10 Key Business Objectives for Corporate Legal Departments

Managing corporate legal departments in today’s global environment requires a unique combination of legal, business, management, technical and soft skills. So when I read a recent article by Catherine Ho of The Washington Post in the May 21 - May 27, 2012 edition of Capital Business titled, Area Law Schools Developing In-House Counsel Classes, my initial reaction was it’s about time. Having worked for two Fortune 50 corporate legal departments during my career, I know firsthand the importance of being able to manage the business side of the law.

In her article, Ms. Ho reports that Catholic and Georgetown are the first two major Washington area law schools to began offering formal courses designed to train students on how to practice law in a corporate setting. Ms. Ho also reports that more law schools are following suit including American University’s Washington College of Law. As a graduate of American University’s Kogod School of Business, I was pleased to read that AU’s law school is developing an in-house program for the 2012-2013 academic year that will address issues confronting in-house counsel. And Ms. Ho reports that the American Bar Association is being pressured to hold law schools more accountable for how their students do after graduation.

What every good corporate legal department strives are 10 critical business objectives:

  • Cost Certainties and ROI
  • Greater Command and Control of Information and Data 
  • Enhanced Decision Making Abilities
  • Greater Centralization and Efficiencies of Legal Operations
  • Effective Tools, Reporting Systems and Metrics
  • Secure Information and Data
  • Technology Excellence
  • Effective Human Capital Management
  • Repeatable, Measurable and Defensible Processes – Legal Project Management
  • Trusted Strategic Business Partners

In managing corporate legal departments, you have to understand the unique environment in which they operate to achieve key business objectives:

  • The general counsel typically reports to the company CEO or president. The general counsel has a high degree of accountability and visibility within the company. Internal relationships and alliances are critical to achieve success.
  • The general counsel will usually oversee all legal and external affairs matters including litigation, investigations, compliance, mergers and acquisitions, contract matters and international trade issues. The general counsel is also likely to oversee the activities of the Washington, DC office encompassing legislative, regulatory, administrative and policy matters. Yes, a very full plate of risks, threats and issues to deal with.
  • The legal department is a business unit inside the corporation with its own mission, goals, objectives and budget. However, the legal department is a non-revenue generator and must continually demonstrate how it adds-value within the company through the use of reports, tools and key metrics.
  • The legal department must interact with internal clients and departments (such as IT and procurement), C level executives, subject matter experts, regional and overseas offices, outside counsel, consultants, and government and regulatory bodies. Yes, several key stakeholders that must be managed.
  • The legal department must be joined at the hip with the IT department to manage the costs, complexities and challenges of electronically stored information and electronic discovery matters.
  • The legal department will very often have to manage headcount problems, budget issues, work flow peaks and valleys, and competing internal departmental interests.
  • The legal department must have relevant and timely information and data to make informed business and legal decisions while focus on mitigating risks. The general counsel is the protector of the company.
  • The legal department strives for proactive processes that are repeatable, measurable and defensible. However, the legal department must very often manage in a reactive mode to handle crisis situations including new law suits, government investigations and bad news.
  • While a number of analogies can be used, the corporate legal department operates like an air traffic control system. Yes, lots of balls to keep up in the air and you never know when disaster will strike requiring the deployment of legal swat-teams. 

So to reiterate, corporate legal department leaders and managers must have legal, business, management, technical and soft skills to achieve success on the job. This is something not just for law schools to keep in mind but also the corporate law departments themselves. Yes, there is a business side of the law that must be managed for competitive, business, financial and strategic reasons. 

Posted by Joe Kanka, Vice President of Corporate Development, eTERA Consulting. Joe can be reached at jkanka@eteraconsulting.com.