The art (or craft) of effective Legal Business Partnering


If one reviews corporate organigrams of medium and large companies, the label “business partner” will inevitably pop up sooner or later. Each division, department or function has an “IT Business Partner”, “HR Business Partner” and a “Finance Business Partner” … but have you ever read about a “Legal Business Partner”?

Becoming a strategic business partner

“Business partnering” is “the application of functional expertise in one area of the organisation (often finance) to enhance decision making in business units throughout an organisation. Effective business partnering can improve the speed and quality of decisions that impact the organisation’s bottom line and ultimately drive business value.” Gartner

If IT, HR or Finance can render those contributions to a company’s overall strategy formulation and execution, why not Legal?

… Is it because of internal perceptions from peers and management that Legal is not contributing but rather, getting in the way of closing business deals by being notorious naysayers?

… A cost centre that always choses the safest route?

… Or is the Legal function simply lacking the tools, techniques and confidence to move into a more strategic enabling role?

This is a plea for Legal Business Partnering as a way to strategically position the Legal function as a core corporate enabler. By doing so, it pre-empts of growing pressure for more business amongst all corporate functions. Delivering a definitive and sustainable value, the Legal function will be well placed to determine the nature and direction of change.

What are the traits of good Legal Business Partnering?

  • Make it easy to collaborate wherever and whenever the need occurs. Invite business to easily submit their requests, enquiries and questions in plain English and without giving in on your information needs. Self-service offerings in addition to personal advice are a great asset to offer a 24/7 service contributing to business velocity.
  • Be a trusted but critical advisor who speaks up, challenges and holds a mirror up to the business. This might involve identifying and raising issues such as an an unintended consequence of a business practice and an escalation in hidden legal compliance costs.
  • Build influencing, relationship and communication skills. These are required to get the message across and get a discussion going. Move into the limelight and be the moderator, facilitator or idea-giver to set the agenda or keep a project on course. Project management skills greatly assist.
  • Persistence. Challenging decisions and assumptions may not be welcomed by others at first. However, peers from other functions will eventually understand the wider and longer-term implications of an initiative or action.
  • Understand the business. Frequently liaise with business to immerse yourself in current objectives, challenges and developments of the business units. Establish a legal radar screen in relation to those findings and be a proactive contributor to business strategy.
  • The ability to translate the laws and regulations into a business story. How does black letter law influence business process sequences, documentation and which risks and opportunities are attached to each process step? Translate “Legalese” into business terms: what can, must and should be done from a company’s perspective. Legal compliance can easily become a competitive advantage raising the bar for competitors and achieving a superior offering in the eyes of customers.

The next step

If one agrees with the reasoning up to this point, the imminent question one must ask: what’s next? From our experience, we recognise the need to create a baseline for legal service delivery by listening to the business first. Complaints, praise or simply hints and insights captured in a structured process will provide a robust benchmark and foundation for identifying the most pressing issues Legal can assist with from the vantage point of the internal client community. In addition, it will greatly assist in setting expectations within the legal function and amongst business users in terms of what should receive priority support and what not.

What is your experience in developing an effective Legal Business Partnering approach? Join the conversation.

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