3 steps general counsel can take to improve legal operations

Law departments are facing another year of continued change. The good news is, it can be change they manage and helps them thrive going forward.

“Legal department leaders left 2021 determined to modernize their operations, protect their businesses, and deliver great legal work despite outside pressures,” says Jennifer Dezso, Director, Client Relations at Thomson Reuters. “The pandemic created incredible pressure and upheaval, but it also led to new possibilities in how we work and what we can accomplish.”

Dezso is basing her analysis on the Thomson Reuters 2022 State of Corporate Law Departments (SCLD) report. She and colleague Gina Jurva will discuss the report in an April 20th webinar. Jurva is an attorney and manager of Corporates & Government Market Insights & Thought Leadership for the Thomson Reuters Institute.  

So, how do legal department leaders drive positive change for their people and work? There are three concrete action steps that in-house counsel can take to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their legal operations. They are: 

1. Assess legal operational efficiency gaps

Look at how much administrative work your team is doing “the old-fashioned way.” For example, are you trying to track projects using spreadsheets? If so, you’re not alone, as many legal departments have tech gaps. For instance:

  • Nearly half of legal departments aren’t using contract management or document management software
  • One-third don’t use e-signatures
  • Legal hold and e-discovery are highly manual for many in-house legal teams

Your team can get more done in less time with modern legal technology. While the effort to take on new tools or systems may seem formidable, the long-term effect will be considerable.   

For instance, legal project management software enables departments to systematically track workloads as well as determine scope and priority, schedule projects, and allocate appropriate resources. This can boost a department’s organization and efficiency.

If your law department has big gaps in technology, start small. Choose a few easy wins and build an ongoing case for investment in tools that help your team work more efficiently.

2. Demonstrate legal department value through strategic partnership

In-house counsel still have work to do in order to be seen internally as a value center rather than purely as a cost center. The SCLD report notes that in-house lawyers are more likely to be seen as overhead when they focus on reactive activities like regulatory compliance or responding to the pandemic.

Conversely, in-house teams that focus on tasks such as proactive risk management and making the company’s strategic and growth goals into law department priorities are more likely to be seen as strategic partners that add value.

“There is no magic bullet when it comes to showing the value of the legal department,” says Sterling Miller, a three-time general counsel and frequent contributor to Thomson Reuters. “It’s the accumulation of many different steps taken persistently over time. You must be patient and work at enhancing the value perception every day.”

Make a list of your key stakeholders and consider whether you know what their goals are — what gets them fired up and what work they dread. If you do know what they’re trying to accomplish, make sure your dialogue with them shows how your department helps them. If you don’t, schedule an informal meeting to get yourself grounded in their priorities. From there, you’ll identify plenty of opportunities to reposition your department as a partner in the success of the business.

3. Align legal department metrics to business goals

Be sure you are measuring what matters: develop a set of key performance indicators that reflect the concerns of your stakeholders. Then you can connect the in-house counsel work and progress to the goals of the organization in a tangible, metric-based way.

“The metrics you share with the organization should align to business goals,” says Jurva. “Think: tracking losses and settlements, the impact of training and education, and internal customer satisfaction.”

Make sure that corporate goals and supporting the organizational strategy are high on the departmental agenda.

“It’s clear that there’s no ‘back-to-normal’ state to return to,” Dezso says. “Most businesses experienced lasting shifts over the past two years. In-house teams can pivot gracefully by using technology to improve efficiency, squaring their department goals with the goals of the business, and communicating metrics that clearly lead to better business outcomes.”

Taking these three action steps to improve legal operations can help your law department thrive through ongoing business change.  For more insight on current trends for in-house lawyers, attend the webinar, “2022 State of the Corporate Law Departments: 3 Key Findings and an Action Plan for Your Department” with Jen Dezso and Gina Jurva.

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