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5 Ways General Counsel Can Level Up Their In-House Legal Team

When pondering how to improve your legal team as general counsel, it often boils down to where you should focus your investments. If the goal is to improve the legal department’s performance this year, should you devote your attention to people, processes, or technology?

If your answer is people, then you’re firmly in the minority among legal department leaders. According to ACC’s Chief Legal Officers Survey, only 38% expect to hire more in-house lawyers in 2023.

If your annual forecast calls for a hiring freeze, then you’ll have to find your performance edge in process or technology instead. But I wouldn’t view that result as a concession or compromise. In fact, it’s the route I’d recommend even to those blessed with infinite recruitment budgets. Especially because legal operations—the strategic discipline of optimizing in-house legal processes and technologies—is uniquely capable of elevating the performance of every individual within your team.

Creating an Accountable Culture to Improve Your Legal Team

Legal department performance cannot be understood—much less improved—until it’s measured. But selecting, tracking, and reporting relevant metrics is a job unto itself — and one that has never historically aligned with the innate skills and crowded schedules of corporate attorneys.

When dedicated legal ops professionals are recruited and made responsible for these critical activities, the benefit to the department is threefold.

First, social science suggests that the act of measuring any performance variable will innately inspire some degree of behavior change along that dimension. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, how outside counsel habits might evolve if you let your firms know budget adherence will now be tracked and factored into panel review decisions.

More broadly, increasing objectivity protects the department from its own biases and ensures performance improvement efforts are directed at the right targets. Strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities become much easier to spot when you’re operating from data-based perspectives as opposed to personal opinions.

Finally, displaying a metrics mindset is one of the most powerful ways to transform the perception of the legal department within your organization. Accountability will no longer be a question once performance is presented in terms that every business executive can recognize and respect.

Doing More of Less

Legal operations excellence is all about enabling in-house counsel to spend progressively more time on fewer tasks of higher leverage.

First and foremost, that means divesting lawyers of as many dull-but-necessary administrative duties as possible. A litigation lead reviewing invoice line items for hours each week, for example, is not a habit that persists in high-performing legal departments.

But how do you scale this strategy of letting someone else absorb ancillary tasks? What stops legal ops pros from getting overwhelmed themselves? They instinctively apply the varied arts of prioritization, innovation, automation, and standardization.

Within the realm of legal spend management, for instance, this might look like:

  • Defining a legal tech roadmap [Prioritization]
  • Implementing e-billing software [Innovation]
  • Programming invoice rejection rules [Automation]
  • Documenting billing guidelines [Standardization]

It’s no coincidence that this practice of identifying and focusing on a small set of high-leverage initiatives resembles the work model legal ops pros hope to facilitate for in-house counsel. It’s because they know it’s the only reliable way for a business department that’s consistently given less to deliver more.

Rightsourcing Your Legal Services

Regardless of whether your available resources are trending up or down this fiscal year, effective allocation is one outcome that’s always within your control when focusing on how to improve your legal team. Both business executives and legal department employees expect rightsourcing, getting the right work from the right people at the right price.

Having a strong legal ops function fundamentally reorients your approach to this balancing act. In particular, the reporting prowess I mentioned earlier now pays dramatic dividends. You’ll be able to quickly pull at-a-glance insights like:

  • Active matters by practice area
  • Average blended rate by geography
  • Timekeeper breakdowns by law firm

And those data points alone could help you confidently answer pivotal questions like:

  • Is there enough regulatory activity to justify an in-house counsel hire?
  • How financially compelling would it be to shift some work away from that Manhattan-headquartered firm and toward a Midwestern provider?
  • Who is billing a conspicuous amount of partner time?

Such conversations inevitably raise complex and nuanced people issues, of course. But they’re all better served by a grounding in the procedural and technological infrastructure installed by today’s legal ops experts.

Approaching a Tipping Point?

There’s one last stat I neglected to mention from the ACC survey. When asked for their department’s top-three strategic priorities, 70% of CLOs put legal operations on the list.

That’s 25 percentage points more than the next-closest priority cited by survey respondents. And that’s all against the backdrop of perhaps the most uncertain economic climate in more than a decade.

But whether it’s a product of external pressure or internal motivation, it seems like legal department leaders keep finding their way to one conclusion.

Investing in legal ops isn’t a luxury—it’s the only sustainable path forward.

Follow the Conversation on How to Improve Your Legal Team

As host of the In-House Outliers podcast, I have the opportunity each week to discover and share new secrets from those on the front lines of the legal ops movement. Guests often share insightful stories on their career journeys, and tips on how to improve your legal team. Subscribe to In-House Outliers to make sure you don’t miss an episode!

Alex Kelly

Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder at Brightflag

Alex co-founded Brightflag after spending more than six years at Matheson, Ireland’s largest law firm, in its financial institutions group. A legal technology thought leader, Alex is a frequent speaker at legal operations conferences on topics related to legal innovation and legal transformation.