How Small Business Attorneys Set Goals That Get the Law Department Noticed

Surprisingly, one of the more daunting administrative tasks legal departments face is setting useful goals for the upcoming year. The work a legal department does — for instance, “problems avoided” — does not always lend itself to a set of neatly defined goals like other parts of the business. Yet, setting goals is important and provides a fresh opportunity to take stock of where the legal team should devote its best efforts for the year.  

Goal setting is also an opportunity to market the department: “here is all the great stuff we are doing.” Done properly, it gives general counsel a deeper understanding of what is important to the business, along with feedback on how the department can improve in the upcoming year. As a result, in-house lawyers should see goal setting as an opportunity to embrace and not as a chore to muddle through. The more thought and effort you put into goal setting, the bigger the payoff.    

It is helpful to create “themes” when setting goals — broad categories that capture the mission of the legal department. In my experience, that mission is simple: enhance value creation and minimize value destruction. It is fairly easy to place practically anything the department does into one of these categories, including developing and retaining team members.

Here is a set of five high-level themes to start with and which you can customize as needed to set goals for your department:

  1. Build and retain an extraordinary team with exceptional people.
  2. Meet budget targets.
  3. Prioritize and complete high revenue/cost saving and strategic commercial agreements.
  4. Deliver on strategic transactions and initiatives such as mergers, joint ventures, acquisitions and other deal activity.
  5. Defend and protect the interests of the company — litigation, IP, government affairs, compliance.

Once you set out your themes, you can develop precise goals underneath each. Here is how to get started:

Look backward to look forward. How did the department perform on the prior year’s goals? Are there any goals worth repeating or left unfinished? Did you find a better way to measure success? What worked for you and your team and what did not? Use the lessons of the prior year to develop better goals going forward.

Talk to your clients. Talk to your business clients and find out what is important to them in the upcoming year. Do this at multiple layers: talk with clients at the top, the middle, and on the front lines. The latter layers will give you more granular insight into what the business unit hopes to achieve. Then, match up the goals of the department — and individual lawyers supporting that business unit — to what the business thinks is important. Do not forget to coordinate with other staff groups. Find out what they are seeking to accomplish in the upcoming year and think about how the legal department can help them.

Talk to the boss. General counsel should ensure the goals of the department line up with those of the CEO. Additionally, talk with members of the Board of Directors, especially the committee chairs. It is important to understand what the Board is concerned about heading into the year.

Talk to your team. Spend time with your team and pick their brains about what should be on the list of goals. Who will know better about specific legal issues facing your department and the company than your own lawyers? 

What is already in play? Think about matters — such as litigation, contracts, deals — that are ongoing along with other things you know are coming down the pike for the company. For example, you know the new California and Virginia privacy laws are in place but not effective until 2023. Is there work to do this coming year to position the company for compliance?  

Be proactive and forward thinking. Stay aware of what is going on in the world around you. It is critical that you remain up to date on world events and developments in the marketplace and how those developments may impact the company and, therefore, the goals you set. The environment your company operates in is constantly changing and evolving, domestically and internationally. You must be plugged into that environment through internal resources — such as marketing and strategic planning office — as well as external sources like newspapers, websites, magazines, trade associations, blogs, and industry publications.

Upgrade skills and talent. Your most valuable asset is the people you already have working for you. Goals should include helping your team upgrade their existing skill sets, develop different skills, and become more efficient and productive. This may entail more CLE training, new technology and research resources, or moving people into different roles or adding responsibilities.  

Find ways to measure success. This is one of the more challenging aspects of the goal-setting exercise. How do you measure success? Every goal you set should have some type of measurement associated with it, even if it is just “complete review of data privacy policy by December 31.” Do not over think it; keep the measurement simple and straightforward. 

Go over the goals with your team. Once you have set goals, sit down with your team and go over them so everyone understands what is important and what they need to focus on and potentially add to their own goals for the year. Unless confidential, share all of the goals with everyone to ensure the entire department is on the same page. You can then have more focused discussions on goals during one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.  

Keep track of success — and failure. If you wait until December to think back on how well you did versus your goals for the year, you probably cannot remember everything you accomplished. Create some mechanism to continually save the department’s achievements and successes for the year in real time, even if it is simply a folder in Outlook. Moreover, it is unlikely that your goals will stay static over the course of the year. New issues, problems, or deals will arise that will become “goal worthy;” be ready to update or alter goals as needed. Your themes should be flexible enough to capture important new goals. Discuss progress toward the goals with your team regularly so everyone is aware of the progress, or lack thereof, and understands what they need to do to help the department meet its goals.

Start seeing setting goals for the legal department as an important task, one to take seriously. Doing it correctly means you are thinking strategically and about how best the legal department can add value to the company. This will reflect well on the department and on you.

About the author


Sterling Miller is a three-time General Counsel who spent almost 25 years in house. He has published four books and writes the award-winning legal blog, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel. Sterling is a frequent contributor to Thomson Reuters as well as a sought-after speaker. He regularly consults with legal departments and coaches in-house lawyers. He received his J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.

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