Legal is most often viewed as a stellar guardian of the enterprise and outstanding advisor — yet its perception as a business partner is not quite as golden. In these uncertain economic times when businesses are searching for both cost efficiency and growth, what can Legal do to reconcile its reputation and magnify its material impact?
In business as in life, image is essential. It is also a principal focus of the 2023 Enterprise Legal Reputation (ELR) Report*, which reconfirms one of the most prominent findings from its inaugural edition: Four in five (78%) corporate employees perceive Legal’s enduring image as a trustworthy protector of the business that imparts sage advice.
Yet even though respondents view Legal as an authority figure and business protector, nearly three in four (73%) do not consider Legal an approachable business partner. In fact, many view Legal as a “bottleneck,” as “adding unnecessary roadblocks,” or “simply expect to experience holdups” when interacting with legal teams. As a result, relationships between Legal and its internal clients have declined year-over-year (YoY) in every department — by almost 10% in HR, 18% in Finance, 30% in Sales, 27% in Marketing, and 41% in Procurement.
Image is (Almost) Everything
Though Legal’s inherent image has remained, the world has changed dramatically over this past year. The bullish economy at the outset of 2022’s data collection is now besieged by the effects of inflation and layoffs due to the macroeconomic climate. This itself had been sparked by the continuing effects of the global pandemic and social and political unrest that have set off a chain reaction of privacy concerns, regulatory revisions, and disruptions to overseas vendors and supply chains.
Cost containment and EBITDA are now the terms of the day, and legal departments are no exception to enduring employee burnout and smaller budgets. For a function established to protect the business, it is not overwhelmingly startling, then, that when so much seems fragile and beyond our control, trust in Legal might experience a stress fracture of sorts.
An Opportunity for Legal
There is a silver lining, however: The major finding in the 2023 ELR Report is that Legal can play a meaningful part in impacting business materiality, growth, and operational efficiency. Right now, Legal has the opportunity to reset expectations and reshape its reputation in the eyes of its internal clients and executive teams. Here are three ways that Legal can “up” both its positive image and material impact, especially in these times of economic uncertainty.
1. Collaborating more intently.
The 2023 ELR Report reveals that nearly half (43%) of the study’s non-legal respondents state that better communication and collaboration is the most essential way Legal can support its internal clients. Of course, execution of matters is always important. Providing better law firm or outside counsel management is as well. But what clients say they need more from Legal is more involved client service within the business, and that starts with better communication and greater responsiveness.
2. Accelerating processes and workflows.
While there are many capacities in which Legal shines, almost half (45%) of corporate employee respondents feel that Legal can be too slow. Another 15% cite the fact that they feel processes are overly manual, which also has a negative impact on efficiency. Some legal matters do take longer than others, of course, but this is where technology — including AI — can play a significant role in keeping everything from spend management to contracts moving.
3. Championing corporate culture.
Another way Legal can demonstrate its charter as protector is with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Although current macroeconomic conditions may force companies to put the bottom line ahead of investment in cultural initiatives, Legal has a powerful base from which to influence DEI: More than half (57%) say Legal’s impact on corporate culture is positive. That fact must remain top of mind for Legal — to provide a safe and equitable work environment, to elevate problem-solving and competitive differentiation, and to foster and nurture lasting trust.
Legal’s Image for the Future
Reputation, it has been said, is the echo that remains once we are no longer in the room. It can make or break us — and that goes for legal departments as well. Fortunately, Legal has a firm foundation on which to continue building, with its enduring image as trustworthy protector and advisor. Yet Legal doesn’t exist only to protect.
This is Legal’s metamorphosis moment to evolve its image into that of a greater, more strategic business partner — by communicating more deeply with clients, accelerating efficiency, and embracing cultural and technological innovation. In turn, Legal will have a more positive and direct influence on the growth and materiality of every corner of the enterprise.
Read Chapter 1 of the 2023 ELR Report to discover new and enduring perceptions of the legal department, how corporate employees view their interactions and relationships with Legal, and ways in which Legal can evolve its brand image to more directly impact revenue generation, growth, and operational efficiency for its businesses.
*The 2023 Enterprise Legal Reputation (ELR) Report is the second installment of a multinational annual study spotlighting year-over-year changes in the brand image of corporate legal departments through the eyes of their internal clients.