There’s a good chance that you are within five miles of an H&R Block retail office at this very moment. The tax services company started in 1955 and has since opened about 12,000 offices worldwide and more than 720 million tax returns have been prepared through its retail locations and DIY products. That kind of volume, history, and success doesn’t come without a strong legal department. Bruce Daise, vice president, deputy general counsel, and chief privacy officer leads H&R Block’s US client services and international legal group. While many in corporate America view legal as an inherent obstacle, Daise is transforming his group into one that partners with internal clients to achieve company objectives. In uncertain times, the strategy helps the company navigate changes and develop new services. This method—the business-enabler approach—has the potential to make a deep impact as H&R Block moves into the future.
You provide legal support services for all of H&R Block’s tax businesses around the world. What kind of team does that take?
It takes a committed team that buys into our culture. Over fourteen years, I’ve been able to see most of the things the company does. The company has been in Canada and Australia for decades, an emerging operation in India, and franchisees near US military bases around the world. Our group also supports ancillary functions like intellectual property, marketing, and strategic sourcing. So, the team is broad and our members have to be flexible and open-minded.
How are things changing for in-house legal departments?
Budgets are tighter everywhere in corporate America. Everyone is realizing that they have to do more.
What does that mean for you?
Teams like ours are working to demonstrate overall value. We’re here to provide legal advice and services, but we want to do more than just dispense legal advice. We want to uncover new opportunities and enable business decisions to really help meet H&R Block’s strategic goals.
Is that embraced by your colleagues and counterparts in various departments?
It’s a welcome change. Many call it the “business-enabler” model. With this approach, legal is involved early and often. We can provide input and help chart a course forward with full transparency.
Why is this a better way?
Often, in large companies, legal is seen as an obstacle to innovation and is therefore engaged later in the process. If that happens, we can make the best of the situation and try to provide quick fixes to avoid trouble. But if we can earn a seat at the table by demonstrating our value in the enabler model, we can give early input to drive informed decisions at every level. We help our business partners examine all angles before deciding on a strategy, and sometimes we even come up with new angles to consider based on our legal knowledge and expertise. The outcomes are better.
What is the ideal relationship like in that scenario? Who is driving the process?
I see the business as the ultimate decision maker in most situations, with legal providing input and acting as a guide along the way.
You mentioned better outcomes. What is it about this process that enhances results?
It removes the stigma of corporate legal departments as a necessary evil. When they are viewed as the stuffy department to be avoided at all costs, people aren’t motivated to have full and open discussions. They tell the lawyers just enough to get the yes they want. That yes might get them off and running, but it often only delays problems that could have been addressed in earlier stages.
As a leader in the department, how do you instill this philosophy?
We need our business colleagues to embrace the approach, but there are certain things we need to do as lawyers to execute it well. I ask my team to keep an open mind. We should avoid the tendency to manage risk by saying no and then moving on. We need to get creative and find solutions and options that overcome obstacles. We should be providing new ways to get the client where they want to go, but in a way, that’s risk-appropriate for the company. Also, we have tremendous top-down support from our GC, which reinforces this as a top priority.
How do you view a no?
As a last resort. Sometimes a no is required if we look at an issue from ten angles and it’s still something we just can’t do. Our goal is to keep H&R Block within our risk tolerance. Lawyers have to recognize when we’re approaching dangerous territory. But an absolute no should be rare.
What are the best ways to become a business enabler?
I think there are three important aspects to this. First and foremost, you have to know the business. We encourage our lawyers to get in the field and visit our offices during tax season to see what employees do and how customers experience us. Our employees get their taxes done in H&R Block offices or through our DIY tax preparation software so they can experience our products and services first hand. Also, to better understand the critical role of our tax preparers, we encourage our employees to take the H&R Block tax prep class.
Next, you have to know your internal clients and what they want. You have to invite yourself to the party. People don’t generally exclude lawyers from a meeting intentionally; they just don’t think it’s necessary to have us there. But we can spot issues from afar. We also work to read between the lines and understand what a client is trying to do even if they don’t say the exact words or articulate their plan in a specific way.
The third thing you have to do is play offense. Lawyers can get stuck in defense mode, but we can also create value. We are aggressive in going after competitors if they engage in unlawful activities or violate certain agreements. We can help create future value through IP and patents, and that’s important.
When you discuss best practices, do you also discuss pitfalls to avoid?
Legal has to know its role. We are a support function. There’s no silver bullet. Success comes over time as you build credibility.
You’re also passionate about team development. How does the enabler model play into a strong team?
People in the department feel valued and empowered to make a difference. They feel a higher sense of purpose.
How do you hope to build on these steps in 2017 and beyond?
We make approximately 75 percent of our revenue during tax season, so we mainly focus on execution during that time. When the season winds down, we use this approach to plan and strategize for next tax season. But we’re also looking at new products and services. We can really dig in and understand how our department can work in a new way to help move an iconic American company forward.