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  No Time to Think!

Author: Richard Stock - CCCA, Winter 2012 (Vol 6, No. 4)

Over the last two years, the annual survey of inside counsel conducted by the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association reported the number one challenge to be day-to-day workloads. There is no time for big picture thinking. Even counsel with more than 10 years of experience will say that the approach to work is just-in-time inventory management.

The side effects are many. Business units complain of poor turnaround times, knowing full well that their own requests for service are too often last minute and that documentation is often incomplete. The same business units readily admit that their lawyers are overworked and agreed that the quality of work is not at issue. Lawyers who are “run off their feet” have no time for special projects, no time for mentoring and for their own professional development, and too little time to develop and offer training to business units. The essential always gets done on time. There is constant pressure to satisfy users. The essential always gets done but no one is ever caught up.

There is a clear correlation between workloads and workflows for in-house counsel. Structural issues and operating practices in legal departments easily use up 20 % of its capacity. For instance, recent studies show that only 50 % of legal departments have written protocols to guide business units’ use of legal resources. Only 20 % have explicit service standards. And there is little evidence of increasing self-sufficiency for certain legal reviews by the business units.

The first step in managing workflows is to manage the expectations of business units for legal services. One of 17 critical success factors for a successful legal department suggested by a group of Fortune 100 General Counsel a decade ago calls for an effective strategy to integrate lawyers with client management teams. Individual lawyers are so swamped with work that they do not make the time for business unit integration that can help predict and manage demand.

There are four elements for the effective integration of lawyers: significant business unit teams should include a lawyer as a participating member; lawyers should have a formal role in the development of new products or services offered by the company; lawyers should review and contribute to annual business unit plans; and the law department should review major policy decisions before they are announced. Our assessment of the profile of many legal departments is that they resemble a captive law firm on call to lend operational support role and are rarely a strategic contributor that adds value.

Service level agreements between the legal department and its principle users are somewhat like law firms’ term of engagement, except they are not matter-specific. In fact, they are more similar to multi-year partnering agreements that some firms conclude with their main clients. A good agreement will set out the scope of services defining the area of law, the number of matters, the required resources, and the relationship of the lawyer and team to the business unit).

Good agreements also identify who is entitled to call on the legal department, with the objective of developing the business unit into an “informed purchaser” of services and of reducing the amount of communication traffic with legal. Finally, a service level agreement is best accompanied by a protocol that defines when legal must be consulted and when it may be called upon. The best agreements include standards for turnaround and for reporting on urgent and regular matters.

A recent survey of a 4-lawyer department was designed to assemble its practice profile by estimating the number of matters handled in a year by each lawyer which required less than 5 hours to complete, the number requiring between 5 and 25 hours and the number requiring in excess of 25 hours. Each lawyer was asked to estimate the proportion of the year given to each of the three categories. The resulting profile told a story: 51 % of the resources went to matters averaging 1.4 hours, 42 % of the resources to matters averaging 11 hours, and the remaining 7 % for more complex matters. It is very difficult to find time to think, to work on special projects, or to do anything much of strategic value in a 50-hour work week with such a practice profile.

The devil and the solution are in the details; in this case, interruptions. One study of professionals found that interruptions consume 28 % of the day for e-mail, calls and visitors. It also found that one’s functioning IQ drops 10 % when distracted by calls and e-mails, that it then takes 15 minutes to properly resume a task after calls and e-mails. Managing time with more discipline generates at least one hour of availability each day – the equivalent of 10 % of a year.

Tracey C. Parks, a productivity consultant, has studied the insidious effects of e-mail. She found that professionals average 2.5 to 3 hours each day processing e-mail and that a professional reads or writes an astonishing 30 000 e-mails in a year. She has prescribed eight e-mail “best practices” that take serious discipline to apply but which can have a significant effect on productivity:

  1. Start day by checking calendar and task list first
  2. Process e-mail only 3 – 4 times per day and either file, act, or toss the e-mail or create a new action
  3. Stay organized
  4. Leverage power of e-mail programs to convert e-mail to tasks, appointments, contacts; categorize by sender and filter the chaff
  5. Send e-mail that is clear, concise and actionable
  6. Send less to receive less
  7. Strengthen the subject line
  8. Do not default to e-mail; call or visit to better communications

A 3-part program to generate capacity on the legal department is a pre-requisite to adding any resources. It should include a significant level of integration of lawyers with primary business units, comprehensive service level agreements with intake criteria, and a disciplined approach to managing interruptions and e-mail. The right combination of these measures can generate 20 % more capacity for the legal department. More importantly, they give the legal department more time to think, to contribute more strategically, and to be more effective.

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