In the past year, corporate legal leaders largely rose to the challenge of navigating a “new normal” characterized by extreme volatility — and the dust may not settle in 2023.
What traits are critical to managing a legal department in this environment?
First and foremost, preparation and flexibility — whether that means using technology to soften the impact of increased workloads or taking extra time to foster the relationship between a legal team and the company it supports.
“Now is the time for right-sourcing — getting the work done the right way, by the right people, at the right cost,” says Trista Engel, Paragon’s CEO. “Spending each dollar in its most productive way.”
Read on to discover four takeaways from the past year, as well as suggestions on how best to prepare for 2023.
Recession or Not, You Should Embrace Uncertainty
Are we experiencing a recession? Has a recession already come and gone? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask.
One thing is clear, however: In-house legal teams have navigated a precarious end to the year, with layoffs already hitting legal departments in the tech sector.
GCs have shown they can handle increased workloads with fewer resources, however. And there’s still time to adapt and prepare for a potential recession.
Corporate legal departments should begin by optimizing their budgets, and figuring out how to streamline processes via automation while reevaluating those processes that still require human oversight.
Getting a clear picture on how work is divided up among members of the legal department is a critical step.
If the reevaluation process seems daunting, consider bringing in an outside consultant with expertise in legal operations.
When outside help isn’t in the cards, employees who joined the team recently might be able to provide insights with a fresh perspective.
Flexible counsel, who typically bring widespread experience to an embedded role within your team, also can help ensure your team is following best practices in your industry.
You Must Stay Flexible
In an era of uncertainty, flexibility should be a priority for any GC looking to keep their team afloat and functional.
Maybe you face a one-time legal project you know you should get done but your team doesn’t have the bandwidth? For example, do you need to set up privacy compliance, draft or update an employee handbook, or research and implement a contract management system?
Might small legal issues pile up during the day, and you find outside counsel doesn’t get back to you quickly enough?
Outsourcing is one way legal departments can bolster their ranks and grow their business while addressing these types of challenges. In fact, 93% of legal or compliance departments have outsourced work in the past three years, according to a Wolters Kluwer survey of 100 legal executives.
The flexible counsel model often offers the perfect arrangement for adapting the size of a legal department to fit the needs of the moment.
These attorneys can tackle anything from document review to contract drafting and legal research — typically at a fraction of the costs associated with outside counsel, and without the commitment of a direct hire.
When looking to work with flexible counsel, GCs should develop a specific, clear understanding of the needs the attorneys will be asked to address.
The process and budget reevaluations suggested above are a great place to start.
Make ‘Robust Communication’ Your Mantra
As GCs continue to navigate turbulence into 2023, proving the legal department’s worth as an investment should be a top priority to ensure intradepartmental stability.
Proactive, robust communication is the integral first-step in achieving this goal.
A recent webinar sponsored by LinkSquares and Above the Law dove into these types of emerging challenges for legal teams.
Titled “How the Legal Team Can Grow The Business and Get the Credit They Deserve,” the panel dug into specific ways law departments can support company goals while building their internal brand.
Ashlyn Donohue, LinkSquares’ Legal Director, particularly noted the importance of a “listening tour” as well as constant communication, in which the legal department seeks to understand the goals of the company leaders and keep up with them as they evolve.
“Our partners move quickly, and things might pivot and change,” she says.
“So you want to be proactive in building and fostering those partnerships, and trying to make sure the strategy you have for your team in place is really going to help further what they’re looking to do.”
Providing this type of best-in-class service also means keeping your best-in-class team intact.
For young lawyers, work-life balance is repeatedly demonstrated as the key concern for finding and leaving a job.
Of course, corporate law departments are facing ever-increasing workloads themselves, to the point that “do more with less” has become an industry cliche in recent years. As a result, they may not always be the solution for private practice lawyers seeking better work-life balance.
But this doesn’t mean these lawyers’ aspirations should be dismissed.
In addition to seeking work-life balance, many associates also say they’re looking for a workplace where they feel heard and respected by more senior team members, according to a recent Above the Law survey of more than 500 associates.
Results like these demonstrate that establishing policies to encourage feedback — and to demonstrate that management is responsive to any concerns — is also a critical component of keeping a productive team intact.
You Really Do Need to Revisit Your Tech Stack
Investment in legal technology now could pay huge dividends down the road — especially if the current trend of asking corporate legal teams to do more with fewer resources continues into the coming year.
Technology solutions ranging from AI-assisted document analysis to e-discovery software and cloud-based document management all have the potential to reduce the amount of time attorneys spend on administrative tasks or busy work.
This frees up their time to focus on the essential parts of the job that call for human creativity and input.
Still hesitant about legal tech or unsure of where to start?
Take a look at Above the Law’s Non-Event for a no-nonsense dive into how legal technology has the power to change your department from the ground up.
The pages also feature the Non-Eventcast — a tongue in cheek podcast featuring leaders in these fields — as well as the Legal Tech-to-English Dictionary, which manages to be both informative and entertaining in discussing tech topics.