Taking a look inside in-house law departments

Today’s corporate counsel must be much more than a good lawyer. More and more, that role calls for skills in project management and administration as well as the key element of protecting the organization from risk.

That’s part of the takeaway from a recently commissioned study by legal market analysis firm Acritas and the Legal Executive Institute of Thomson Reuters.

“2019 State of Corporate Law Departments: Improving the Impact of Legal Services” takes a deep dive into such facets of corporate law practice as developing and acting on a legal function based on a keen understanding of the business’s needs.

Almost half of the corporate attorneys polled said their clients could benefit from better project management training.

The skills in those areas include internal organization, coordination, and efficiency. “Project management at the initial engagement stage specifically should focus on clarity of communication. Indeed, stand-out clients provide their law firms with comprehensive briefings that include clear objectives, including scope and establish expectations,” the study read.

William Josten, manager of Enterprise Content for the Legal Executive Institute, said the ongoing need for enhanced project management
skills wasn’t a surprise as data was being collected.

“The report talks about the need for skills like project management, which has certainly been an emerging trend on both the buy- and sell-sides of the legal market for a while now,” he said. “So, it’s good reinforcement to hear that discussed by those participating in the survey.”

Todd R. Sorensen, vice president and general counsel at Capella University, said it can be especially challenging to cultivate project management expertise for lawyers who come to a corporate gig from a law firm setting.

“I don’t think project management is something that comes naturally to all lawyers who come from law firms,” Sorensen, who is also the current president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Corporate Counsel. “If you started in a corporate law role,  that just becomes part of how you operate. But that might not be part of your tool belt if you come from a firm. When you come in-house, it takes time to develop that.”

The study also noted that another area where there’s room for improvement is in building collaborative partnerships with external legal suppliers.

After analyzing thousands of interviews from both in-house and private practice lawyers, Acritas found that both sides have work to do.

“Through working together in a respectful, collaborative partnership, where objectives and incentives are aligned, the outcome is likely to be optimized. This research identified a number of areas which are critical to get right in order to manage external counsel effectively, including attitude, skills, and taking action,” the study read.

“The findings around the necessity of an open, collaborative relationship with outside counsel is also very consistent with the efforts we’ve seen on the law firm side of the market as they try to marshal resources to better understand and serve their clients’ needs,” said Josten.

“When you’re on the outside, it’s easier to underplay things like culture and connection, and the mission of the company,” said Sorensen.

“When you’re on the inside, those things necessary become ingrained in everything you do.”

Gender diversity lacking

Another finding that stood out has to do with the increasing use of legal technology.

More than 60 percent of large legal departments and 45 percent of all legal departments report increasing use of legal technology, signifying a further shift into an arena where the amount of legal work a law department is capable of handling is not directly related to the number of lawyers in that department.

“As legal technology continues to increase the productivity capacity of the lawyers using it, those lawyers will be in a better position to produce more work product without suffering any declines in quality,” said Josten.

Jamal Stockton, Head of Legal Innovation and Digital Enablement with Fidelity Investments, commented via email that corporate attorneys “desperately” need technology that allows them to share non-confidential data as a community via a single platform.

“We have CLM, eDiscovery, Matter Management, Chatbots, (artificial intelligence), Entity Management and reporting software,” Stockton said. “We all keep it to ourselves and sometimes for good reasons but without that shared power of information with standards around what is being captured and why, there’s no incentive to make dramatic changes, especially in a strong economy.”

One other major theme that ran through the Acritas study was diversity: the need for corporate law departments to recognize the need to recruit and properly mentor female and minority attorneys.

The study found that gender-diverse teams achieved significantly higher performance ratings. Still, in-house teams continue to lose female talent at the most senior levels, for reasons ranging from insufficient training to harassment to lack of advancement opportunities.

“Despite all the discussion around issues of gender and the need for diverse and inclusive workforces, law firms and legal departments continue to lose senior female lawyers,” said Josten. “A disturbingly small number of corporate general counsel are women, and a shocking number of women report experiencing bullying or harassment in the workplace.”