Are legal playbooks right for your business?

Sylvie Motz
Director, Practical Law

The COVID-19 pandemic era has demanded new and evolving ways of working. As more organizations adopt remote and hybrid working practices, some elements of an in-house counsel's work become even more important than they were pre-pandemic. 

Having clear and consistent guidelines and approaches has always been important to the delivery of effective outcomes, but perhaps becomes even more prevalent in a world of distributed teams, where it can be difficult to oversee and ensure a standard approach to issues in person. In that context, one method of setting up and promoting common guidelines — legal playbooks — could become an increasingly important resource.

The in-house legal team at Thomson Reuters certainly views them as a critical part of their working practice. "At Thomson Reuters, we've been creating playbooks for over 15 years," Jennifer Arbuckle, Associate General Counsel, shared with me. 

"The playbooks started out as a printed resource that individuals referenced at their desk and then morphed into a searchable online reference. Our vision today is to transform our playbooks into a dynamic resource that is referenced as part of the negotiation process, allowing comparison between fallbacks and supplier edits within one system."

What are legal playbooks?

A playbook is a mechanism to capture and record positions and strategies, promote consistency through standardization, and mitigate risk. In practice, what I refer to as a playbook can mean different things to different people, have different formats, and even have different names. 

For example, they can be called:

  • Drafting or negotiation guides
  • Process manuals
  • Training manuals 

Playbooks can be used by lawyers, paralegals, contract managers, HR professionals, procurement teams, and sales teams, among others.

Key reasons for using playbooks

Whatever the flavor, there are many advantages to using playbooks. Knowledge capture and pooling best practices can enable cohesive strategy and positioning across a team — or an entire organization. Quantifying acceptable and unacceptable risk creates more certainty during negotiations and helps close matters faster by minimizing the need for consultation with others on routine points or areas where an organization has a settled policy. 

Playbooks also help save time and money by empowering junior attorneys, paralegals, and others in the wider business to complete the bulk of work on recurrent matters, which frees up senior lawyers to devote their time to more complex work. More subtly, knowing that consistency is "hard-wired" into how an organization deals with common issues allows senior counsel greater mental space to produce "creative lawyering," as one attorney put it in our research on this topic.

In the past, playbooks were invariably paper copies in binders. This is frequently still the case, and often "digital" playbooks are little more than electronic hard copies.

Updating playbooks of this kind is a big undertaking, even more so if physical copies must be created. Searching is a manual and often maddening process of thumbing back and forth through pages. For those working from multiple locations, the risk of the playbook you need being found in the "other" office is real. The benefit of a truly digitized playbook is that it is shareable, updateable, searchable, and easily accessible from anywhere.

Playbook adoption

I'm a fan of playbooks and I'm not alone. Every lawyer I’ve spoken with about playbooks thinks they are valuable, but surprisingly only a small percentage use them.

One reason is that the creation of a playbook is seen as an exercise that takes too much time and energy. Time is money and there are always more urgent items needing attention. Often, it can feel too complex or daunting to even begin the process.

In practice, playbook creation can be more straightforward than might be anticipated. Given that any increase in consistency brings benefits, even documenting an outline of an approach is worthwhile. A truly digitized experience allows for playbooks that can be built up and improved over time.

Per Jennifer Arbuckle, Thomson Reuters' use of playbooks has evolved from simple beginnings to something quite sophisticated. Today, she explains, the procurement team relies on "the guardrails [in the playbooks, which give] guidance on why each clause is important, potential fallbacks based on supplier concern, possible narrative responses to suppliers to aid in negotiation, and escalation points within our business to resolve any roadblocks."

For those who don’t currently use playbooks, perhaps starting with one simple agreement, transaction, or process as an experiment will prove their efficacy and lead to the creation of other playbooks. For those who already use playbooks, exploring ways of expanding and (further) digitizing them might help deliver even more value.

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