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Flood defences - why lawyers should let the daily dam break and think long-term

Author: Tim Bratton |

07 Mar 2013 | 14:14

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Earlier this year The Guardian published a tongue-in-cheek list of top tips to help people back to work after the Christmas break. At number two on the list was the tip to "forget any work you didn't finish last year, it probably doesn't need doing anyway".

Obviously this was not a tip to be taken literally. But, perhaps there is a grain of truth in it. The start of the year is a perfect opportunity for all teams to consider what it is they want to achieve this year, free of the end-of-year baggage of last year. As I often think in December, Christmas is a little known anagram of "arbitrary deadline" (go on, try it).

For leaders of external customer-facing teams, such as business development or sales directors, their new year objectives are to some extent self-explanatory. Increase sales by x per cent, win y new clients from a new sector, up-sell by z per cent, reduce cancellation rates by x per cent. I'm sure that this grossly over-simplifies the complexities of running a sales function, but hopefully you see my point.

This is not necessarily such a self-explanatory exercise for the managers of service functions within corporations such as lawyers or accountants. While metrics are important, the success of an in-house legal function cannot necessarily be accurately measured by an increase in the number of contracts that are completed in a year. We could easily increase the output of our own legal team if we decided to concede on every negotiation point - whilst some or our internal clients might think that mean we are doing a better job because turn-round times would be quicker, self-evidently that would not be true.

But whilst it is not a self-explanatory exercise, that does not mean in-house legal functions should not address the question: what can we do this year to improve on what we did last year and how do we do it? For me, I see much of the next 12 months as being about process. I want our department to spend a little more time, perhaps selfishly, for the greater good of our own team, rather than for the direct benefit of our clients - if we achieve our aims, then indirect benefits for the business will naturally flow.

So on my own 2013 bucket list, you will find concepts such as improving our existing approach to issues such as document management, sign-off procedures, involvement in our procurement process and so on. I suppose you could think of it as Mini-Corporate Governance Improvement (catchy tag line). On the face of it, a little dull, but 12 months focus on achieving these goals should go some way to making 2014 and beyond easier for our team in terms of process than in 2011 and 2012.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of challenging work coming down the pike as well. As a news organisation, we are likely to end up with a new regulatory post-Leveson landscape to implement and work within. Our business is growing fast globally. Data protection change is on the horizon. The continuing transition to digital throws up new legal challenges. And so on and so on.

But there is always a risk for lawyers (and all service providers) that the fascinating work coming down the pike can result in a flood that means the legal team stops focusing on the bigger objectives in order to plug the business-as-usual dam. This year we may need to allow the dam to break, just a tiny tiny bit, in order to ensure that we make the time to put in place our longer-term flood defences.

Prevention, as they say, is better than cure. So, what are you doing?

Tim Bratton is general counsel of the Financial Times and blogs at thelegalbratblawg. Click here to follow Tim on Twitter.

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