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  Managing Workflows and Workloads in the Legal Department

Author: Richard Stock - Lexpert, September 2008, Vol 9, No 10

The Australian Corporate Lawyers Association survey of 125 companies and organizations with law departments representing nearly 1,400 lawyers reported that the most pressing challenge facing chief legal officers is workload/time pressure for the law department. The same survey reported that the median number of worked hours was 2,160 - in the range of 45 - 50 hours per week. Private sector law departments average 50 - 60 hours a week, as do lawyers from smaller (0 - 5 lawyers) departments. Canadian surveys produced a similar result.

Still, this is paradoxical. InsideCounsel's 2008 Career Satisfaction Survey released in July 2008 reported that the second most frequently-cited reward for working in-house was the length of the work week. Fully two-thirds of respondents were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their work-life balance. Some 75% "agree" or "strongly agree" that they have a better work-life balance than lawyers in law firms.

The Team Factors consulting group conducted similar research with 2,500 lawyers in law departments and law firms in New Zealand. 62% believe their organization genuinely supports a balance between work and private life, while 26% see it sometimes and the remainder rarely do. Yet nearly 25% regard their organization's practices in attracting, motivating and retaining good lawyers to be "poor" or "very poor". A third see the practices as neutral for lawyers, and 40% see them as "good" to "very good".

Demonstrating the value of law departments is not a challenge when expressed in financial terms. Legal work costs 40% of what it would were it to be purchased from a law firm. However, a great deal of the time spent by inside counsel is not "legal work" as such. Some of it is business advisory, operational support, training, special projects and strategic work which would never be purchased from a law firm. It is diverse, interesting and a contribution that recipients of these services openly appreciate. It is also the type of work which corporate counsel do not want to give up.

InsideCounsel's satisfaction survey reported that 26.7% of respondents saw "exposure to the business side" as the most rewarding feature of their jobs. Another 20.3% saw "variety of legal work" as most rewarding. These were the #1 and #3 ranked reasons reported. None of the surveys differentiate the responses according to how many years lawyers have practiced and by how many of those years have been in-house. One hypothesis is that less experienced counsel carry a greater proportion of operational support work than do their more senior colleagues. Newer arrivals have not had enough time to build working relationships and to fine-tune their practice management skills.

There are a number of structural and operating issues which, if not addressed, can add 20% to the workload of a law department. The first deals with backlogs and demand. When interviewed, few counsel are able to detail the extent of the backlog and the future demand for their services. They are always busy, are never "caught up" and constantly feel the pressure to satisfy their "clients" at all times. Further analysis reveals that if no new files, phone calls or e-mail come in, there would be nothing to do in less than two weeks. Of course, this never happens since the challenge is more about constant demand (workflow) than it is about backlogs and workloads.

A minority of law departments rely on service level agreements with key users to influence workloads and workflows. They require user groups to involve legal counsel in planning annual demand for legal services. They designate a reduced number of user representatives to deal with the law department for pre-set issues and questions covering both regular work and special projects. Disciplined corporate counsel control the time they spend in hand-holding meetings and with e-mail in favour of getting the legal work done. Accessibility is reduced in order to improve turnaround times. User surveys always reveal high scores for accessibility but poorer scores for turnaround times.

Corporate counsel should consider the following survey results when deciding how to make more time available in a day. The amount of time consumed by interruptions during the day of an average knowledge worker is 28%. The point drop in functioning IQ is 10% when distracted by phone calls and e-mails. Microsoft reports that it takes about 15 minutes for its employees to get back on task after breaking off to answer phone calls or e-mail. Managing these drive-by-interruptions can generate at least 1 hour per day of productive time.

Other measures should be considered as well. Seven years of survey results show that no more than 30% of law departments launch formal programs to reduce the number of firms they retain. Fewer still have introduced matter budgeting protocols and pricing / payment mechanisms that cut down on the amount of review time needed for legal bills. The July issue of Inside Counsel reports that only 11.6% of law departments believe that law firms are actively seeking ways to reduce the cost of the legal services they provide. Yet some 76% of law firms believe they are taking the necessary measures. Introducing incentives for profitability and stream-lined billing / payment procedures with law firms will save half a day a month for those who retain external counsel.

There is no over-estimating the value of a legal assistant with strong organizational skills. Most counsel share an assistant. Consider an assistant who triages e-mail, phone calls and appointments and who ensures that the "end of day paperless office" operating protocol is enforced in the law department. Some lawyers at IBM Canada and CN's General Counsel Olivier Chouc subscribe to such protocols as a way to stay focused and to reduce wasted time.

Substantial increases in workloads invariably occur as business grows or changes. Rusty Miller, Petro-Canada's VP and General Counsel, and Sylvain Hétu, AXA Canada's General Counsel both resort to the use of contract lawyers as supplements to their regular teams to keep work in-house and to handle time-sensitive work. Contract lawyers are integrated into the legal team aligned with key business units across the company. The challenge is to respect the commitment to keep workloads within bounds for contract lawyers since many prefer part-time arrangements.

Port Vancouver's General Counsel, Dean Readman, regularly asks business teams about special projects to avoid surprises in demand. He resists the pressure to provide business solutions and asks his lawyers to focus on legal solutions only. As departments grow, it can also become cost-effective to delegate management responsibilities to an associate GC and administrative roles to a legal administrator. John Pallascio oversees the day-to-day professional side of Export Development Canada's law department. Paul Tolley, Calgary's City Solicitor, has long benefited from the contribution of a professional legal administrator in the department.

The business case to add lawyers can readily be made. But this only reduces the workload of existing counsel for a few months. Changes to operating protocols and individual practice management habits have a longer-lasting impact.

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