Ten Things: Setting Goals for the Legal Department

The beginning of any calendar year is always busy with key administrative tasks for an in-house legal department.  My next several posts will deal with such items.  One of the more daunting tasks (whether you are general counsel or not) is setting useful goals for the upcoming year.  Legal departments do not always lend themselves to neatly setting goals like the business units, i.e., it can be difficult to measure “success” in legal vs. measuring profits and sales or setting key performance indicators (“KPI’s”).  That said, setting goals for the department or yourself is important and a fresh opportunity to take stock of many things.  I always approached yearly goal setting as, among other things, an opportunity to market the department (i.e., all the great stuff we were doing), get a deeper understanding of what was important to the business, and gather feedback on how the department could improve in the upcoming year.  Meaning, don’t shirk the opportunity and think of goal setting as some type of pain-in-the-neck HR exercise you have to muddle through.  Embrace the process as the more thought and effort you put into goal setting, the bigger the payoff.  And, there will be a payoff for you and your team if done properly and with some enthusiasm.

In this edition of “Ten Things” I will set out things you can do to prepare/think through/implement goals and then I will set out a sample list of goals for 2015.  As for the sample goals, I used very similar goals over the course of my career for myself and for running different legal departments (and feel free to use or adapt or modify any of the sample goals).  I would start with my “Big Five” top-level goals, and then build specific goals underneath them.  My Big Five were:

  1. Build and retain an extraordinary team with exceptional people
  2. Meet budget targets in 2014
  3. Prioritize and complete high revenue/cost saving and strategic commercial agreements
  4. Deliver on strategic transactions and initiatives (mergers, joint ventures, acquisitions and key deal activity)
  5. Defend and protect the interests of the Company (litigation, IP, government affairs, compliance)

These five themes allowed me and everyone to develop precise goals underneath each item.  This process worked well for the entire department (U.S. domestic and international employees) and was easily tailored by different sections of the legal department or by individual lawyers/staff team members.  The key is that everyone is rowing in the same direction under the Big Five.   With that in mind, here’s how to get started:

  1. Take a look at last year. The best place to start is to go over how you did on last year’s goals.  Are there any goals worth “repeating” or that you left unfinished?  Did you find a better way to measure success?  What worked for you and your team and what did not?  Look back to look forward.
  2. Talk to your clients. Next talk to your business clients and find out what is important to them in the upcoming year (big deals, disputes, strategic initiatives, legislative concerns or opportunities, etc.).  This can be done at several layers, meaning talk with the folks at the top, the middle, and the front lines.  The middle and lower layers will give you more granular insight into what the business unit hopes to achieve.  Then, match up the goals of the department (and those of individuals supporting that business unit) to what the business thinks is important.  Additionally, think about all of the staff groups you interact with and what are they trying to accomplish in the upcoming year and how the legal department can help them.  For example, HR, Internal Audit, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications, Finance, Technology, etc.  Alignment with other staff groups is good for the company and helps build teamwork across the organization.
  3. Talk to the boss. As general counsel, I needed to make sure the goals of the department lined up with those of my boss, the CEO (and to get CEO buy-in on the goals we were setting).  Additionally, and with permission from the CEO, talk with members of the Board of Directors, especially the committee chairs (e.g., Audit, Governance, Compensation, etc.).  It’s important to understand what the Board is concerned about heading into the year.  If you’re not the general counsel, talk with your manager about what they think is important (and bring your own ideas to the table).
  4. Talk to your team. Spend time with your team and pick their brains about what should be on the list.  Who will know better about specific legal issues facing your department than your own lawyers?  And, don’t forget your staff members.  You can uncover important issues by getting insight from paralegals or administrative staff (e.g., e-discovery issues, technology needs).
  5. What’s in the hopper already? Think about litigation or contracts that are ongoing (and worthy of being part of the goals) or other things you can see coming down the pike for the company.  For example, as we were planning for a potential IPO, I knew to put that into my and the department’s goals for the upcoming year even if we had not started on it.
  6. Be proactive/forward-thinking. Be aware of what’s going on in the world around you.  For example, some call 2014 the Year of the Data Breach given the number of high profile data breaches that occurred last year.  This is a good indication that data privacy or data breach planning might be on your list for 2015.  Stay up to date (web sites, magazines, newspapers, trade associations, etc.) on how the environment your company operates in is changing and evolving (both domestically and internationally).  There are many sources to patch into here.
  7. Upgrade skills and talent. Your most valuable asset is the people you already have working for you.  How can you help them upgrade their existing skill sets, develop different skills, and become more efficient and productive?  You should spend a good bit of time thinking about this one.  It may be better or more CLE training, new technology, moving people into different roles or adding responsibilities.  And don’t forget yourself. What can you work on?  Everyone has something they can get better at or gain insight into.
  8. Find ways to measure success. This is one of the hardest things for legal to accomplish in the goal-setting exercise.  How do you measure success?  Maybe it’s a percentage reduction in spend in some area or an increase in response time.  It could be volume as in the number of contracts completed over the course of the year.  Every goal you set should have some type of measurement associated with it, even if it’s just “complete review of data privacy policy by December 31.”
  9. Go over the goals with your team. Once you’ve set goals, you will need to sit down with your team and go over them so everyone understands what’s important and what they need to focus on and potentially add to their own goals — which are typically developed after the department level goals are set.  I did this at the department’s January monthly meeting (and I shared all of the goals with everyone, so we were all on the same page).  You can and should do more focused discussions on goals during one-on-one meetings with your section heads or direct reports.  Make sure everyone on your team has a copy of the department’s goals.
  10. Keep track of success (or failure). If you wait until December to think back on how well you did vs. your goals, you will probably find that you cannot remember everything you accomplished (especially earlier in the year). For example, I kept track weekly by creating a folder in Outlook and sending myself emails about different goals or achievements (my own or the department’s).  When mid-year review or end-of-year review time came, I had most of the data in one spot.  Also, it is unlikely that your goals will stay static over the course of the year.  New issues and problems or deals will arise that will become “goal worthy”.  Be ready to update or alter goals as needed, and my Big Five were generally flexible enough that important new items easily fit underneath.  If you are a manager, discuss progress toward the goals with your direct reports regularly (at least monthly).  And you should always keep track of yourself and update your boss regularly as well, even if not asked.

Below is a set of sample goals for 2015 using my Big Five themes.  The specific goals underneath are taken from several different sets of goals I developed over the years when I was general counsel.  I have dumbed them down a bit for obvious reasons and some are simply statements about gathering the list yourself.  I have left in some measurements where it made sense but (sorry) you’re a bit on your own with that piece.  Some of these items I will talk about in more in future posts.

“Any Company Inc.” Legal Department 2015 Goals 

  1. Build and retain an extraordinary team with exceptional people 
  • Every manager has a career discussion with their directs/more time dedicated to reviews and development. Fully utilize HR tools for the review and career development process.  Create and distribute “feedback” form to clients re each attorney.  Develop and distribute feedback form to attorneys to evaluate support staff
  • Prepare/Update a “Who Does What” document explaining areas of concentration/skills of each attorney in the department and have everyone in department prepare a one-page bio with photo and distribute both to all members of the department
  • Create and send out a client satisfaction survey and maintain or increase satisfaction rates on key metrics year-over-year
  • Recognize achievements of department members on regular basis (team meetings, one-off, etc.)
  • Strive for work/life balance and appropriate level of flexibility for members of the department
  • Keep our clients up to date on their matters, communicate frequently – ultra engage – know what our customers need and stay fully aligned and in touch/available. Respond to any email or phone call within 24 hours (even if just to acknowledge receipt)
  • Everyone “act like an owner” – solve problems as they arise and be able to give several examples
  • Share knowledge – with team, with department, with company (develop ways to do this regularly) be able to give examples
  • Innovate –what we do, how we do it. Better use of technology (online research, etc.).
  • Stay trained and up-to-date in your area or expand skillset
  • Engage in team charitable event(s) and develop potential pro bono program
  1. Meet budget targets in 2015 
  • Find ways to maintain or reduce hourly effective rate for outside legal services
  • Increase utilization of “niche law firms” by 15% of total spend (do not be wedded to any firm for any type of matter)
  • Use joint cost-sharing agreements and alternative billing arrangements where it makes sense
  • Give clear instructions to outside counsel on every matter re spending limits/work product expectation
  • Implement E-billing Tool by December 31
  • Forecast legal spend accurately. Hold monthly budget/spend meetings with team and Finance
  • Develop new or enhance existing form agreements to reduce legal work/churn
  • Meet travel expense budget
  • Reduce “waste” (money, time, etc.). Every team member should identify three things for the year they did to meet this goal, e.g., better meetings, eliminating costs, etc.
  1. Prioritize and complete high revenue/cost saving and strategic commercial agreements 
  • [Work with business to identify high priority contracts for the coming year and list those – add to as year goes on]
  1. Deliver on strategic transactions and initiatives (mergers, joint ventures, acquisitions and key deal activity) 
  • Data Use initiatives. Help create company-wide data use plan that is compliant with law, company values, and strategic objectives
  • [If company has a key charity, how can legal help the company advance that cause?]
  • Key Corporate Development transactions (M&A, JVs, etc.) [work with business to build the list and add to as year goes on]
  • Launch and complete IPO
  1. Defend and protect the interests of the Company (litigation, IP, government affairs, compliance) 
  • Win/Settle key litigation/regulatory matters within or better than parameters set by client [create list of same]
  • Make compliance easy and second nature for our employees – update all training materials and review/update policies
  • Update all data privacy policies and training
  • Present on legal topics to company employees on relevant topics designed to reduce risk or help employees be better users of legal services
  • Develop plan to enhance patent portfolio
  • Review and update policies and training around trade secrets
  • Take action on legislation important/harmful to company
  • ”Win” on regulatory initiatives important to the company (e.g., patent reform)
  • Assist company with new market entry/development (via government relations, legal actions, etc.)
  • Identify three problem risk areas internally and fix them, e.g., record retention policy, visitor policies, media training

Good luck with your goal setting for 2015.  If you haven’t in the past, make this the year you and your team make this process an important part of how the legal department operates.

Sterling Miller

(If you find this blog useful, please pass along to colleagues or friends. “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. You can now find this blog at http://www.TenThings.net)



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  2. Fantastic read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little study on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I discovered it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!


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