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Corporate counsel

State of Corporate Law Departments 2019: How to become a more effective in-house team

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Corporate law departments have always walked a narrow line among the other corporate business units.

As the safeguard and often conscience of the organization, the law department too often became the “Office of No,” as it guards against unnecessary risk and avoids potential legal pitfalls. While that role is still of primary importance, corporate law departments now realize that their other duty — providing legal support that enables their organization to maximize its competitive advantage — gives them much more freedom to support the company’s goals.

And the quickest way to demonstrate that support is to perform their functions in a way that emphasizes efficiency, lowers cost and provides greater value in the delivery of legal services.

A new report, State of Corporate Law Departments 2019 — published by Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, the International Bar Association (IBA), the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), and UK-based legal research firm Acritas — uncovers the trends that are driving corporate law departments today. The report comes to the inescapable conclusion that in order to maximize the value of the legal services delivered, corporate law departments need to not only pay attention to reducing the cost of those services, but also improve the value and impact that those legal services have on the organization.

The report identifies several industry-wide trends — from fostering innovation to fielding diverse teams —that high-performing corporate law departments are already embracing and utilizing to improve their value, effectiveness and efficiency. The report suggests that corporate law departments that follow these industry trends and incorporate these improvement levers can create a higher performing legal function and enhance the impact that their department makes on the organization’s overall success.

Diversification of skill sets

The report underscores the trend that creating teams with diverse skillsets and experience lifts performance. Identifying 23 distinct skills, the report clusters them around three distinct types of lawyers — the “specialist expert” lawyer, the “practical service” lawyer and the “business relationship” lawyer — each with their own added value and key functions.

While it is rare to find an individual lawyer that can embody all three skill types, the highest performing teams allowed for this, forming teams with lawyers of each distinct type and allowing them to work together. Further, other non-lawyers — legal operations professionals, professional project managers, account managers and technology/data experts — could also be brought in to complement these legal teams.

Developing project management expertise

Among high-performing law departments, one factor appears to stand out: project management.

According to the report, as the legal industry embraces project management to improve internal organization, coordination and efficiency, corporate law departments that follow suit can improve their performance and value. It also shows that even improving the clarity of communication with the organization’s management by using comprehensive briefings with clear objectives, scope and expectations, goes a long way to establishing the law department as one that is collaborative and effective.

Create collaborative partnerships

Building on that communication and collaboration, corporate law departments that seek stronger partnerships with their outside legal service providers, whether outside counsel or alternative providers, strengthen their hand in reducing costs and increasing the value they receive from their legal vendors, the report states.

Clearly, this is one of the corporate law department’s most important roles. Because most legal functions rely on outside legal support for the delivery of services, additional capacity or special expertise, how these relationships unfold are vitally important and enhance the impact the department has on the organization.

The report suggests, as collaborative partnerships become the trend industry-wide, individual law departments should take a look at how they manage their own relationships.

Provide for gender diversity on legal teams

The research that underpins this report clearly shows that gender diversity on legal teams allows those teams to achieve significantly higher performance ratings. And yet, both law firms and in-house teams continue to lose female talent at the most senior levels.

There are many reasons why women leave the legal profession — a perceived lack of fairness in opportunity and pay, hurdles to career advancement, overt sexual discrimination and harassment, and other reasons. This has left an environment in which just one-in-four general counsel are women.

While the trend is moving toward progress (albeit, slow progress) on this issue, high-performing corporate law departments recognize the value in having diverse representation on their teams, the report notes.

Creating an environment for successful innovation

While innovation can seem like the latest industry buzzword, it is the creation of an environment in which innovation is supported, attempted and evaluated, that can make the real difference in the performance of a corporate law department.

Clearly, the most-cited examples of innovation focus on adapting new technology, although any area of work that utilizes new approaches or improved processes could be thought of as innovative. This would include using alternative pricing models, finding new ways to employ resources such as with contract attorneys or legal managed services and even encouraging other valuable services such as training and sharing knowledge.


You can download the State of Corporate Law Departments 2019 report here to learn more about improving the performance of your corporate law department.

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