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  Human Resources in
the Legal Department

Author: Richard Stock - CCCA Magazine, Fall 2011 (Vol 5, No. 3)

A performance management program for lawyers should be aligned with how a company reconciles its strategic business requirements and individual (lawyer) needs for “career progression”. The continuum typically consists of

  • position descriptions and competencies
  • goal-setting
  • training and development
  • compensation
  • career management

Legal Resources as Intellectual capital

Legal services are fundamentally a form of intellectual capital. Law departments and external counsel are involved with virtually every aspect of activity within an organization. However, like financial capital, intellectual capital must be leveraged if it is to be strategic and if it is to add value. Otherwise, it will erode.

Four elements should be retained to anchor a law department’s program for its own human resources. In some cases, a variety of initiatives found in law departments can serve as a example to the remainder of the organization.

1. Contemporary Workplace

  • through the appropriate deployment of legal services dealing with labor, employment, FOI, privacy, human rights, re-structuring and work safety-related issues across the organization. These are essential building blocks of a contemporary workplace;
  • by creating an environment in the law department which succeeds in recruiting and retaining top-tier, experienced legal talent.

2. Learing

  • by transferring knowledge, skills and tools to users of the law department that reduce dependency for routine and non-complex matters;
  • through a competency advancement program which allows a law department to anticipate and support the organization’s strategic plan and priorities.

3. Leadership

  • by taking on the most complex and difficult legal cases / matters confronting the organization either as lead counsel or as co-counsel;
  • by assuming a leading role in a non-legal capacity for objectives, programs or projects of strategic value to the organization as found in business unit plans. Initiatives here should dominate the law department’s priorities each year.

4. Performance Excellence

  • by using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which measure the effectiveness of the law department as a group;
  • by being an “early adopter” of the organization’s initiatives for advanced performance management in the near term.

It follows that a law department can then select two initiatives for each of the four elements in support of a focused human resources strategy to better leverage the contribution of the law department. These initiatives should be accompanied by quarterly status reports to management against measurable results.

Goal Setting

The performance management continuum progresses from the first phase of position descriptions and classifications (including key responsibilities, indicators and behaviours) to the second phase of setting annual objectives (with the related measures, targets and initiatives) for teams and individuals. At times, the competencies required for some of the companies which we surveyed were found in goal-setting and performance appraisal materials. As one General Counsel termed it, “we were looking for an objective way to measure a subjective contribution.”

Linkage to Competencies

At least six departments surveyed tied the annual, personal objectives (goals) directly to the competencies needed to achieve the optimal contribution of their “human resources”. These departments begin in the fall of each year with strategic corporate goals, translated into objectives for the General Counsel, and from there to each lawyer in the legal department.


There is a tendency to establish fewer objectives (from 4 to 6), with more specific, targeted results for each lawyer. Some companies use a balanced scorecard approach, and others are less formal. As a minimum, law department annual objectives will

  • be tied to corporate financial plans;
  • be linked to specific transactions or projects in user departments;
  • include projects to develop the organization's intellectual capital; and
  • include projects to improve the legal department function.

Complexity / Progression

Five of the surveyed departments were successful in delineating levels or a progression for the lawyer regarding the planned goals and objectives. These levels are set with the position and are tied to the company’s key performance factors, where these exist. The complexity may vary depending on the business unit or legal speciality. However in those cases, representatives of the legal department appear to have been involved with the processes used to set the levels, usually as part of job description / classification initiatives. Two (2) techniques are used.

Technique # 1

Five dimensions are tracked for progression on a legal services continuum

  • greater depth and breadth of legal knowledge;
  • ability to work more independently and with more complex situations;
  • increasing effectiveness with business partners and colleagues;
  • extensive track record of identifying key legal opportunities and problems and providing practical solutions for them; and
  • increased effectiveness related to size, complexity and significance of the scope of the matter.

Technique # 2

With this technique, four levels of proficiency are used :

  • Entry Level : application of technical ability is straightforward with infrequent occurrence of unusual problems;
  • Proficient : demonstrates solid ability and a good working knowledge in the specified technical skill;
  • In-depth : demonstrates in-depth, fully competent professional level of specified technical skill. Applications require independent reasoning using established principles and personal knowledge and experience; and
  • Expert : Demonstrates expert level of technical ability. Recognized as an internal / external authority on the specific technical skill. Applications include leading related assignments and training or developing others in the specified technical skill.

Our research indicates that there begins to be some deterioration in the performance management continuum in organizations after one makes it to through the job descriptions / competencies and classification initiatives. For performance management to have strategic value, the goals and evaluation of performance must be tied to the business units. For performance management to have a developmental impact on the company’s intellectual capital and to also have strategic value, there must be a correlation of the lawyer’s competency development with the annual corporate objectives. There must also be an investment of time and money by the company, the department’s management and the individual lawyer to progress as business people and as legal professionals. Several General Counsel surveyed believe they are successful in obtaining strategic value from their lawyers, but only four departments demonstrate a commitment to formal systems which actively develop intellectual capital.

The SMART Test

Best practices in performance management require the SMART test to be met with the chosen initiatives and objectives:

  • Specific : based on a single theme;
  • Measurable : based on the four cornerstones of quantity, quality, cost and timeliness;
  • Achievable : in the upcoming fiscal year, even if a stretch
  • Relevant : linked to divisional success; and
  • Time-bound : targets and pacing throughout the year.

Each initiative should have one or two indicators / measures. For balance, fewer than half of these should address service and costs. Some initiatives can be incorporated into Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with business units, while others should be incorporated into the objectives of individual lawyers to be achieved across a given year.


It is a time-consuming and demanding responsibility to manage human resources in a legal department of several lawyers. It is doubly challenging for larger departments. There is significant untapped potential which is available by investing the time and by using every performance management technique available.

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