July 11, 2021

6 characteristics of small but mighty legal departments

Only 8% of GCs are fulfilling the appetite for strategic, business-minded legal counsel. So how can small legal departments rise to the challenge? Here are 6 characteristics of small but mighty legal departments.

Legal Ops

Small legal departments have been asked to do more with less for some time now.

While most have found ways to tackle their new responsibilities, only 8% of General Counsel are feeding the appetite of senior leaders looking for more strategic legal advisors.*

With this in mind, and in light of the current pandemic, in-house lawyers must accelerate the rate at which they adapt to the new in-house legal arena.

How can they do this? They can become an invaluable player within the business by adopting six characteristics of high-performing legal departments.

Strategic thinking

The performance of a legal team is judged on its ability to serve the business. Therefore, high-impact legal departments, no matter the size, have a strategic plan in place which aligns their actions to the company's objectives.

If you don't take the time to evaluate the performance of your legal department and align your actions to business priorities, you will struggle to position yourself as a strategic partner to other teams. A strategic mindset will also help establish common ground when working with departments across the business.

Additionally, remembering that the legal department's objectives don't only benefit the legal team, but rather contribute to business success, can also help promote a sense of purpose for General Counsel (GC). This is especially important for solo in-house lawyers who often find themselves in their one-person world of legal.

Consistent momentum

Consistent momentum is a lesson usually learned through experience. As is likely the case with most departments in a business, there will be certain times throughout the year that are a little more chaotic than others (yes, I'm talking about quarter ends).

While it can be tempting to take your foot off the gas when you're over the hump of a quarter end, high-performing legal teams have a relatively consistent level of momentum throughout the quarter. This is a particularly useful technique for small legal teams as it unlocks pockets of productivity that would traditionally be lost in lower pressure periods.

To achieve close to consistent momentum, in-house lawyers must shift their mindset to view quarter end as a checkpoint, rather than a destination. This isn't to say that you can stop other departments from asking more of you at quarter end, but you can anticipate that this will happen. Therefore, armed with this knowledge, you can manage your quarter accordingly; bringing forward or pushing back non-urgent work to a time that is likely to be less intense. It's all about controlling the controllables and managing the expected.

Strong business relationships

Traditionally, there was a "them vs. us" mentality between business teams and the legal department. Yet, many in-house lawyers are now combatting this stereotype by proactively developing relationships and working collaboratively with teams across the business.

Strong relationships are built on trust and can only be achieved when both parties are open, supportive and appreciative of one another's expertise. Effective in-house lawyers position themselves as complementary members of the wider team and not as a silo.

The process itself - of building and maintaining healthy working relationships - increases the visibility of the legal department. This, in turn, breaks down barriers between teams internally and results in more straightforward and agile work across the business.


"But that's the way it's always been done". Sound familiar?

High-performing legal departments don't become complaisant. They are always asking questions and challenging the norm. Is this achieving the right outcome? How can we do this better? How can we automate this task?

Curiosity also applies to the learning and development of the legal team; whether that be legal development, soft skills or delving into business intelligence to better understand the risk landscape. Being constantly curious allows in-house lawyers to spot opportunities, work more collaboratively and become even more effective in their roles.

For legal departments with one or two lawyers, it can be challenging to allow yourself the brain capacity to be curious. But with smart working and by prioritizing higher-value tasks, it certainly is possible. This brings us to our next point...

Optimized resources

Effectiveness is the ability to achieve results. Efficiency is the ability to achieve the same results with fewer resources. To become more efficient, a legal department must think about the distribution of both its budget and its time and allocate these appropriately.

Particularly for small legal departments, successful GCs choose to invest in legal tech to help them automate low added value tasks, as well as explore the outsourcing of certain legal services.

The boom in legal tech means lawyers can drastically reduce time spent on high volume, manual tasks - which is a welcome development when the workload is growing faster than the size of your team. To embrace this opportunity, it's necessary to understand where your added value lies. Then, you can choose a solution that allows operational staff to act autonomously while maintaining a high level of control over legal and financial risks. Learn more in our In-Depth Guide to Contract Management here.

Outsourcing certain legal services can also be an effective way to free up internal resources. If you want to improve the performance of your legal department by focusing on more strategic matters, you might want to explore how using outside counsel or Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO) could benefit you.

A healthy relationship with risk

Risk. The word alone can send shivers down a lawyer's spine. But high-performing legal departments dance on the fine line between acceptable and unacceptable risk. They are unafraid to explore an opportunity by carrying out a fair risk assessment rather than dismissing uncertain proposals by default.

While it can be daunting, the biggest risk to progress can often be not taking any risk. In-house counsel and their companies are increasingly empowering legal as a lever for business growth, and this is only possible when the legal department has a greater appetite for appropriate risk.

The small in-house legal teams that keep up with their company's evolving risk tolerance are the ones that will perform well and best support business success. These lawyers have a good understanding of the risks and know how to get creative when it comes to contracts. Find out how Evaneos reduced legal and financial risks using Tomorro here.

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* Gartner, August 2020

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The Tomorro team