Best practices

From gatekeepers to enablers: How in-house legal teams can build cross-functional trust

May 15, 2024
Melody Chen

Table of Contents

Why making the effort to build cross-functional trust is important

Building trust between in-house legal teams and other departments is essential for creating buy-in, empathy, and transparency. Trust ensures that legal advice is valued and followed, fostering a collaborative work environment. When legal teams are trusted, they can provide proactive, tailored advice and are seen as integral partners rather than obstacles, enhancing the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Trust also shifts the perception of legal teams from bottlenecks to business enablers, making it more likely that Legal will be brought in early to any initiatives. This allows legal teams to be proactive in shaping the initiative and supporting strategic goals while reducing risk.

Building trust is crucial for implementing new processes and change management. Trusted legal teams can more effectively partner with other departments to create aligned procedures and policies, and ensure adherence and smoother adoption.

Trust also facilitates willingness for resource sharing, such as budgets for new legal technologies. When trusted, business partners can amplify the value of these legal technologies and champion change management efforts, resulting in effective adoption of new processes.

Proven strategies to build cross-functional trust

1. Build meaningful relationships

Building relationships with people outside of the legal department before needing something from them is crucial for establishing a foundation of trust. By making communication a regular thing, getting a ping from Legal doesn’t cause business partners to put their guard up. Regular check-ins, informal meetings, and participation in cross-functional projects help build rapport and mutual understanding. Proactively offer to help, so Legal isn’t seen as a reactive function. When legal teams approach their role as facilitators rather than gatekeepers, they create a supportive environment that encourages open communication and collaboration.

Putting this into practice:

  • Start regular check-ins: Schedule regular, informal meetings with key stakeholders across different departments. For example, have a monthly coffee chat with department heads to discuss their projects and how the legal team can support them.
  • Participate in cross-functional projects: Volunteer to join cross-departmental projects or committees. For example, if there is a task force for developing a new product, ensure that a legal representative is involved from the start.
  • Proactively offer to help: Reach out to departments before they need legal assistance. If you know a marketing campaign is about to launch, offer to review the materials in advance to ensure compliance.
  • Recognize great partnerships: Publicly acknowledge and appreciate business teams that regularly engage Legal. Share and celebrate the successful outcomes of these collaborations. This positive reinforcement encourages further trust and collaboration.

2. Learn the business

To provide effective legal support and build trust, it's crucial for in-house counsel to deeply understand the company's business operations, strategies, and challenges, not just the legal side. By doing so, legal teams can offer more tailored, pragmatic advice that aligns with the organization's goals. This knowledge also demonstrates Legal's commitment to the company's success and helps break down silos between departments.

‍Iris Chen, Vice President, Deputy General Counsel at Airbnb and former Vice President of Legal at Google explains the benefit: “The person who hired me at Google was great at being a strategic advisor to the business because he knew the product and the business well. You have to have credibility with the business.”

Putting this into practice:

  • Shadow business teams: Spend time observing and working alongside different departments to gain firsthand knowledge of their day-to-day operations. For example, sit in on sales calls, join product development meetings, or attend customer service training sessions.
  • Learn the industry: Stay informed about the latest trends, regulations, and competitors in the company's industry. Attend industry conferences, read trade publications, and participate in relevant webinars to deepen your understanding of the business landscape.
  • Understand business objectives: Engage with leadership to grasp the company's short-term and long-term goals. Regularly review strategic plans and financial reports to stay aligned with the organization's priorities.
  • Ask questions: Don't hesitate to ask business teams for clarification or additional context when needed. Showing genuine interest and curiosity about their work helps build rapport and trust.

3. Increase visibility and accessibility

One effective strategy is to humanize Legal by increasing visibility and accessibility. This visibility helps demystify the legal function and shows that the legal team is approachable and supportive, not just the lawyers who say “no” from an ivory tower.

Putting this into practice:

  • Actively participate in communication channels: Be present and active in platforms like Slack or Teams. Respond promptly to queries and engage in informal conversations. For example, share legal tips or relevant updates in the #legal Slack channel. 
  • Host open office hours: Hold regular in-person or virtual office hours where team members can drop in for legal advice without needing an appointment. 
  • Provide timely and pragmatic advice: Respond promptly to legal requests with actionable, business-oriented guidance. Don’t just say no, but instead illuminate the path, the risks, and empower the business to make a decision. Julia Popowitz, Facebook’s second in-house attorney and Deputy General Counsel, Commercial and International shared, “My goal for my team and myself, as we worked with our internal clients, was to start with yes rather than no and to figure out how to make things happen in a way that still minimizes risk for the company. 
  • Engage informally: Engage in casual interactions on internal communication platforms. For instance, participate in non-work-related channels on Slack or Teams, such as affinity groups or informal hobby channels to build rapport and show that the legal team is approachable. Make sure the engagement is authentic — no one likes forced conversation.

4. Hold training sessions and roadshows

By educating other departments about legal processes and demonstrating the value of legal compliance, in-house counsel can foster a collaborative atmosphere for change management. These sessions can also be used to gather live, on the spot, and unfiltered feedback and adjust legal processes to better meet the needs of the business.

Ashley Willoughby, the Director of Legal Operations at Coherent Corp, emphasizes: “No one should be surprised when [technologies or processes] go live. They should honestly be so sick of hearing about it once it’s live! Communicate early on that change is coming, advertise key dates, host training sessions before going live, and offer open office hours post-go live for 2-4 weeks.”

Putting this into practice:

  • Organize department-specific training: Organize training sessions tailored to the needs of different departments so they’ll be more actively engaged. For example, training sales on business term negotiation enables them to set business terms before bringing the request to Legal, which lets Legal focus their time on complex issues and risk management and accelerate deal closure.
  • Host interactive roadshows: Conduct roadshows where the legal team visits different departments to discuss legal processes and gather feedback. Use these sessions to address common legal misconceptions and listen to department-specific concerns.
  • Encourage live feedback sessions: During trainings and roadshows, encourage live, unfiltered feedback. For instance, after a compliance training, hold a Q&A session where employees can voice their concerns and suggestions for improvement.

5. Join planning meetings

When legal teams participate in strategic planning and project kickoff meetings, they can provide valuable insights that prevent issues before they arise. This proactive involvement demonstrates that legal is a facilitator of business goals, not a blocker. By being there at initiation stage, legal teams can integrate the legal function into the fabric of the organization and embed compliance by legal by design.

Putting this into practice:

  • Play a role in kickoffs: Ensure the legal team is represented in strategic planning and project kickoff meetings. For example, if a new product launch meeting is scheduled, a legal representative can be there to provide insights on any applicable legal and regulatory requirements.
  • Get involved early: Embed legal by design by being involved from the initiation stage of projects. For instance, when a new AI software is being developed, the legal team should participate in the initial planning sessions to address data privacy and compliance issues.
  • Act as an enabler: Position the legal team as facilitators rather than gatekeepers. During planning meetings, focus on how legal can help achieve business goals rather than just identifying potential problems.

Building trust within your organization is not just beneficial; it's essential for achieving strategic goals and fostering a collaborative work environment. By proactively building meaningful relationships, deeply understanding the business, increasing visibility and accessibility, holding informative training sessions, and participating early in strategic planning, in-house legal teams can transform their role from gatekeepers to enablers. This shift not only enhances the overall effectiveness of the business but also ensures that legal advice is valued and actually followed. Implementing these strategies can break down silos, and create a seamless partnership that drives your organization towards its strategic goals. Remember, a trusted legal team is not just a legal asset but a critical business partner.

Read more

Work smarter

Scale your legal team's efficiency and effectiveness with modern workflow automation tools designed for in-house legal.

Request a demo