Lucy Endel Bassli is assistant general counsel, Legal Operations and Contracting at Microsoft®. In a number of recent industry meetings, Bassli has been outspoken about what she sees as a big issue: the failure to integrate and recognize the work of allied professionals – nonlawyers – who work among lawyers, and the important role that they play in the industry.
Legal Executive Institute’s David Curle recently sat down with Bassli to hear more about this issue from her perspective in an in-house legal department.
David Curle: What kinds of roles and professionals do you have in mind when you think about this issue?
Lucy Endel Bassli: There’s probably a handful that come to mind that have been directly impactful on my work, certainly. Project managers are one. They manage projects from start to end, through milestones, deliverables, responsibility alignment charts, budgetary rigor, among other things.
Related to that function are program managers. These are people who run an ongoing program. They usually have experience with communications and manage projects that are subsets of activity within an overall program. Perhaps you can also refer to them as operations managers – especially those that have a little bit more data-driven metrics around their program, the piece of business or the operation they’re running.
There are also data analysts, business analysts and financial managers – those people who have deep experience with budgeting process.
That’s just a few off the top of my mind. As a trained attorney, I just may not know how to do those tasks, and not even know I need those people until I start wrestling with the problem at hand.
Curle: From your perspective in an in-house operation, do you experience a divide between the lawyers and these other professionals? What are some of the specific types of conflicts and issues that arise because of that?
Bassli: Our department is unique in some ways and maybe has some similarities to others as in-house legal departments are evolving. There is a general evolution going on now, and legal departments are oftentimes not only legal departments anymore. We have some technology development and engineering that’s going on. We have some civic engagement and corporate social responsibility as part of our department. The list goes on and on. Our department is by no means just a legal department. Legal is a subset of the various functions that have been brought together. By virtue of that, we have a very comfortable coexistence and codependency between the attorneys and all of these other professionals.
That’s something that other departments are also evolving more and more toward, and embracing these other functions at an organizational level. And as you embrace different functions, you’re obviously embracing the professionals that come with those other functions.
Curle: Do you think the issue is bigger with law ﬁrms than it is with in-house departments?
Bassli: Just as legal departments are going through an evolution, law ﬁrms are, too. There’s an inﬂection point happening in the legal industry, which is forcing different conversations and different roles, functions and professionals. Some embrace it more than others. Some ﬁrms are embracing this change and are welcoming it. For others it’s just happening organically. I think there are many law ﬁrms that are well ahead of this. And they are hiring in creative ways. They’re hiring creative roles and functions, and they are being very intentional about it.
But I will say, there are still those surprising situations that come up in big client meetings, where it is obvious that someone with pertinent information was not included in the conversation, and only attorneys are at the table. Knowing that the nature of the discussion requires inviting another professional in is the key. Just because there is a relationship question involved doesn’t mean that only the relationship manager of the law ﬁrm should be there. More and more ﬁrms are realizing that and are bringing others to the table with them. It creates a much more effective outcome.
Curle: It sounds as though you think some progress is being made. The next question is, what needs to happen now? Whose job is it to break down some of the barriers between legal and nonlegal professionals in their organizations?
Bassli: I would say the ﬁrst responsibility is on the attorneys. The attorneys are still the decision makers.
The first steps for these attorneys that are in the positions of power, is to start deferring to and recognizing other professionals as a key part of their decision-making process, as key advisers, as trusted colleagues. It’s not about the words, right? It’s the actions that really tell a story. It is demonstrating the sentiment. It is natural to think, for example, “Wow, that managing partner sure spends a lot of time with the head of the knowledge management team at that ﬁrm.” Just seeing that there is a continuous engagement between the managing partner and the lead of the knowledge management team creates a perception that can really set the tone.
I do think some industry-wide work could be helpful. It would be interesting to see different industry groups coming together with the legal industry groups. The project management community, for example, is a large community. There’s a certification process. How do we intertwine the two in a more formalized way?
It’s starting to happen in the law schools, too. A legal project management curriculum is being intertwined in some schools, and a technology curriculum as well. That’s an area that I think law ﬁrms can learn from, where some law schools are actually a little bit ahead. They are intentionally incorporating these functions.
Then, of course, corporate legal in-house teams always have a role to play in encouraging law firms to bring different people to the table. We always have that role, just as when we are trying to encourage diversity. We’re trying to encourage different delivery models. It’s a type of diversity, not just ethnic and gender diversity, but also diversity of skills and professions, too, that we should be encouraging.
Curle: Do you think this is just a matter of culture? What is the nature of the barriers to that kind of diversity and acceptance?
Bassli: Do data scientists, operations managers, financial analysts and all these other professions see the legal industry in general as a place where they’ll be welcomed and impactful? That’s the bigger challenge, I think. To show them that they will be valued. That they will be part of leadership. That they will be part of decision making. That they’ll have significant projects. That’s where you’re going to attract the best talent. People want to feel valued. They want to feel they’re contributing and making a change. And if our legal industry continues to be looked upon as a slow-changing, non-evolving industry, then we’re going to have a tough time attracting anybody but lawyers, right?
Curle: Do you see it as your role to drive change not only in your own operations, but also in the ﬁrms that you hire? Whose job is it to push this forward?
Bassli: The most immediate change will probably be felt from legal departments expecting different things from the outside counsel. My official title is legal operations, but also as a practicing attorney, I’ve experienced the benefits of all these other amazingly skilled professionals who contribute so much – things that I would’ve just had a tough time doing or not been successful at. I’ve personally experienced it. So it’s people like me, regardless of our titles and roles, who need to be able to support those professionals because that’s the best way to tell the story. My success is directly connected to all these other skills and functions.
So I think that’s where it needs to start, telling the story from a personal perspective rather than being philosophical. Philosophically, it makes sense. Professions should embrace each other and that’s always good. But I can tell you that tomorrow you will be more successful in your day job if you incorporate these skills – and you probably don’t have them, and that’s OK – just look for those people who do. Do this tomorrow and you’ll be more successful. That is a tip that people don’t learn in law school.
Meet the interviewees
Lucy Endel Bassli joined the legal department of Microsoft in 2004, where she oversees a centralized contracting office, specializing in nonrevenue contracting tools and processes. Prior to joining Microsoft, Bassli practiced law at Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP in Seattle, Washington. She received her J.D. and B.A. from the University of Houston in Texas. She is on the board of the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management, and is a licensed member of the Washington and Texas state bar associations.
David Curle is director, Strategic Competitive Intelligence, Thomson Reuters, Legal. Curle supports Thomson Reuters Legal business with research and thought leadership about the competitive environment in legal technology and the changing legal services industry.