With turbulent economic times ahead, Deputy GC feedback from Axiom's recent research makes for bleak reading for in-house teams:
100% seeing an increasing volume and complexity of work.
100% feeling stressed or burned out.
96% facing a hiring freeze.
94% lacking bandwidth to deal with demand.
All the while, law firms are facing the same pressures and are increasing rates in response, placing even more budgetary pressure on in-house teams. Continuing to support the business effectively whilst balancing the books must seem like an impossible task in these circumstances, and it is easy to see how stress on in-house teams can mount and lead to burnout.
To an extent, these pressures are unavoidable. As businesses tighten their belts, more must be done for less. However, as an in-house team, you can and should take steps to minimise the impact, not just for the sake of supporting your business, but evidently, to protect against burnout in your team.
But how do you do this? The solution may lie in legal operations.
Whilst 'Legal Operations' as a term has a never-ending list of definitions, one thing they all have in common is the principle that the way that legal teams operate can - and should - be actively monitored and improved. If you can't hire new lawyers, and can't afford to rely on outside counsel, making more of what you already have is the obvious solution.
However you're already swimming in work and can't hire a legal ops person, so how do you actually manage this? The key is to start small and make sure you spend your time on truly impactful initiatives. A few key tips to get started:
- Get a picture of where you are now. This doesn't have to be an over-engineered, infallible research report on your team's workload. Instead, quick, simple steps such as a snapshot survey, or a week-long work diary, can help you to get an understanding of your current workload and to cut through the noise.
- Using the information available (ideally from an exercise such as the above), try to identify potential quick-wins. For example, if approx. 15% of your team's time is spent on a particular type of low risk contract, consider whether it could be self-served by the business, or at the very least supported by a light-touch playbook. Opportunities like this can free up time to focus on further time-saving initiatives - a virtuous circle.
If none of your work can be pushed elsewhere or simplified (which is perfectly plausible), at the very least you have identified the right information to show the value of the legal function, and to push back on budget cuts and hiring freezes.
- To address a particular point in the Axiom research (that 38% of DGCs felt that the burden of managing external counsel limited effectiveness and discouraged instruction), consider whether your management of existing outside counsel could be optimised. External counsel management is a fast-developing area of legal ops that, for many teams, offers quick wins that can impact budget directly and quickly. At the very least, it can remove the management burden, and opens up access to external support in a truly useful way.
- Speak to your law firms. The legal market is constantly evolving, and many law firms now have 'captive' alternate legal services arms that can help you to enhance your operations, and managed services departments to help you with major projects or high-volume, low-risk work that is draining your team's time. Of course, this might not always be the most suitable or feasible option, but if you don't ask, you'll never know!
As the year progresses, it is unclear how much the pressures already facing in-house teams will ratchet up further, and so the sooner you start taking small steps, the better. One thing is sure though, with other options to tackle budgetary pressures becoming more and more restricted, now could very well be the time for legal operations to shine.