This post was written by Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

I previously wrote about an early session during the first day of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Annual Meeting. But I also attended another popular session that day, titled Surviving the Jungle: Management Skills for the Chief Legal Officer. The audience self-selected into groups of about 15 of similar size law departments/companies, with a moderator leading the discussion of each group. The group I joined was made up of mid-size privately held companies and was moderated by Caren Snead Williams, general counsel and secretary for JM Service Center (17 in-house lawyers).

The first topic we discussed was how to keep top-performers in a law department happy when there is little chance of moving up to the general counsel position. It is important not to assume that everyone is motivated by money or title. Gaining more skills, recognition, developing deep business relationships, having time for family/personal priorities, and the ability to engage in activities such as pro bono and charitable work are among other important motivators.

Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

We then discussed the challenges of wearing multiple hats, sometimes acting like the chief legal officer, while at other times being a business executive, board member, compliance officer, or filling other roles. It is often necessary to explicitly identify when one is acting in a legal capacity, and to make it clear that the attorney-client privilege may not apply when you’re acting in a mixed capacity.

The final topic raised was the challenge of showing that the law department is providing value to the company. Everyone agreed that the first step is making sure that legal advice is constructive and that the law department isn’t seen primarily as a naysayer.

We then discussed that it’s important for the law department to report to senior management with metrics similar to what is produced by the company’s business units. These reports include tracking what business activities are generating legal work, where legal spending is going, what efficiencies the law department is creating (such as reducing contract cycle time), and how the law department is managing to their budget. Some law departments said that they are using matter management and e-billing systems to systematically track these and other metrics more completely with much less effort.

It was also noted that an important fringe benefit of having a matter management system for both internal and external matters is that in the event that there is turnover in law department personnel, having everything available online streamlines the transition, ensures that deadlines aren’t missed, and keeps important documents accessible.