Can we please take a moment to talk about legal department strategy?
Like the unheralded director of a new breakthrough movie, legal department strategy only really gets the attention it deserves by a small handful of buffs. Contrast this to legal operations which – much like the attractive lead that is catapulted into stardom – currently sits front and centre stage jealously soaking up the all the attention.
Although it may sound like I’m bemoaning this fact, I’m not. Legal operations should have its name in bright lights above legal departments across the globe, and long may it continue. However, I submit that legal strategy should have equal footing, sitting alongside legal operations in a shared limelight with equal focus and enthusiasm.
Why? Because whereas legal operations is the dashing protagonist, legal strategy is the director in the background charting the course for the production by setting the overall vision, direction, and tone. Without this, you may have the greatest cast in the world but chances are they’ll be pulling in different directions and eventually the production will fall apart due to ‘creative differences’. Or it will just be downright bad. As much as it pains me to say it, no amount of star power is going to make “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No” an Oscar winner.
In saying all this I’m possibly doing a slight disservice to the legal operations community. It’s not as if legal strategy has been completely abandoned. Indeed, the leading legal operations community, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), does in fact reference legal strategy in a wheel of 12 functional ‘spokes’ that makes up the practice of legal operations (see figure 1). ‘Strategic planning’ sits as a spoke in this wheel alongside, amongst other things, ‘technology’, ‘firm & vendor management’, ‘financial management’, ‘practice operations’, and ‘project/program management’.
Figure 1: CLOC Core 12 Functional Areas
However, it’s my view that this does a disservice to strategy. It isn’t just another spoke in the wheel. Rather, strategy is the hub that sits directly in the centre, acting as the axis around which all other operational activities are organised (see my vastly improved figure 2, below). Strategy represents focus and direction, and operations represents execution. Strategy should therefore precede execution – not run alongside it – because it directs where and how legal departments should execute.
Figure 2: my Paint-powered masterpiece, changing the emphasis away from strategic planning to strategy more broadly, and showing where it should sit in the wheel.
So, what is strategy?
No doubt most people’s instinctive reaction would be to suggest they could provide a good answer to this ostensibly simple question. But consider it for a second, and it isn’t so easy to come up with a good definition. Indeed, if defining what strategy was and how to do it well was so straightforward, it wouldn’t be the subject of what feels like an abundance of titles all seemingly with big bold red writing on their covers that could fill the British Library.
It may be easier to start with what strategy is NOT, before I be so bold as to try to summarise what it is. Despite many strategy documents I’ve encountered seeming to suggest otherwise, strategy is not a big picture direction of travel. Nor is it a standalone decision or goal. Nor is it wishful thinking about what you’d like to happen, detracted from the reality of constraints and trade-offs. Rather, strategy is a coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies and arguments that lay out HOW you plan to respond to a set of challenges in order to meet a particular goal.
Going further, good strategy does more than just urge us forward toward a goal or vision. A good strategy acknowledges the challenges being faced, the accompanying trade-offs and constraints that exist, and provides a proposed way forward on how to overcome them and best meet your objective. The greater the challenges, the greater the need for a coherent strategy that focuses and coordinates efforts to achieve an effective solution. An exercise in strategic planning therefore must contain the following elements:
- a defined goal or set of goals;
- acknowledged challenges and constraints;
- some supporting analysis of different ways your goal(s) can be achieved; and
- the agreed path forward and actions that together best help you to achieve your goal(s).
Okay, so how does legal strategy fit in, specifically?
Whereas strategy is often talked about at the company or organisational level, the reason I am writing on this topic is because it is talked about much less in the context of corporate legal departments.
Just as a company or organisation can set a strategy, a corporate legal department can. Going back to our definition of strategy as ‘a coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies and arguments that lay out how you plan to respond to a set of challenges in order to meet a particular goal’, it makes total sense for all divisions and functions of an organisation to have a strategy.
However, whereas it is in the gift of companies or organisations to set their overall strategy, this isn’t the case for Legal departments. And nor should it be. As an enabling function, a legal department is subordinate to the wider organisation, and exists – as the name ‘enabling function’ suggests – to enable it to achieve its wider goals and objectives. That means that a legal department’s strategy must be highly attuned to the objectives and needs of the wider business.
Does that mean a legal department has no autonomy or control whatsoever in setting its strategy? Of course not, but equally legal department strategy cannot be produced in a silo. Instead, it must be carefully crafted to direct the efforts of the legal department in such a way that advances the wider organisational objectives.
To do this, legal leadership teams must sit down with their counterparts across the business to really understand their strategic priorities and intended business outcomes over the short, medium and long term. Whilst most senior lawyers would argue they understand the organisation’s wider strategic priorities, quite often they are not as well understood as they could be – either because we struggle to change our own entrenched ways of thinking, or because things are continuously fluid and changing, or even that we don’t understand the full range of views and our own is therefore too narrow.
By simply having this type of deliberate discussion you give yourself an opportunity to probe, to question, and to drive better understanding. As a win-win, your stakeholders will likely be delighted that you are showing an active interest in their priorities too. It ultimately ensures that Legal has scrupulously understood and synthesized an organisation’s wider strategic priorities.
All of this can then sit at the very forefront of a legal department’s thinking as it develops out its own strategy. Now being in the best possible position to do so, Legal should next translate what it has heard into a set of goals, sketch out some options of how those can be achieved, and pull together a coherent set of actions and activities for the department over the coming year. These should be those actions and activities that best enables it to support the business in pursuit of its strategic priorities.
This kind of exercise is an adult way of bridging the gap (and, sometimes, ignorance) about what the legal department is doing. It debunks myths and demystifies actions. Critically, it gives advanced notice about what legal will be focusing its efforts on and provides an opportunity for others to challenge or discuss if they don’t think that is indeed the right focus. And all of this points to better outcomes and mutual satisfaction.
Why this all matters – goal congruence and demonstrating value
Legal departments care and want to do the right thing by the business. It’s in the DNA of legal professionals. It’s also why legal departments are willingly and increasingly investing in things like legal operations – so they can drive efficiency into what they do and better demonstrate their value to the business.
It seems obvious to say it, but Legal delivers the most value when:
- its goals are aligned to the organisation’s wider strategic priorities (strategy); and
- it has developed a strategy on how best to deliver its goals (strategy); and
- it executes that strategy as effectively as it can (operations).
This simple aphorism explains the symbiosis between strategy and operations. This is why legal strategy must come into increasing focus, and why legal teams must start putting it alongside legal operations in the spotlight. Operations without strategy misses the point.
And thinking about it, what better story for a GC or CLO to tell? “We sat down with our key business stakeholders, we understood their priorities, and we developed a transparent strategy that lays out what we will do to help the business achieve its objectives.” Ultimately there can be no better value delivered than that. Gone will be the days of awkward conversations about what value legal brings, where legal is focusing its efforts, or how legal budgets are being spent.
In any case, this film-laden article has gone over its running time – that’s a wrap for the time being. Hopefully it’s been helpful. I’ll leave you on the cliffhanger that there may well be a sequel. Hopefully it’ll be a Godfather 2 rather than a Jaws: The Revenge.