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Empowering Your Legal Team’s Productivity — Even with Increasingly High Work Volume

February 25, 2021 3 min read
Empowering Legal Team

Recently I was contacted by an in-house counsel colleague regarding their challenge of handling increasingly high volumes of work without adding headcount or outside counsel support. My colleague’s contracts team regularly worked after hours and on weekends, and still there were ongoing complaints (whether valid or not) about contracts “taking too long“ or being “stuck in legal.”

How to Increase Your Legal Team’s Productivity

With no additional headcount.

Having confirmed with my colleague that they have the right talent on the team, I then asked the following question.

Is each team member:

  • nimble and singularly focused on the success of the team and the company AND
  • using the right tools AND
  • working only on level appropriate work AND
  • able to articulate at any time both the team’s work priorities and the completion deadlines?

Based on first-hand experience, making small but impactful changes to be able to definitively answer “yes” to this question can, over time, result in measurable improvements in team performance.

Some changes to consider implementing include:

Lead your team with positivity and enthusiasm.

With this small change, a very busy contracts team in a legal group with low morale rapidly converted its mindset from being task-oriented (redlining a contract) to acting as professional legal advisors.

Refocusing the team on the unique career opportunity (in this case, to interact directly and daily with C-suite executives and directly impact and influence company strategic initiatives) resulted in the team members recognizing their work as high value and essential to the company’s success.

Noticeable related changes also included improved professional appearance, development of executive presence, little or no office gossip or similar distractions, uncluttered workspace as the team transitioned to a modern, paperless environment, and respect when speaking to or about colleagues.

Set the tone for teamwork and prioritize the team’s work.

  • Track and share performance results with the team (and company management) on a monthly basis. In the case of the contracts team mentioned above, total active, new and completed matters monthly and year over year comparative metrics were tracked. Completed “impact matters” (those supporting key company initiatives) also were reported. The team became collectively invested in continually improving their “numbers” month-over-month with pride and determination.
  • Prioritize the work that must be completed that week for each team member. Circulate the weekly priority matter list after the meeting to the entire team, and review it at the next weekly priority meeting. Crossing completed matters off the list is motivating and keeps everyone laser-focused on the work at hand.
  • Hold an end-of-day team check-in call daily to address any blockers and any other information or help needed. This also creates an environment where it is “safe” for a team member to ask for help, which promotes collaboration and ideation, and where issues can be addressed in real-time avoiding time consuming meetings and emails.
  • Work with the team to identify and eliminate habits that unproductively consume time. For example:
    • Encourage the team to pick up the phone and talk through and resolve a complex issue with a client rather than send an email.
    • Check emails periodically, rather than reading each new email upon receipt which constantly interrupts completing the work at hand.
    • Maintain focus and avoid multitasking while on a call; and respond to emails with actions that actually move the matter forward.
    • This last point is especially important. I have observed responses to emails where the lawyer is speculating on the answer with a promise to get back to the client quickly. Instead, determine the answer and then respond.
  • Adopt principles that guide the team’s work every day and follow them. These will vary depending on the work and the team’s role in the company. The contracts team mentioned above had guiding principles of “Speed, excellence and empathy.”
    • Admittedly, this seemed corny at first to some team members, but the team quickly embraced them and still use the principles as personal checkpoints three years later.
    • So, in addition to providing excellent work product by the promised deadlines (speed and excellence), empathy — deeply understanding the needs of the company and the requester, while working side by side with the business lead for practical solutions to get the contracts to the finish line — became a developed and essential soft skill for all team members.
  • Make sure lawyers are working on only the most complex matters. Other legal professionals should be properly trained to handle the routine, less complex work (for example, NDAs, consulting and professional services agreements, etc.)
  • Tools, such as periodically updated and standardized templates and clauses that reflect the company’s risk profile, and related training, are essential and help attorneys avoid time consuming searches for clauses. Your templates can also be used as checklists when reviewing a counterparty’s paper. As an added benefit, these tools enable professional staff to undertake initial drafting of contracts, freeing up the lawyers’ time for the more complex matters.

While there is no one “quick fix” and results may not be immediately apparent, implementing relevant changes should yield continuous and measurable improvements in the number of completed matters month over month, and significantly reduce complaints.

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Caroline Gilroy has more than 25 years’ combined experience in private law practice and in house building and leading high performing legal teams. Connect with her on LinkedIn.