. That was evident at a recent meeting where Nancy Jessen presented her transformation stages. One attorney looked up with surprise and said, “Oh, no – that’s me. I’m stuck at the ‘legal knowledge’ level and not growing.” She was not alone in that reaction, and that kind of awareness can help people get unstuck and change.


The Process Mind-set

To enable people to change, it’s also useful to foster a process-oriented mind-set, because that can shift the focus from doing things right to doing the right things – that is, to higher-value work.

Attorneys tend to think of their work in terms of complete, monolithic tasks – reviewing a contract or filing a lawsuit – rather than a process. But most legal work involves repetitive processes with multiple steps, and getting people to understand that can help them improve and move ahead. “Optimizing a legal department requires a leader to see how each area of legal responsibility – contracts, litigation, intellectual property, M&A, labor and employment, etc. – involves repetitive processes, regardless of the specific facts or location of the legal work,” O’Connor says.

For example, when one is defending against a lawsuit, the facts behind the lawsuit will differ and the jurisdictional requirements may change, but the core work flow will essentially be the same. “No matter in which country the lawsuit was filed, the work flow for handling the lawsuit is essentially the same. You have to hire local counsel, assemble and present the facts, evaluate the chances for success, and decide whether settlement is appropriate,” she says.

Having a process-oriented mind-set can help people see their roles differently. It makes it possible to break work down into component tasks and then, say, allocate routine tasks to paralegals or other legal staff, allowing in-house attorneys to focus on strategic issues linked to business outcomes. It also provides a more granular view that helps attorneys identify and eliminate redundant and inefficient work.


Learning to Prioritize

O’Connor also helps her legal team improve their ability to operate effectively through a “rating and ranking risk” exercise. Here, legal employees brainstorm to identify hypothetical legal problems that could arise. The group then plots these threats on a quadrant based on two variables: the probability of the event occurring and the level of impact that it would have on the company. The result: insights into which issues the department should focus on.

However, O’Connor has found that legal staff frequently struggle to prioritize legal risks and typically start by rating all risks in the upper-right high probability/high impact quadrant. There is no prioritization; everything from processing routine employee immigration paperwork to a catastrophic, lethal product failure is given the same weight, which is simply not a reflection of reality.

“People have difficulty recognizing that some aspects of our legal work have a higher priority than others,” O’Connor explains. “It is important to help them understand that rating a risk in a medium- or low-impact quadrant does not mean we do not value the work or that we will ignore the work. Instead, I encourage them to use the information to determine how to distribute work within the legal department.” Forcing some degree of prioritization can help people shift their perspective and understand where their talents are needed most – and, perhaps, identify things that can be outsourced or delegated to external law firms or in-house paralegals so the attorneys can focus on the more business-critical problems.


Why Do All This?

If overcoming reluctance to change sounds difficult, that’s because it is. “Driving substantive change with lawyers and legal personnel (who frequently dislike change) is a time-intensive process. You have to be very hands-on and discuss your vision in both group and individual settings over and over and over,” O’Connor says.

But those efforts can pay off. Over the course of two years, O’Connor says, her leadership team has gone from managing its work in silos on a reactive basis to greatly improved cross-team collaboration and a deep understanding of the importance of work prioritization. Her team is now highly valued by the company’s business leaders as strategic partners. When she recently proposed changes to the process her team uses to review global customer contracts to reduce legal spend, the business leaders pushed back, arguing they needed more legal support, not less. The business leaders understood the value the contracts team provided in negotiating with customers, and they felt that the overall value they received from current legal spend was a bargain.

That kind of support points to a clear corporate leadership role for O’Connor’s department – one in which the legal team, with the general counsel as mapmaker, is helping the business see over the horizon. And it points to the kind of results that general counsel can expect when they work proactively, and hard, to help their people change.