Innovation was the buzzword in the first day of this year’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner Conference in London.

Panellists at In-house Counsel as Business Partner

Many firms are branding themselves as innovation leaders, but a survey of the over 100 in-house attendees at the conference showed that roughly 70 per cent weren’t sure what technology solutions their panel firms were using. In this sense, it looks like the branding exercise is not reaching firms’ clients.

The term ‘innovation’ gets thrown around so much now that it can be difficult to separate the truly innovative individuals and teams from those who pay it lip service, general counsel claim.

Innovation can take many forms but, when all’s said and done, what does it mean?

“Innovation,” said panellist and National Grid global head of legal operations Mo Ajaz, “is doing your job, but doing it better.”

Rather than offering a shiny new piece of AI, GCs prefer their external counsel to invest in their relationship. GCs claim that while private practice lawyers and panel firms profess to understand their needs, they actually had very little understanding of how their businesses operate.

Dr Nicola Millard

In the first day’s keynote speech, BT head of customer insight & futures Dr Nicola Millard said that to see what the future of collaboration truly looked like, more GCs should take the time to watch 12-year-old children play Minecraft. It’s a facetious point, but children playing Minecraft today could be lawyers tomorrow. Online collaboration, which is present in games like Minecraft, is happening in vastly different ways in the world of technology and the legal profession has some way to go to catch up to it.

Evolution, not revolution

Only 17 per cent of in-house lawyers felt as though they were ahead of the curve when compared to the other functions within their companies. However, there will be no ‘eureka’ moment; no one is seeking to reinvent the wheel.

What panellists reaffirmed was the importance of incremental steps that in-house teams can take, particularly when it comes to smaller projects.

BT head of legal for the Americas Justin Castillo said: “Discrete projects are the way we can solve problems as a model for the future.”

“In small problems, we find incremental gains.”

His feelings were echoed by panellists throughout the day as GCs revealed how they are slowly altering the legal function through small projects to make big gains in the long term.

“We’re always trying to foster a culture of collaboration,” said Dixons Carphone general counsel and company secretary Nigel Patterson. “But we need to get better at using technology and at data management.”

This may be a more realistic prospect at Dixons Carphone, which generated revenues of over £10bn last year, rather than for smaller businesses. What advice could the panel give to a GC working at an SME?

“Lucky you,” Wolseley general counsel Vanessa French said. “I say that jokingly, but in some ways, you can be better connected to your board and the important keystones within the company. That can mean a lot.”

Financial constraints

While GCs are increasingly looking to tech when they decide panel firms, cost is still a prevalent issue.

NHS Birmingham CrossCity head of corporate and legal affairs Alison Joyce revealed that her decisions on legal spend are “99 per cent weighted on cost”. Joyce’s cost-conscious panel arrangements mean that she has her firms working to a strict and fixed hourly rate, and has done for some time now.

Budgetary constraints from executives result in diminished legal teams being required to do more of their work in-house with slashed resources. Even in the age of New Law, where freelance lawyers are available from a range of suppliers, a poll revealed that over two-thirds of panels either weren’t currently using or had never used one of these suppliers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that procurement-led panel decisions are of mounting importance in this atmosphere, but it’s interesting to note how omnipresent they have become.

Sat on the panel with Joyce was Smiths Group business information sevices general counsel Vanya Bromfield, Barclays operations & technology general counsel Rob Dinning and Société Générale London and head of corporate finance general counsel Sarah Linstead. All four of them said that, at every stage of the process, procurement are heavily involved when it comes to deciding the best firms to sit on their company’s panels.

The Lawyer‘s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference is taking place on the 6 -7 November. Find out more information about the event and speaker lineup here.