The 60 Second Interview: Driving efficiency is code for cutting costs

Former Amey general counsel and founder of Waverley Trayner Wayne Robertson talks about how in-house lawyers and private practice can work together to drive efficiency and deliver value ahead of his panel at The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference next month.

Wayne Robertson

How can in-house lawyers and private practice work together to drive efficiency?

‘Driving efficiency and delivering value’ are seen generally as code for reducing costs and there is no doubt the pressure on GCs and in-house departments to reduce the cost of providing legal services will continue, regardless of the organisation or industry. This pressure translates into private practice firms being asked constantly to find ways of reducing the fees billed for work, to fix costs, take risk on fee amounts or find cheaper ways of carrying out tasks – including through automation or outsourcing.

All this is business as usual but, in my view, we miss great opportunities by looking only at the cost side of the equation and the inputs to providing legal services rather than what outcomes are really required and what value can be generated for the organisation by doing things differently.

For me, the most important factor would be for clients and law firms to take the time at the outset of the relationship to truly understand what each requires as the goal and output, to design together the best solution to achieve this goal and agree how they will monitor and evaluate progress towards that goal.

This includes the return and benefit the firm will get as well as what is of real value to the client. This requires the obvious but critical ingredients of openness, collaboration and trust, but it is the only way to build a long-term partnership that works for both parties.

How can in-house lawyers balance developing commercial awareness and legal skills?

The role and remit of the in-house lawyer has changed radically in the last 20 years. In many organisations, in-house lawyers are expected or required not just to be excellent legal advisers but to be risk managers, crisis averters, fire-fighters, fortune-tellers, sales people, counsellors, auditors, the security services and more.

In all of these areas, the need for commercial awareness and a real understanding of the business and organisational dynamics has never been more important. So, I would always recommend that in-house lawyers spend more time developing their knowledge of the financial, commercial, business, and people aspects of their organisation.

By the time you qualify as a lawyer (with the way we currently train and develop lawyers, which is a topic for another day!) you will have spent the majority of time focusing on your legal skills so it’s time to redress the balance if you want to be a successful in-house lawyer.

What is your one big prediction on the future of legal services?

I’m not sure how much of a popular view it is, but at some point in the future I don’t think there will be such a thing as a market for legal services as a stand-alone business.

The ‘law’ is no longer a product in the way it once was. When people of my generation and before were trainees and junior lawyers we spent a lot of time and were able to charge clients for researching and stating what the law was on a particular issue.

Now, if I can read and have access to the internet, I can find out what the law is in most countries or states in the world and have access to any number of eminent academic or professional opinions on how it should be interpreted or complied with. I can even get most of the template documents I need to carry out whatever transaction, filing or registration I need to do.

What will still be of value in the future, and what businesses will need to buy, is integrated professional services that deliver a business outcome. Those services may include many important legal aspects but they will be bundled with whatever range of other services (technology, communications, financial, tax, PR, project management) are required to deliver the project or outcome for the client.

Of course, there are many barriers to this happening – regulatory, historical, political or cultural. Some of these barriers have a logical function but some are purely protectionist. What history tells us is that these barriers don’t last forever where the customer has a need to buy services in an efficient and user-friendly way. The real question is which professional services firms will adapt and evolve in the best way to meet this need.

Describe the In-house Counsel as Business Partner event in 3 words:

Thought-provoking, networking, innovative.

If you hadn’t been a lawyer, what would you be?

Once the realisation that neither my rugby or cricket abilities were going to lead anywhere near a professional career had set in, I think I would have liked to become a sports journalist. Being paid to watch and write about a test match in Cape Town or Antigua for 5-days vs. drafting verification notes at a City law firm…… now there’s a dilemma.

Wayne Robertson is one of the 60+ speakers making up this year’s stellar speaker line-up at In-house Counsel as Business Partner on the 6-7 of November. Find out more about the event, its speakers and line-up and book your ticket here.