In this latest interview, LexisNexis director of strategic markets Mark Smith talks to The Lawyer about prioritisation, saying “no” and making space for strategic thinking.

How do you prioritise when everything is a priority?

The first step is to acknowledge that no matter how hard you work you will never get everything done. If you accept that basic premise and that your time and energy are finite resources, then you can make conscious choices about where to focus. Ultimately every time you say yes to something new you will spend less time and energy on your other commitments. Many of the most talented lawyers I know are so motivated and so hard working that saying “yes” is easy for them. But as information, work volumes and pressure increase over time, this is not sustainable. The quality of what they do may suffer, their work/life balance can be compromised or ultimately their health may be at risk. The second step is to work out what’s important. It might sound blindingly obvious, but in the fast-paced world we live in, creating the space to figure this out is not always easy. But it is always worthwhile. Who are your key stakeholders? What do they care about? Where do you create the most value? What are you best at? What do you enjoy? What matters most to you? To the organisation? Once you know what’s important, then prioritisation becomes possible.

LexisNexis’ Mark Smith

How can legal functions decrease the amount of work that comes their way? Does business self-service actually work in practice?

To some degree, this answer is an extension of my individual approach to prioritisation. The legal team will inevitably have more work than it can handle. Rather than responding in reactive mode, it’s critical to shift the conversation to a place of conscious choice. Strategy is all about making choices – what to do and what to say “no” to, and the operation of the legal team should not be an exception to this. In my mind, this should be a dialogue with key stakeholders about business priorities and the legal support that will best enable these to be achieved. As part of this dialogue, the legal team will need to be clear about the consequences of not doing certain work, particularly if there is risk associated with this. Clearly communicating the outcome of the dialogue is also an important part of the process, as managing expectations remains a critical part of the in-house role.

Does business self-service work? It certainly can with the right tools, education and buy-in.

How can General Counsel future-proof their legal function and its delivery of legal advice?

At the heart of this is the question of connectivity. Connectivity with the enterprise and with the environment. Being well connected within the enterprise allows the General Counsel to understand the organisation’s direction of travel through its vision and strategy. It allows the GC to get rich data from across the business about what’s happening within the business, but also outside the business on both customer and supplier sides. This is critical insight that can inform the legal function strategy and ensure it remains wholly aligned with the wider business. It is also a channel that the general counsel can monitor for weak signals of change. This is one of the ways to be connected with the environment, but more than this a General Counsel should seek to become deeply connected with their industry. Early visibility of changing politics may foreshadow regulatory change. A view of changing competitor activity might require the legal team to approach customer interactions differently. Macro economics might require changes to the organisation’s cost base. Time spend scenario planning can help uncover a wide variety of environmental signals to monitor that can give warning that a different future is emerging. This brings me back to the first question, which is that it’s critical for a General Counsel to make the space for this type of strategic thinking. And this is difficult to do if everything is a priority!

Who has been the biggest influence in your career?

Leaving aside my parents and wife, who have always been incredibly supportive, I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing mentors in my career. Two partners from private practice stick out, but if pushed for one person it is my former general counsel, Karen Bowman. Karen promoted me into my first real leadership position and taught me a huge amount about operating effectively in a senior role. One of the lessons that have stuck with me include the importance of investing material amounts of time developing the people in a team. The impact this has on performance and motivation pays back tenfold. Another is the benefit of transparency and direct communication, even if the message is difficult. Karen never shied away from difficult conversations, but you knew that she would handle them with integrity and with compassion. I’m hugely grateful to her for everything I learnt, as well as for putting her trust into me in her team and also as I transitioned into the commercial world.