January gives us a chance to step back and assess what’s working … and what isn’t. As an in-house attorney, this is the perfect time to identify issues you’d like to improve at your law department and brainstorm ways to address them this year.
Below, we offer five ideas that will help in-house counsel make 2022 their best year yet.
1) Stop Over-functioning
Performing tasks that could be handled by non-lawyers can be a major time drain. Attorneys should assess whether they’re overburdening themselves by handling administrative or business tasks, leaving them with less time to provide strategic legal services.
“Lawyers should not be correcting grammar in contracts, or looking at business terms, since that’s a business decision,” said Stephanie Corey, the co-founder of UpLevel Ops, a legal operations advisory firm. “A lot of times, the legal department gets turned into a word processing pool, where they’re over-functioning.”
Instead, Corey recommends better defining responsibilities between the internal client and the legal department. Attorneys could also use automation, outsource the work to a legal service provider, or even stop doing certain tasks altogether, according to Corey. It all adds up to more time for in-house counsel to focus on important legal issues, reducing the need to send work to law firms.
2) Invest in Legal Operations
Investing in legal operations can also go a long way toward making your legal department more efficient and providing insight into how it functions. No matter how big your department is, you should be thinking about operations issues, Corey said, such as how work is coming in, how it’s being triaged, and whether you have a clear understanding of the department’s overall work landscape by the end of the year.
“Having somebody who’s responsible for the operations is critical,” Corey said. “And that should be everyone’s New Year’s goal — having somebody in your department who’s focused on this as the main part of their job, not 10%, or nothing will get done.”
Legal operations professionals can also be crucial for maintaining clear, effective communication with outside counsel, eliminating one more thing that attorneys have to worry about.
3) Be Open to Legal Tech
From contract management software to e-signature solutions, there’s no shortage of legal tech out there that seeks to make attorneys’ lives easier. For a more organized and streamlined 2022, it’s worth exploring how technology can address your law department’s specific pain points.
“The world is shifting on its axis towards more, not less, technology in the corporate legal space,” said Jason Winmill, a managing partner at Argopoint, a legal department consulting firm.
Winmill advised in-house counsel to “keep an open, albeit skeptical, mind towards technology” and be willing to give new tech a try. For best results, Corey recommended hiring a consultant to assist with tool selection or, if you opt to do it yourself, interviewing the people who will be working with the system to see what will work best for their needs.
Getting references from current clients is also critical. And attorneys should be sure to carefully consider how any new legal tech will fit into their broader tech ecosystem, in order to reap the highest efficiency and investment from it.
4) Refocus On Client Management
As we head into the new year, in-house attorneys should also focus on their client management skills, according to Winmill, who noted that great legal advice won’t be effective if you can’t influence decision-makers.
“Client empathy and management is a different part of the brain, in my view, than hardcore legal knowledge, but it’s just as important,” Winmill said.
Sterling Miller, an in-house veteran and current CEO at Hilgers Graben, has written that being practical, responsive, and humble are a few of the things you can do to have a good relationship with in-house clients.
5) Control Outside Counsel Costs
In-house attorneys may also have to grapple with higher costs from outside counsel next year, as law firms are seeking to push for “aggressive” rate hikes in 2022, according to Law.com. However, there are ways that in-house counsel can control spiraling costs, according to Winmill.
“Sophisticated in-house counsel is applying a wide range of cost management strategies, approaches, and tools to manage these rate increases,” Winmill said. “Those approaches include shifting work away — either to lower cost outside providers or in-house — more rigorous review of outside counsel activities and bills, or employing more programmatic approaches, such as strategic partnering programs with select law firms.”
Law departments may also want to consider trying to negotiate lower rates with outside counsel or utilizing smaller firms for less strategic matters.
Although these tips likely don’t encompass every issue your law department might hope to address this year, they should give you a solid foundation for crafting a few in-house New Year’s goals, ensuring that you’ll have a smoother, more productive 2022.