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  Work Allocation Out of Sync?

Author: Richard Stock - Lexpert (January 2014 at p. 74)

EVERY FEW YEARS, the distribution of work to members of the legal department warrants a comprehensive review. Eventually and inevitably, work will fall "out of sync" with the skills of lawyers and with corporate priorities. And while a strong team of corporate counsel will always be more cost-effective than external counsel, a misaligned distribution of work can reduce this advantage. Experienced members of the legal department, for instance, can be hard-pressed to find time to make valuable strategic contributions when they are overwhelmed by daily operational support requirements.

Here is how a number of legal departments have recalibrated the allocation of resources. The first step is to get an accurate measure of what work is being done in the department. This starts by asking each lawyer and paralegal to prepare an estimate of the distribution of hours for each area of law by business unit. Some lawyers find it easier to estimate the percentage of their time rather than to estimate hours. It is important, however, to include administrative, practice-management and professional-development time in the total. Too often, the time for these activities is excessive.

The second measure of the type of work being done is even more important than the first. Each member of the department is asked to estimate the number of matters completed in three categories for duration - up to five hours per matter; six to 25 hours; and more than 25 hours - and then to suggest the proportion of the annual workload that each category represents. This profile of each practice and of the legal department as a whole will suggest whether too many resources are being expended on routine operational support for business units. General counsel should be concerned if lawyers with more than eight years of experience are spending more than 50 per cent of their time on matters in the first two categories. That is because it is difficult to make a strategic contribution with such a large turnover of matters.

Sometimes, there is not enough complex, challenging work available for the experience levels in the department. A few general counsel have elected to in-source complex work referred to external counsel. In other cases, co-counselling complex work makes sense with only the associate-level work being referred to the firm. In both instances, in-house counsel are deployed more effectively.

The real strategic value of corporate counsel comes in helping business get done. Most organizations have plenty of corporate priorities and projects and not enough time to get them all done. General counsel seek out "multi-disciplinary" initiatives and then carve out a leadership role or significant contribution for senior counsel. This should not be a "make work" project for in-house counsel. Instead, the work typically calls on counsel's analytical and communication skills, project-management expertise and negotiation capabilities. Initial success will stimulate demand by business units for more of the same.

We have seen many examples where legal departments with a track record of contributing to corporate priorities and high-visibility projects then find it comparatively straightforward to secure approval for additional resources.

A different reason for work allocation falling out of sync is because some lawyers within the legal department - or the entire legal department - are in what can be called a "furry rut" - a comfort zone where client relationships are good and the workload is manageable without being on cruise control. In this situation, the general counsel has to shake things up. Usually, that means delegating tasks - often 50 per cent of them - to a less-experienced lawyer or a paralegal. When the department has no "uniors," however, then making clients more self-sufficient through training and standardized documents goes a long way to generating capacity in the department.

This course of action will be resisted by both the "client" and in-house counsel. The justification has to be strong to overcome the inertia in workflows. Experience suggests that corporate priorities and strategic initiatives will serve as the basis for change. General counsel need to invest the time to conduct the analysis, secure buy-in from business units, and encourage their team members to try harder. Above all, general counsel need to avoid reverting to demand-driven legal services.

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