What Every In-House Counsel Should Know in 2016

Ever wondered what it’s like to be an in-house counsel? Or are you already playing a corporate counsel role and you’re wondering what’s in store for your industry in 2016?

Bernadette Bulacan Starin was founding employee and former assistant general counsel of Serengeti (now known as Legal Tracker), the most widely used matter management and electronic billing platform for corporate legal departments, acquired by Thomson Reuters in October 2010. She knows what it’s like to work in private practice as well as the in-house world.

Drawing from her experience as an assistant general counsel and law firm partner, Bernadette is a frequent speaker and author regarding the use of technology and analytics in corporate legal teams, the collaboration between in-house and outside counsel and legal project management.

We chatted to Bernadette about her evolving in-house career and her predictions about the latest industry trends that will influence in-house counsel in 2016 and beyond.

You used to work in private practice, you were a former assistant general counsel and now you’re working [in a business role] as the Director of the Thomson Reuters Market Development Group, which identifies trends and innovations affecting corporate legal departments. How have you developed your career through in-house positions and what has been your experience of working in-house as opposed to being in private practice?

Well, I was assistant general counsel of Serengeti when it was still a small startup. I went from advising startup companies as a private practice lawyer to actually being in a startup. I had to ‘walk the talk’ – it was baptism by fire really! It was the best training I ever received. As an in-house lawyer, you wear two hats – that of legal practitioner and a business person. At law school, you learn to understand the practice of law, but as corporate counsel, there are things that law school doesn’t prepare you for – you need to learn to manage the budget, the business and relationships with outside counsel, which is a great challenge.

What key skills do in-house counsel need to thrive in that role?

You need to be a terrific practitioner, of course, but you also need to be prepared to make a contribution to the business or corporation in a business sense. The ability to give good legal advice as well as acting as a responsible legal department ‘cost centre’ is a fundamental skill for corporate counsel. You need to become better at controlling costs, doing more with less and effectively managing the resources of the company without diminishing your legal role and your duty to your client.

There is a great concept I recently learned of called ‘the 21st century t-shaped lawyer’ which highlights the need to have legal expertise but also to act as a savvy business person. The questions you should ask yourself are: what are my value adds? Am I good with data or legal project management? Perhaps I can become an expert at analytics or design a process for my department and lawyers to be more effective and productive. There are now so many ways to use your law degree and skills.

The other skills you need are the ability to provide guidance to minimise risk, subject matter expertise combined with an understanding of the business and the skill to give business-driven legal advice. I tend to look at other business leaders for inspiration and guidance to see what they’re doing and reading. I highly recommend reading Jim Collins’s book Good to Great.

What are your top two or three trends or industry shifts for corporate and in-house counsel in 2016?

Many innovations in the overall legal industry are driven by corporate counsel. The fact that law firms are looking at alternative fee arrangements, and the hiring of pricing directors and project managers, has been driven by corporate demand on their external lawyers.

Globally, the use of data is a big trend. We have seen it used to better manage outside counsel and costs, but the next horizon for data is in the area of contract management. I recently interviewed Matt Fawcett, senior vice-president, general counsel and secretary of NetApp. Matt created a playbook on NetApp’s standard customer agreements so he could educate his lawyers, both inside and outside, about the company’s risk exposure and comfort levels.

In negotiating contracts, a lot of things become hypothetically risky. But by understanding through data the handful of clauses that really mattered, he gave others the opportunity to benefit from institutional knowledge. It provided a way to tell external counsel, ‘this is where we need to spend our time and energy in order to manage risk, on these seven clauses’. By understanding the data and historical risk, he was able to eliminate a lot of the negotiating ‘noise’ that is time wasted.

The growth of legal department teams will be another big trend or shift in the industry now and in the next few years. Historically, you would have three to five lawyers in a team; now the hiring headcount has increased. It’s more effective having inside counsel do the work, not only because of the costs issue, but also because they have a greater knowledge of the business and the product lines, as well as understanding company culture, philosophy and risk tolerances. The combination of cost savings plus internal knowledge of the business generally leads to better business outcomes.

Do you think technology has changed or influenced the way corporate counsel operate?

Yes, definitely.

Technology tools, such as e-billing, are revolutionising relationships with outside counsel. For instance, in Serengeti we have so much more data about legal matters so that in-house counsel can negotiate better rates or discounts with external firms. This provides certainty as we have data to look at past behaviours and we can check for anomalies against that data. Technologies like e-billing and e-discovery tools give legal departments options to choose from, from global firms to SMEs to solos.

Artificial intelligence is another technology trend and buzzword at the moment. I don’t think computers will replace lawyers but there are expert systems and tools to help with our legal analysis.

Also, the high level of connectivity we now experience due to technology innovations is the good news but also the bad news! There is more pressure to provide advice and answers quickly and perform at a much faster rate. It can be overwhelming, but we still need to exercise good legal judgment and that takes time.

Technology can help with your work, and there were very few tools to assist lawyers in the past. I think technology is making the entire profession better and faster, and it certainly ramps up demand.

Where do you see the industry in five years’ time?

I think we will see Australia follow some of the US trends and move towards more legal project management and e-billing practices and systems. Change is inevitable and lawyers can be slow to change. We are also seeing changing demographics in the legal sector. Young millennials are using big data, relying on mobile tools and easily integrating technology into their working life. They are going to be the ones who will drive change in this profession. We’ve come a long way and there are so many more career options and ways to use your legal and technical skills in today’s industry.

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