The difference between strategy and tactics is well-known: a strategy is a plan of action that is focused on achieving particular goals – a game plan, if you like. Tactics are used to define the specific actions that are required to achieve those goals.

When businesses enter tough environmental conditions – like a tight economy or hiring environment – they often feel pressure to change their game plan. In fact, what they tend to do is shift the focus from strategy to the tactical as a way to deal with the current headwinds.

The corporate legal function is no exception, as we can see presently with hiring freezes, lay-offs and budget cuts that are rolling across companies around the world. These moves are not strategic, especially when the lay-offs are often accompanied by a spike in billings from the company’s law firms.

But stepping away from the turmoil for a moment, what are the three most important things that a leader wants for their legal function, strategically speaking? How about these:

  • Boosting productivity – enabling their teams to be able to do more without a material increase in cost profile.
  • Allocating staff time to the most valuable activities, lifting departmental morale and retention in the process.
  • Driving the digital agenda.

What if there were a way to stay the course with that game plan, despite those headwinds? Here are three steps to keep your legal department on that strategic path:

Step 1: Identify the weeds

How much time does the average in-house lawyer get to spend on work that requires their expert legal judgment? Allow for data entry, matter admin / management, communications that are not (legally speaking) substantive, and consider all the work that is largely dictated by standard process. These are the “weeds” that slow attorneys down when they should focus on work that is more creative, commercial, and valuable to the organization.

If you could cut away those weeds – at least a good proportion – it would be like unshackling an athlete so that they can run freely. These weeds represent routine work: they interfere with both productivity and staff contentment.

Step 2: Refocus your digital agenda onto process

Becoming “more digital” is a pressure point for many corporate law departments. There is expectation from both senior business management and industry peers that investment in technology must form part of the legal function’s roadmap. Once the digital journey has started, it can take on a life of its own. And before you know it, a new set of weeds are growing up around the department’s legs. Maybe it is the contract lifecycle management system that has been implemented, which is absorbing more time and giving the team more headaches than anticipated. Perhaps the data analytics are proving harder to extract in a useful form. Or possibly the new automation tools are not transforming the speed and productivity of the team’s operations as envisaged.

So often, the problem is not with the tools themselves. You will hear this time and again, but without the accompanying process transformation and management, the tools for digital transformation will usually end up as something of a disappointment. Worse than that, they can become a source of additional inertia and frustration for the lawyers and other legal and contract professionals adapting to the new systems. Fix the process design and management, and the tools will typically begin to deliver a better return on your investment.

Step 3: Partner

They might not be glamorous but cutting back the weeds and fixing processes are core features of legal function innovation. But here we get into the classic business dilemma: “we are too busy to innovate”!

Instead of responding to the economic pressures tactically – trimming headcount, fielding excess workloads to the law firm panel or staffing company– this is the time to think strategically. The right partner can provide the expertise and resourcing to help your team get rid of the departmental weeds and master the digital processes. What results should you expect? These:

  • In-house staff able to focus on the important work and enjoy their roles more.
  • Reduced legal spend, overall.
  • A digital process infrastructure that is sustainable and scalable.
  • A data-rich legal department.

Now that is strategic.