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Corporate Legal

Savvy general counsel run their legal departments like businesses

· 8 minute read

· 8 minute read

One way general counsel are growing their reputations as strategic advisors is by running their law departments like businesses within their organizations. They are responding to the increased pressure to show how they are adding value and managing costs by being more strategic and bringing legal guidance to business problems.  

What does it mean to run your legal department like a business? It means knowing your team is focused on the most important projects and matters to help move the business strategy forward. And that your resources – particularly your outside counsel spend – are managed responsibly.  

To run your department like a business, you need clear metrics that align to business goals, visibility into the work being done by outside counsel, and the ability to maintain compliance.  

Vision and metrics

When you’re leading your legal department like a business, start with a vision and then set goals and metrics that align to that vision. Consider what the business is trying to achieve and the mission and vision of the organization overall. Then, articulate your department’s priorities so that people can see how their work supports the organization’s ability to reach its goals. Set targets for your department that allow your team and your business partners to understand how you are making progress toward those goals.  

Look for systems that help you understand benchmarks for your key performance indicators and measure progress against them.  

Visibility into legal work

Legal departments often deal with both a wide array and high volume of legal matters. Couple this with the fact that companies with both large and small legal departments need to be able to go to one place to see and manage all open legal matters and matter activities, rather than simply putting out fires as they come up.  

Today’s matter management software systems allow in-house lawyers to quickly see relevant information on all matters where work is being done, receive updates and documents alerts, upload documents, manage budgets, run reports on matters, and spend at the touch of a button.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) has enabled systems to show outside counsel rates that other firms pay. Legal departments can use this anonymized benchmarking data to better evaluate law firm rates and spend categories. They can also use dashboard analytics to streamline their rate management process.  

When the legal department has all the company’s legal work in a single system, the team can effectively manage that work proactively, increase visibility into the entirety of the company’s legal work, and decrease the chances of getting blindsided by issues they did not see coming 

Improving legal department efficiency

Increasing efficiency is the charge of every business unit at a company. One way for the legal department to become more efficient is by automating routine tasks, which reduces cycle time and improves accuracy and performance.  

For example, rather than having a pile of paper invoices that must be manually reviewed, e-billing software can systematically analyze invoices and provide alerts when spending goes over budget, timekeeper rates increase, or expense guidelines are violated.  

Furthermore, all matter data can be stored in one place, allowing all relevant parties to view that data—no more searching for documents or emails to send to outside counsel or even within your legal department. In-house counsel can simply log in and go to the appropriate legal matter to view the relevant documents.  

According to Bobbie Crew, paralegal and system manager at H&R Block, using software to manage efficiency “[d]efinitely saved us time on our invoicing processes. It flags guidelines violations automatically and makes the approval process faster. It also makes it much easier to track invoices in the approval process.”  

One of the biggest advantages of keeping matter information and spend in one place is it allows legal departments to easily run reports on that data, reports that may have been difficult or impossible to create before. Crew said that in general their software as a service (“SaaS”) solution, “has been a great tool for reporting, a huge advantage, and huge timesaver. A report that once took two weeks to create, I can now generate in about 30 minutes. We’ve been able to get data that we didn’t used to have access to and look at that data from several different perspectives.”  

Getting value from your legal spend

Once all the legal spend for a company is in one place, a legal department can analyze how best to get value from that spend and how to reduce legal fees and expenses. SaaS matter management and e-billing solutions can offer various tools to help a legal department receive greater value for their legal spend. For example, a company can flag expense guideline violations and unapproved hourly rate increases that otherwise might have slipped through unnoticed.  

Also, requiring budgets helps control spend because it makes law firms accountable for the amount of time they spend working on a matter, and it lets them know that clients are monitoring their hours closely.  

Tracking and managing timekeeper hourly rates is a constant challenge for all legal teams, but you can now streamline this process. A legal team can enter all the timekeeper rates from a firm into a SaaS system at once, check them against last year’s rate to see the percentage increase, and then approve or reduce them.  

If rates deviate from the approved rates, the legal department will get notified immediately. They can edit the rates as necessary in an hourly rate report. Law departments can truly manage and compare their outside counsel rates and enforce their guidelines on rates or move work to equally qualified lawyers with rates that fall in line with the company’s guidelines using this process.  

Using a system to manage this process helps create efficiencies and enables the legal team to manage resources responsibly. It also frees up time for the legal team to focus on the larger vision and goals of the organization.  

Contract and document management

Many companies have heavy document and contract work in their legal department. Finding contracts and documents quickly, getting alerts and reporting for renewal deadlines, and allowing access to documents for the appropriate parties can become a significant time burden in such a contract- and document-intensive environment. It is also vital from a risk-management perspective to have a system in place to track important contract dates such as renewal and termination dates and to analyze these documents for trends and compliance issues.  

The latest legal matter management software allows for this type of document and contract management functionality. According to Michael Fox, former Jamba Juice vice president and general counsel, “[The software] lets us retain and access our contracts in a systematic, organized matter. I don’t have to answer routine questions about agreements anymore because the regional franchise managers can find the documents [themselves]. That saves me a lot of time.”  

SaaS solutions can deliver intuitive yet sophisticated contract and document management functionality that can ensure that you meet your deadlines and increase process efficiencies. And your team will be able to find, analyze and report on these documents quickly and easily. 

When you have documents and insights at your fingertips, you can serve those up to your business partners. You can also provide strategic legal insight that shows you and your team can help move the business forward. 

An elevated approach to in-house legal work

Legal departments today face unique challenges and pressures and are often tasked with doing more with less. At the same time, many in-house lawyers want to be seen as strategic business partners. By approaching your legal department like a business – with a vision, goals, and financial targets – you can deliver for the business and set your team up for great partnership.  

For departments that want to proactively manage their legal work, spend, and documents, new software solutions can streamline their processes, give visibility in their workload, save money, manage risk, and help get their arms around their documents and contractual obligations.  

To do all that, you need to have tools that support your more elevated approach to work. In an environment where legal departments increasingly have to justify their expenditures, these software solutions allow legal departments to gain efficiencies, demonstrate savings provided by the department, and have reports and data at their fingertips as never before.  


Does your legal team have the tools you need to run your department like a business? Thomson Reuters Legal Tracker can help you set up the systems and processes you need to set your goals and manage them.  

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