Teach the lawyers and others on your in-house legal team to manage their own budgets rather than centralize that effort within your function, says EasyJet’s head of legal operations Helen Lowe.
The operations chief can’t fully control the spending of lawyers, compliance people and others on the in-house legal team, so it can help to set them up to manage their own budgets by teaching them basic accounting skills, Lowe said in an Inside Voices podcast hosted by Logikcull.
“I push out the responsibility rather than say I am going to be the gatekeeper and I am going to be the person responsible for making sure you all meet your budgets,” said Lowe, who joined EasyJet three years ago after entering the legal ops profession in 2015 at Co-op, a U.K.-based retail food company. “I’ve done loads of training in financial literacy to make sure they understand why year-end accrual is important and why they need to pay bills when they come in.”
It’s understandable that lawyers and others on the in-house legal team wouldn’t bring a lot of financial knowledge to their job, so the training not only helps them understand why management of their budgets is appropriate but also how their efforts fit into the wider goals of the organization.
“No one teaches you about [budgeting], especially when you’re a lawyer and especially when you’re in private practice,” she said.
Cost control and creating value is especially important at a company like EasyJet, a discount airline whose business was grounded for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that restrictions have eased and it can start rebuilding its business, EasyJet must be able to move quickly, and so must its legal team.
“It’s about seeing where the business is going and matching that speed,” she said. “It's about making sure we have processes in place, the right people, and we’re all talking to each other.”
Having the right mix of people and processes to speed contracts is a case in point, because getting contracts approved quickly means revenue comes in faster at lower costs.
“If you can streamline a process so it doesn’t take six months to deliver a contract, that saves the business money because it’s enabling it to generate revenue more quickly as well as reducing costs to deliver the contract in the first place,” she said. “That’s huge value in looking at how your team, your function, relates to that wider business.”
Lowe’s background in accounting and in helping companies in bankruptcy restructure from her days as a KPMG consultant allow her to see where the legal team’s budget is out of sync with the broader organization.
“Do you have a huge marketing spend as an organization [but only] one marketing legal specialist?” she said. “Look at how your team relates to the business rather than looking at things in isolation.”
Her years as a bankruptcy consultant, where speed was crucial, has helped her learn how to quickly pinpoint a core problem and what blue-sky idea could solve it.
“When you’re a consultant, you jump into businesses and you’re being paid by the hour, very much like a law firm,” she said. “You charge by the six-minute increment, so people don’t expect you to sit there for six months trying to get to grips [with] what’s going on in their business.”
Her consulting background inadvertently led to her getting into legal ops when she applied for a job in the finance department at Co-op, which was financially struggling at the time. The company filled the finance position internally but later asked her to interview for the legal ops role because they wanted someone with her background to put the legal team on a different path.
“I told them I didn’t know anything about it, but somehow I still managed to get the job,” she said.
“‘We think you bring a really different perspective,’” she said they told her. “I told them I’m more than happy to give it a whirl.”
Her finance background fits in nicely with the legal ops function but so do other backgrounds, including technology and the law.
“That’s one of the huge positive things within the legal ops community is you have this diversity of thought you wouldn’t necessarily get if everybody came in through the same route,” she said.
Her numbers background has proven especially valuable in working with the broader organization because accounting is the language of business, so she can talk peer-to-peer to others outside the legal function and assess how well her budget matches up to what the broader organization needs.
At Co-op, for example, she saw she could help the broader business by outsourcing a legal function to an alternative services provider, which created a cost, but that enabled the function to save 45% on what it would have cost to do it in-house.
“The new supplier came with the latest technology,” she said. “All we had to do was get a load of data over to them and transfer the people, and for us that was an absolutely brilliant way to move out and move quickly.”
As EasyJet tries to move quickly to make up for lost time, Lowe will try to apply that same formula for success.
“I’m looking at all of our processes,” she said “Intake, decision making and output to make sure we’re delivering what the business needs.”