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Guide

8 strategies to help general counsel manage growing workloads

Tools and tips for boosting the effectiveness of your use of time and resources when every day is a command performance

Growing businesses have diverse legal needs, just like their larger peers. On any given day, a general counsel (GC) at a growing business is balancing multiple, complex duties while helping business stakeholders incorporate risk awareness into strategic decision-making. In addition, GCs work hard to keep pace with marketplace, legal, and regulatory developments, either as the sole in-house or while managing a small team. As a GC, you know there simply isn’t time enough in your day to accomplish what you need to do — or enough budget to outsource multiple responsibilities.

The good news is that you don’t have to just work harder — you can work smarter. This e-book provides you with eight proven strategies to help you and your team manage growing legal workloads more effectively and efficiently.

Strategic priorities for corporate law departments

In a recent survey of corporate law department leaders, respondents said their top three strategic priorities were:

Chapter One

Strategy #1: Position your expertise

Working as a GC at a growing business or startup can be exciting. Instead of having a specifically-defined role and working years to prove yourself at a large company, of necessity you’ll provide leadership from Day One.

In the early days of your role, it’s important to:

  • Meet all key stakeholders. Schedule introductory meetings with members of the C-suite, any heads of key functions, and partners. Learn about their business and legal needs and brainstorm possible solutions.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities. If you’re fortunate enough to have a legal team or outside counsel support you, clearly specify which attorneys will handle which responsibilities — and communicate that to your stakeholders.
  • Quantify and communicate your team’s value. Legal teams can be viewed as a cost center and inhibitor of business momentum unless you change the conversation by driving economic value back to your organization, like using metrics to measure law department performance. Chris Young, GC at Ironclad, recommends using e-billing systems and other technology solutions to highlight the value of your legal department. “That data really helps you to compel headcount and get the resources you need when you’re up for fiscal year planning,” he says.[1]

Chapter Two

Strategy #2: Build productive working relationships

As a GC to a growing business or startup, you probably have more face time with leaders and partners than you would at a larger firm. That’s a great opportunity if you manage it well. It can help you fast-track your progress and solidify your position as a trusted advisor as you build and strengthen key relationships.

The Delta Lawyer Competency Model offers a proven framework for building the full set of skills you need to be successful in your role. In addition to knowing the law and developing business acumen, like understanding Insurance Basics for In-House Counsel, you need to burnish personal effectiveness skills, including:

  • Building emotional intelligence. We’ve all heard the phrase “read the room.” Know what your peers think and feel, how you’re communicating and being perceived, and how cultural and personal attitudes and mores are changing.
  • Cultivating external relationships. Build strong relationships with individuals outside your firm, including your clients, outside counsel, and partners. Troy Roberts, a chief in-house counsel at Charles Kirkland Companies, called an opposing counsel before a contentious hearing. Their cordial conversation led to a quick settlement and a lasting relationship. [2]
  • Getting to know your colleagues. Set up social gatherings that don’t have any agenda but fun. Getting to know those you work with inside your own company can be rewarding both personally and professionally. Build strong relationships that will stand the test of time and weather the inevitable challenges and crises that every business experiences at some point

Chapter Three

Strategy #3: Develop business skills aligned to a proven model

Marketplace change is making the practice of corporate law more challenging. Fortunately, the Delta Lawyer Competency Model also provides guidance on which skills to develop and hone.

These skills include:

  • Demonstrating business fundamentals. In a survey of in-house counsel, 100% believe that business fundamentals are a key area of required mastery.[3] Skills to develop include monitoring industry and regulatory change, educating stakeholders on relevant trends, and speaking in value-based language instead of legalese, among others.
  • Improving project management. Legal duties are too important to administer via ad hoc processes or last-minute heroics. In-house counsels are developing policies and procedures, documenting processes, implementing templates, proposing new solutions, and outsourcing or delegating repetitive tasks, among other duties.[4]
  • Adopting new technology. Depending upon your organization’s size and budget, you may want to implement tools such as online legal research, legal drafting and e-discovery, editable templates and automated documents, legal practice management, and more.
  • Developing data analytics. One way you can help prove the worth of your law department is by using metrics to measure law department performance. In this article on how to be a trusted advisor to the business, Point #5 discusses how to leverage data to add value to the business. However, if you're not ready for this deep dive, go for some quick wins developing metrics around opened and closed matters, invoice reduction, and more. Ironclad GC Chris Young publishes a quarterly report that uses the company’s digital contracting platform to analyze his team’s deal speed and redline turn time. [5]

To help ensure that attorneys in the law department grow in these 21st Century skills, implement the Delta Model at performance review time. Watch this role-play video to see how it’s done.

Chapter Four

Strategy #4: Align around your organization’s risk tolerance

Your business stakeholders know it’s important to manage risk, but they need help translating that to strategy and day-to-day operations. Consider implementing these four approaches:[6]

  • Determine your organization’s risk tolerance. If your organization has well-defined risk management processes, you’re in luck. If not, you should work with the executive team to establish them. That way, you can frame strategic decisions, risk analyses, and legal advice against your commonly agreed-upon risk tolerance for the organization.  
  • Develop a holistic approach to risk management. Your organization’s risk tolerance will change over time, as the business grows. Take a holistic view that’s guided by your organization’s business strategy, with room for differences across business units and regions. Irene Liu, Chief Legal Officer at Hopin, was formerly GC at Checkr, a technology company in the heavily regulated background check industry. She would consult two to three external counsels with varying tolerances on “gray areas,” to conduct effective risk assessments.[7]
  • Document your processes. Avoid misunderstandings – or even worse, catastrophes – by documenting your risk-assessment protocols (like developing a risk-based due diligence program checklist) and tolerances and publishing them on your intranet. Some organizations set up risk management pages with easy-to-access collateral and forms for ongoing reference.
  • Create a risk-management culture. Many risks are caused by human error. Thus, everyone in your organization should help manage risk every day. Create an effective risk-management culture by engaging in ongoing dialogue, training staff on policies and procedures, sharing real-life examples that make the need for risk management clear, and adopting technology to reduce manual processes that could cause errors.

Chapter Five

Strategy #5: Work more effectively with easy-to-access forms

If you’re a GC to a startup or small business that’s growing fast, the workload can seem overwhelming. You’ll want to minimize busywork, such as time spent finding or managing forms and templates so that you can focus on growing your knowledge and responsibilities.

On her first day on the job as a GC for Turo, Michelle Fang was tasked with creating a Delaware corporation to hold a captive insurance cell, something she knew nothing about as a former litigator. Fang turned to the internet to research the task and get the job done, an experience shared by many GCs when faced with a specific area of law or a task that is new to them.[8]

Now, instead of searching madly online for the latest documents, you can access the Startup Company Toolkit from Thomson Reuters Practical Law. Simply search or scroll to find links to all the documents you need, while making sure members of your team are all using the same forms.

Chapter Six

Strategy #6: Offload or outsource non-core responsibilities

As the legal expert for your organization, you’ll likely be barraged with ongoing requests to offer your expertise. It’s up to you to protect your time, focus on C-suite and business imperatives, and triage or even turn down requests. As a solo GC for several years, Michele Fang knows the situation well. “I was the commercial lawyer, the privacy lawyer, the corporate lawyer, the litigator, the paralegal, the employment lawyer — everything,” she said. In the beginning, she delegated some of her legal workload to outside specialists. Now, she heads a team of 17 and has responsibility for global legal and government affairs.[9]

Here are some strategies for stretching your time and talent:

  • Outsource responsibilities. You may not be able to afford a top-tier law firm, but consider buying time from a small boutique law firm or solo practitioner. If that’s not an option, perhaps you can hire a paralegal or get a law student intern to pitch in on key duties. In either case, having expert legal guidance like Practical Law’s Engaging and Managing Outside Counsel Toolkit or Working Effectively with Outside Counsel Checklist can be helpful.
  • Train an inside resource. If you have an assistant or help from other business units, such as sales or marketing, maximize that help. Set up standardized processes so that your colleagues can gather information for contracts or complete other tasks.
  • Learn when to say no. You’ll want to focus on responsibilities that are either urgent or that add value — or both. Set expectations with your stakeholders or win C-suite approval to drop non-core responsibilities or gain extra budget to hire support.

Chapter Seven

Strategy #7: Maximize available resources to solve problems

There is a wealth of legal resources available online to help you access key forms, learn, and solve problems. If you’re like most attorneys, you’ll devote hours a day to research, staying up to date on legal and other issues. Troy Roberts of Charles Kirkland Companies uses Westlaw to research his legal arguments, visits government websites for regulatory rules and human resources requirements, and conducts general internet searches for new rules and regulations.[10] Here are some tips for finding online resources:

  • Get everything you need in one place. A subscription service such as Thomson Reuters Practical Law can provide you with fast, comprehensive access to the research, forms, checklists, and sample policies you need to run your legal department, saving you valuable time and simplifying the process of training new staff.

Chapter Eight

Strategy #8: Gain insights and strategies from your peers

As a GC, it can seem that you’re managing a never-ending, ever-changing workload, and it’s true. That’s why it helps to get advice from those in the trenches with you. Seasoned pros have seen it all before and can mentor you, while colleagues can lend a helpful hand.

  • Build a network. Join or create a local organization of general counsel. Even better, set up a special interest group for GCs of businesses your size. Use these groups to share ideas, resources, and best practices, as well as to scout new talent.
  • Read case studies. Organizations such as Thomson Reuters provide in-depth case studies of how GCs have navigated business change, built their teams, and overcome significant challenges. A Thomson Reuters white paper, Managing a never-ending, ever-changing workload, provides in-depth insights into how five general counsel smartly balance legal and business demands.
  • Learn from leaders. While the focus of large corporate law departments may not match 1:1 with your workday reality, these departments can provide invaluable insights. Download the  2021 State of Corporate Law Departments: to gain clarity into GCs’ priorities, strategies for improving effectiveness and efficiency, and top tools.

Chapter Nine

Conclusion

As a GC of a growing business, you can have a significant effect on your business’s success — as well as safeguard its well-being.  While your job will never be easy, online resources such as Thomson Reuters® Practical Law provide you with insights, forms, and tools so you can work effectively and efficiently.

Citations

[1] “Managing a never-ending, ever-changing workload: How 5 general counsel smartly balance legal and business demands for their growing businesses,”” white paper, Thomson Reuters, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/insights/white-papers/how-five-general-counsel-smartly-balance-legal-and-business-demands/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Natalie Runyon and Alyson Carrel, “Adapting for 21st century success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model,” white paper, page 7, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/forms/delta-model

[4] “Adapting for 21st century success,” page 13.

[5] “Managing a never-ending, ever-changing workload: How 5 general counsel smartly balance legal and business demands for their growing businesses,”” white paper, Thomson Reuters, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/insights/white-papers/how-five-general-counsel-smartly-balance-legal-and-business-demands/

[6] “How to understand and support your company’s risk tolerance,” white paper, Thomson Reuters, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/insights/white-papers/understanding-and-supporting-your-company-risk-tolerance-as-gc/form

[7] “Managing a never-ending, ever-changing workload: How 5 general counsel smartly balance legal and business demands for their growing businesses,”” white paper, Thomson Reuters, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/insights/white-papers/how-five-general-counsel-smartly-balance-legal-and-business-demands/

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

Are you ready to work even more efficiently, effectively and with confidence?

Then see for yourself how Thomson Reuters Practical Law can make that possible