Sixty-eight percent of legal and compliance leaders are struggling to manage their current workload, as legal department plans have been significantly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and economic upheaval, according to a survey by Gartner, Inc. Departments report a higher volume of work relating to labor and employment (44%), government affairs and relations (42%) and regulatory and compliance matters (39%) according to a June poll of 286 legal leaders.
“Nearly two thirds of legal leaders tell us they have been pulling resources from other workstreams to support unplanned work since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Vidhya Balasubramanian, managing vice president in the Gartner’s Legal and Compliance practice. “This added burden of unplanned work comes at a time when every department is facing severe cutbacks to mitigate the ongoing economic effects of COVID-19.”
Gartner’s research showed that unplanned work is particularly taxing on legal departments because of the persistent inefficiencies and waste in the legal department’s typical approach to new and emerging issues.
“Twenty percent of the time spent on unplanned work is wasted,” said Ms. Balasubramanian. “That’s over a thousand work hours in a year at a typical $1 billion company with 10 full time employees in the legal department. As legal departments address more complex and unpredictable issues, their workload will only continue to increase, and most are not addressing the sources of this waste and inefficiencies.”
The key to reclaiming some of those wasted hours is to embed decision principles with lawyers to reduce the inefficiencies in their execution of unplanned, high-urgency work. This approach improved performance more than twice as much as early identification of emerging issues, another approach to mitigating the fallout from unplanned work.
This means leaders need to update lawyers regularly on appropriate risk posture for different kinds of work and provide a defined approach for communicating this posture to outside counsel. It’s also important to guide resourcing decisions by clarifying how to act on unplanned work, offering a clear overview of all the external resources at lawyers’ disposal, and codifying the categories of outside counsel and alternative legal services, and when it is appropriate to engage them.
“Decision principles need to be both broad enough to be useful as guidance for different scenarios, yet prescriptive enough to direct the desired response,” said Ms. Balasubramanian. “This will reduce the over-conservatism that can slow legal departments and their business clients, and preempt the rampant escalation, rework, and duplication of work within legal departments.”
Yet, currently, fewer than one in three legal leaders embed decision principles for unplanned work. Common objections are that risk tolerance changes too quickly with emerging issues to set fixed decision principles, and that lawyers tend to resist any complex constraints on the resources they may use because they believe decisions rules will diminish the quality of legal advice they can give.
“Think more in terms of establishing a process to guide risk tolerance for resourcing decisions, rather than a fixed set of rules,” said Ms. Balasubramanian. “Counterintuitively, with new and emerging issues, departments need more mechanisms to resolve grey area issues, not less.”