Corporate law departments are under heavy pressure on many fronts, and the current pandemic crisis that is seeing the way work is done upended across the world, is only going to exacerbate those pressures. Indeed, it would be natural to assume that the strategic priorities that corporate law departments identified in late-2019 have gone completely out of the window, given how much has changed and how much more is uncertain due to the global pandemic amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Yet, as our research teams went back and spoke again to several General Counsel, they report this is not necessarily the case. Certainly, some projects and transactions have been put on hold, and many new priorities have arisen, such as making sure everyone can work from home safely and effectively; yet, for many departments, the core strategic priorities remain as they described them.
In a new report, 2020 State of Corporate Law Departments: Effectiveness, Efficiency & Expanding the Guardian Role (which you can download by simply filling out the form on this page), we see that these priorities may even be more important at the current time and effectively demonstrate how law departments continue to face pressure on a multitude of fronts. Even more so now, corporate leaders want these teams to provide protection against an ever-increasing number of risks, while also facilitating the growth of the company. Further, legal teams must accommodate ever-evolving changes in legal technology and process innovation, all while keeping control of costs.
It’s no secret that corporate management increasingly wants their legal teams to not only provide protection against an ever-increasing number of legal risks and compliance rules, but also to enhance the company’s business strategy and facilitate growth. What’s more, legal teams are expected to be evermore mindful of their costs even as they accommodate continually evolving changes in legal technology and process innovation.
In the new report, we examine this legal environment and where corporate law department leaders should focus to best deal with the challenges they face and the opportunities available. The annual report draws on data from Thomson Reuters Legal Tracker LDO Index, a combination of quantitative benchmarking, and Acritas’ latest Sharplegal research, which is based on 2,000 phone interviews with senior in-house legal counsel.
The new report identifies three strategic priorities that corporate law department leaders have cited and are focused on for the coming year:
- Improving functional effectiveness;
- Increasing efficiency; and
- Safeguarding the company.
And while most of these reflect the goal that many other corporate business units would articulate, the management tools and processes that corporate law departments can access are continually evolving. Indeed, this means that law department leaders need to consider each of these goals more deeply.
Improving functional effectiveness
How corporate law departments seek to improve their effectiveness and demonstrate their value to the corporate greatly determines how the legal team is perceived internally.
In the report, many team leaders cited the need for strong collaboration among the legal team and other business units because many corporate leaders expect all their departments (including legal) to work with one another to create a more integrated approach to how the company does business. Of course, corporate law departments must pursue such collaboration while keeping up with their own day-to-day demands — a daily balancing act that can be difficult.
As the report shows, however, many law departments already understand that collaborative efforts could be streamlined by the legal team relying more on data analytics and other efficiency tools (such as those for matter management, contract lifecycles, documents, and legal project management) that can improve the speed and quality of the process while lowering costs.
Not surprisingly, corporate law departments — like other departments across the corporation — are being pushed to find new ways to increase efficiency, primarily by reducing waste and duplication, and finding better ways of managing workflow for less cost.
Many legal teams are finding that their outside counsel costs have plateaued, and they cannot cut their way to efficiency. For many, that means looking inward at where cuts could be made and seeking further innovation to get the job done better.
This dynamic provides even more reason for corporate law departments to look at adopting new technology and more innovative processes that could streamline how it works. In fact, the current crisis is making remote work a necessity, and by allowing team members to work remotely, law departments can reduce costs overall. Further, law departments should undertake a process to measure the department’s success, allowing them to demonstrate the value they bring to their corporations, including how well the legal team has its costs under control.
Safeguarding the company
In today’s environment, there seems to be no shortage of threats to corporations from a variety of legal and regulatory challenges — dealing with the current crisis, potential climate change regulation, changing enforcement regimes, and unforeseen legal developments. And today, the corporate law departments’ role in safeguarding the company goes beyond just mitigating these immediate threats.
Safeguarding means ensuring the company and its business model will be sustainable and the company will have the ability to face any new regulations or external problems which may occur. One way the report suggests that corporate law departments could address this challenge is by creating an environment for their in-house team that supports career advancement and well-being, and that ensures the department will continue to have the most qualified team for the job.
All of this taken together is a monumental task for any corporate law department — especially given the current uncertain and challenging environment. However, for those departments that are able to keep their focus on these goals and enlist the talent and technology to reach them, the reward in improved efficiency and the department’s increased perception of value within the company is well worth the effort.
This report was originally published on Legal Executive Institute, the Thomson Reuters publication based in the US.