Best legal departments 2013: great expectations for in-house lawyers

By Sharon Golec on Thursday, June 6th 2013
Management des Directions Juridiques

Corporate Counsel magazine has just named its "Best Legal Departments 2013". The four winners of this U.S. competition, legal departments of between eight and 100 + attorneys, represent diverse sectors of activity (public university, pharmaceutical, resorts and entertainment). What do these four legal departments have in common, and what new legal management trends can we discern from the results?

The winning legal departments share the following characteristics:

  • High motivation. In-house lawyers are highly motivated by two factors: the variety of work (possibility to take on new types of projects and learn new areas of law), and a high level of interest in and / or commitment to the activity of their company. Plus a third contributing factor: empowerment by their General Counsel, who support lawyers’ learning curves as they take on new matters.
  • Close integration with business teams.
  • Ability to accompany change. The winning legal departments are flexible, able to adapt their organizations and their ways of working, and capable of contributing to company-wide change.
  • Broad implementation of standard legal management practices. Convergence (reducing the number of outside counsel), alternative billing, developing metrics to measure performance, client satisfaction surveys… are widely used.

The following new trends can be observed:

  • Pro-active involvement in litigation and in-house management of complex litigation. The winning law departments reduced the number of matters, both through preventive actions (training) and by preferring settlement of non-strategic matters. They enjoyed wide discretion to settle matters. Furthermore, in a reversal of the usual trend, two of the four legal departments have a policy of handling complex matters internally, and outsourcing routine matters to law firms.
  • Reduction of internal legal budgets (presumably by reducing the number of lawyer and / or staff positions).
  • High level of in-house lawyer involvement in complex, transversal projects (for example, expanding operations in Asia, building a new resort complex…). In-house lawyers are involved in these projects from A–Z; their input goes beyond purely legal issues.
  • Increased use of paralegals to significantly reduce turn-around time for standard contracts and free up lawyer time for complex matters.

To summarize, the 2013 results suggest that the expectations for in-house lawyers are high and will continue to increase. Lawyers are called upon to handle more varied and complex matters. To do so, they need to constantly broaden and deepen their expertise and provide more added value, not only as legal experts, but as contributors to the realization of strategic projects.

How can General Counsel create the conditions in which their teams will be able to fulfill these challenges? This is more difficult in France than in the U.S. In France, General Counsel are not always part of the management team, and many in-house teams still struggle to demonstrate their added value as strategic business partners. In addition, traditional French legal education favors the development of technical expertise, but does not necessarily prepare lawyers to learn new areas of law on the job and to work on cross-functional project teams. Enabling lawyers to rise to new challenges will require that General Counsel give high priority to career development and mobility, integration in cross-functional projects and ongoing professional training for their teams. As in the U.S., this is what will separate the top legal departments from the rest.

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