• 2 Mar 2022
  • Reading time
    3 minutes

Law department feeling overwhelmed? Process improvement is an antidote

Law department feeling overwhelmed? Process improvement is an antidote

Studies show that while law departments feel overwhelmed, even small process improvement changes could alleviate the strain; however, legal operations must also overcome cultural hurdles to getting started.

There’s a saying that one half of strategy is knowing what you won’t do. That idea is well-suited to tasks and processes in the legal department too, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed. 

Corporate Counsel recently interviewed a handful of consultants who suggested law departments should push some work to other parts of the business. It’s a brilliant idea and it’s entirely possible, but there are cultural barriers to navigate. 

For example, we recently spoke with a legal operations leader who, even with a mandate from the GC, ran into resistance immediately. She asked the in-house lawyers to identify tasks they think they should stop doing. The answer? There weren’t any. Letting go of anything was an invitation to risk. 

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In-house legal teams are overwhelmed

Yet the quantity of work won’t let up. Most respondents (70%) to our Legal Spend Landscape for 2022 report (summary) said the legal workload has “increased” (40%) or “increased significantly” (30%) over the last three years. 

This means almost one in three legal departments surveyed have experienced a “significant” increase, which the survey quantified as growth of 20% or more. This works out to one additional workday per week – effectively a Saturday spent in the remote office. 

These results show many can’t keep pace with the increased demand for legal expertise. It’s starting to wear on the lawyers. That same survey found nearly half of respondents say the “legal department is overwhelmed” (47%).

Such sentiment has boiled over in other credible industry surveys too. For example, a July 2021 survey of 202 corporate lawyers by an analyst firm found “54% are exhausted to some degree, with 20% scoring as highly exhausted”.

That survey also exposed the effects of exhaustion on the in-house team’s productivity: 

“Of the 20% of corporate lawyers who scored as highly exhausted, 41% of them showed signs of psychological distress, 68% were looking to leave the organization, and 61% frequently delayed or killed projects in which they were involved.”

Effects of the pandemic

The pandemic has clearly been a factor. The 2021 State of Corporate Law Departments by Thomson Reuters found, “Eight times as many law departments experienced a surge in workload as [those which] experienced a dip [due to the pandemic].”   

It wasn’t just the surge that hit law departments hard but the fact much of the work was new and different. Early in the pandemic, we spoke to a GC for a manufacturing company who noted the work his team usually does around growth, like factory openings, was replaced with closures, furloughs and workforce reductions.

The fact legal departments feel overwhelmed – despite a 13% growth in headcount since 2018 – suggests the problem can’t be solved by adding human resources alone. In other words, legal leaders can’t just throw headcount at the problem anymore, they must focus on improving legal processes.

Ample opportunity for process improvement  

There’s ample opportunity for process improvement, according to an analysis by Deloitte, titled, A New Era of Legal Transformation. That analysis was based on interviews with “100 US legal professionals including GCs and legal operations leaders”. 

More than half (62%) of respondents believed that “establishing better processes around existing systems would help solve current project management challenges”. Moreover, “only 13% of respondents felt they had a process to validate that work and resource levels are properly aligned”.

As we pointed out in a summary of that study, examining how work is getting done and identifying areas for process improvement can produce quick wins for the legal department to ease the strain. This could be as simple as removing bottlenecks in workflow or reassigning work to better match skillsets. 

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The example from the legal operations leader above got started by changing the question she posed. Instead of asking for a list of things the lawyers thought they should stop doing, she asked them for a list of daily tasks they found annoying. That list grew quickly. 

This post was adapted from an eBook available for download titled, Five legal operations trends to watch in 2022


Image credit: Unsplash


Alun Swift

Alun Swift

Head of Marketing and Revenue Operations

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