Setting a Strategic Direction For Your Corporate Legal Department

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Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” [i] This is particularly true when leading a legal team.

Maintaining a sense of strategic direction is critical. If you set out on a journey without a map, you will only have yourself to blame if you end up somewhere else. To maintain your direction, you need a strategic roadmap tailored to your team, its culture and its circumstances.

In essence, this means having a clearly articulated and carefully thought-out plan that encompasses a vision, a mission and strategic priorities that allow you to determine where you are heading and how you will get there.

Vision

An organization’s "vision" spells out what it wants to be or do in the future. It goes to the heart of where it is heading, defining its ultimate destination.

Visions need to be short, simple, memorable and motivational, accurately reflecting the organization’s ambition. Everybody should be able to get the idea immediately, whether they are employees or customers, or are unfamiliar with the business altogether. Amazon’s vision, for example, is “to be Earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.[ii]

Should you have a legal department vision? The answer is only a qualified “yes.” As an enabling function, the legal team’s vision must remain completely aligned with the company’s vision lest it end up on a journey toward a different destination from the company. Therefore, legal should normally have the same vision as the company.

If your company lacks a vision or has one that is incomprehensible or misaligned with its true destination, your best bet might be to get a new job, because your company is adrift.

Mission

A "mission" is based more in the present and spells out what we, as lawyers, will do to help achieve the company’s vision. To be useful, it needs to be specific to your team. The company will probably also have a mission, but here is where you can deviate from the broader organization-wide mission and have one in place for the legal department, for example. That is because it will allow you to better align your skills with the organization’s direction and destination.

In considering the best mission for your legal team, conduct the following analysis:

  • Unique capabilities: Ask yourself what unique capabilities your team possesses that give you competitive advantages. In other words, what functional skills does your team possess that no one else (inside or outside the company) does?
  • Core role: Ask yourself what the core role you, as in-house counsel, must play in order to help your company achieve its vision. What do you do that no one else (inside or outside the company) can do in order to support the company’s vision?
  • Combining the two: Combine your unique capabilities with your core role to form your mission.

Once you identify your mission, you will need to underpin it with strategies and tactics in order to drive it forward.

If the company’s vision is your destination and your mission is what you will do to help achieve that vision, then your strategies are the outline plans to help achieve your mission, and tactical steps are the specific actions that you will take. You will likely need to engender more than one strategy and set of tactics to help you. Your strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be unique to your team.

To determine what your strategies should be, you'll want to think carefully about the following questions:

  • What are you doing today that will help you achieve your mission?
  • What is holding you back from achieving your mission and what steps can you take to help move things forward?

Take an inventory of what’s working and what’s holding you back. Be laser-focused on getting your department to a place where it can achieve its mission.

This effort should, to the extent possible, be data-driven and not just anecdotal. You can generate this data through internal research, such as questionnaires or interviews of your business partners, to determine where there are gaps.

Once you develop your strategies, you will be in a position to outline what your tactical business plan priorities should be. You should pick priorities that are aligned with your strategies which, in turn, are aligned with and support your mission, which is how you as a team will help your organization achieve its vision.

Following these simple steps will give you a sense of clarity of purpose and direction that will serve your department well as it evolves.

The above has been adapted with the kind permission of Globe Law and Business from Bjarne’s upcoming book, “Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel”, out in bookstores in April 2017 (see: http://www.globelawandbusiness.com/OLT/ for more information). 

[i] Taken from www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/destination/ (accessed 1 October 2016).
[ii] See www.facebook.com/Amazon/info?tab=page_info/ (accessed 10 July 2016).

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