Every year, the businesses we advise are required to grow, beat the competition and do it all with sustained year over year productivity. The in-house legal department is no different. It is critical that legal departments — like the businesses they advise — must focus on growing the company, sustaining productivity and beating their competition.

However, it’s not immediately apparent to many in-house lawyers what the “competition” looks like. It is much less apparent why an in-house legal department should focus on beating it. The answer, I believe, is that there are increasingly innovative choices on how legal services can be provided. Our clients ask, and deserve an answer to, the question: “What are you doing to continuously ensure that the work you staff in-house is the best option available?”

Developing a value proposition

To start answering this question, the team of commercial lawyers at DuPont got together to articulate its value proposition. A value proposition typically answers the questions: What do we do well? Why is it value-adding to our clients? What do we do that is better than the competition?  If we could articulate where we were adding the most value, we could then focus on replicating those areas and, since we have to make choices to be productive, redirecting work from areas where we added less value.

We met several times and formed our answers, but we quickly acknowledged that our clients might have a different view, so we surveyed them. We did not ask the typical “rate your attorney” or “how satisfied are you,” but questions that would help us make choices. The questions included:

  • What are the roles and competencies you value most from your commercial attorney?
  • What is it that we do that you value less?
  • Do you think we’re staffed right, and if not, where would you want us to increase emphasis? Would you pay more for this?
  • What do you think can we eliminate or redirect without any significant increase in risk?
  • Rank the relative value of the roles of the typical in-house attorney: Transactional and commercial business advisor, growth enabler, trusted advisor, resource optimizer.

Finally, to confirm the value in these roles, we explored value trade-offs in moving from a service model where the attorney regularly interacts as an integral member of the business team, to a more streamlined and less expensive “call us when you need us” or even “help desk” type model.

The exercise led us to some interesting conclusions. The data suggested three things that made us unique: our business intimacy, our resource optimization, and our knowledge sharing.

1. The first piece that separates us from the competition is our business intimacy, or knowledge of the business. By being embedded in the business and highly networked, our lawyers are more appreciative of the business objectives and give more timely, relevant and opportunistic solutions to business problems. We are also best positioned to identify areas of potential risk to the business before they happen and can provide proactive advice and training. Our clients believed that our ability to see ahead of the curves and look for opportunities gave them a competitive advantage.

2. A second area that made us unique is our staffing. We staff for the minimum essential to assure our clients receive quality legal counsel for the best value. That means there will be tension in the system, and all clients will not always get what they want when they want it. Indeed, some businesses will get more service than others — consistent with growth targets. If demand exceeds supply for our services, it is our job to figure out how to use the many other resources that are available to deliver appropriate legal counsel to the business. It is our job to optimize our global network of DuPont legal colleagues, paralegals, and out outside law firm network. For routine matters, we design templates or standardized forms, or encourage client self-direction through appropriate training or checklists.

3. The final piece that separates us from the competition is our knowledge sharing. We have hundreds of years of collective DuPont experience at our disposal. Our global network shares best practices, knowledge and experience with one another. With that connection, we enable all attorneys, regardless of their years of service, to give their clients the full depth of the DuPont Legal experience. Each attorney has at his/her fingertips what has worked, what hasn’t worked and more than a handful of creative solutions to meet every business objective. In fact, in the survey results, just about 100% of the clients agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the degree of legal expertise exhibited by their attorneys, despite a fairly wide distribution of years of experience of those attorneys.

In the second installment of this piece next month, the author will explore how to turn the value proposition into effective actions on resourcing, training and development.