Managing a multitude of legal requests with limited resources

How restructuring assignments increased motivation and efficiency for Pharmascience’s legal team

Pharmascience, Canada’s third-largest manufacturer of generic medications, has grown significantly since Caroline McNicoll joined the company eight years ago—and so has the range and volume of requests for in-house consultation and assistance

McNicoll serves as general counsel and corporate secretary. Her team—six other attorneys and one paralegal—covers all areas except patents. The department is strongly collaborative, she says. “Across the industries I’ve worked in, I’ve found that powerful teams have always had significantly more impact than ‘star’ attorneys.”

“Although every request is important to us, they don’t all have the same level of complexity and impact on the company’s growth and strategic objectives.”

Because Pharmascience products are sold in more than 60 countries, and the company’s four divisions develop and produce hundreds of over-the-counter and prescribed medications, the legal team’s wide range of work requires broad expertise in international law, business, litigation, regulatory issues, and scientific research. “One of the challenges we were facing was the volume and diversity of the requests the legal department was receiving compared to the limited resources that we had,” says McNicoll.

The way requests were handled was making the department’s work flow inefficient: senior attorneys were bogged down with legal minutiae, which necessitated the significant outsourcing of work to contract attorneys. “We’re in the generic industry,” a competitive global market, McNicoll says. “There’s a lot of price pressure on the market. So everybody has to rethink the way they’re doing things and be as efficient and productive as possible.”

The solution lay in developing a new way to prioritize projects and assign work. “Although every request is important to us,” McNicoll says, “they don’t all have the same level of complexity and impact on the company’s growth and strategic objectives.” Thus, she began developing a process that allowed the department to assess each project on a risk and value scale. “Our goal,” she says, “was to align and optimize the use of legal resources in the areas that had the greatest strategic value for the company, or greatest impact on risk mitigation, and to ensure the proper allocation of time and resources within the legal department.” Projects of high value or risk would be assigned to senior legal staff, allowing them to maximize the value of their expertise for the business; other matters would be assigned to junior lawyers or the team’s paralegal.

The assessment is not a measure of the importance of each task, because the work is always important, McNicoll says. But not every matter requires the same type of knowledge or skills. She points to the routine review of confidentiality agreements. Though the task may seem simple, it is actually the first step that will allow legal’s commercial colleagues to start discussions on potentially big commercial transactions and very strategic transactions. “But given the volume of requests we were receiving for this type of review,” says McNicoll, “it made more sense to use a skilled paralegal to handle these requests and ask legal counsel to support our clients in the areas where legal training is more required.”

Developing a new system was a collaborative and client-centered process. Because four different business units compose Pharmascience, the team needed to assess the range of services each required. “We have an overall corporate strategy, but each subsidiary business unit has its own strategic priorities that will then fall under the umbrella of the corporate strategy, so the first challenge was to understand each unit’s priorities and concerns,” she says. Thus, McNicoll’s team began reaching out to survey their clients’ needs, asking questions about their strategic plan, making sure that they understood that plan, and asking, “How can I have an impact for you?”

While delivering excellent service to each business unit was important, McNicoll says the team had to make sure that they did not forget about the role of protecting the company’s assets. Involving Pharmascience’s CEO in the process was crucial. Partway through the process, he sat with the team to give feedback on where they were going and to make sure their efforts were in line with his vision.

Though the new process is still being implemented, McNicoll has already seen strong—and surprising—results. “This initiative did not only result in better prioritization of work and increased efficiency, but also a change in mentality,” she says. The team was somewhat skeptical of the process initially, but an enthusiastic initial response from clients got them very excited and motivated, she says. Reassigning work based on complexity has given team members broader involvement in the whole range of the unit’s cases. “The members of our legal department feel much closer to our clients. Now they have skin in the game,” she says. “It’s like they are part of the success and everyone’s contributions are geared toward the same goals. I find this is an amazing motivation factor for everybody.”

As expected, the initiative also led to improved cost management and greater client satisfaction. “By freeing up the time of our senior lawyers,” McNicoll says, “they can handle the more strategic priorities,” and the unit can rely less on the work of contract hires. Continuing to control and decrease spending is her next priority. This, too, involves collaboration across the company. Because the business has different legal budgets throughout the company, which may not be reflected in McNicoll’s budget, she wants to ensure that all spending is accounted for.

Perhaps most importantly, the process reaffirmed the extent of the legal department’s commitment to its clients. “Now [our clients] know even more that we have their best interests at heart,” McNicoll says, “even if it means sometimes not having the same opinions.”