When determining their department’s annual objectives, general counsel often fail to use clear, corporate-aligned goals that outline specific targets and outcome metrics.
Carefully-drafted objectives not only set criteria against which to evaluate individual and team performance, but also demonstrate the department’s support of broader corporate strategy and affect on business outcomes.
CEB asked over 70 legal teams to provide us with their objectives. Based on an analysis of these, and our support of members through their strategic planning process, we devised five recommendations to ensure a successful objectives-setting process.
Focus on a limited number of objectives: When developing objectives for the coming year, general counsel often provide a laundry list of individual projects the department will accomplish throughout the year. However, long project lists can be counterproductive to the objective-setting process, leading to a check-the-box approach that values quantity over quality. For example, new and seasoned attorneys alike are often inclined to take on a larger number of more complicated projects in an effort to show their value.
Keep in mind, however, that number of completed projects or goals alone is not a measure of value. Rather, focus on developing five to seven key objectives that directly align with corporate goals and explain how individual projects will help support these overarching department and corporate goals.
Tie metrics to each objective: Many general counsel write overly-broad objectives. Expansive objectives frequently reflect the best of intentions on the part of the writers but implementing them can be difficult. For example, the objective to create a “state of the art legal department” provides little guidance as to what this subjective vision entails and how it will be achieved. Rather, state objectives in measurable/quantifiable terms (e.g., time, quality, quantity, cost, percentage, efficiency, speed etc.) that take into account client perspectives, such as client satisfaction scores.
CEB research shows that legal departments that regularly measure and communicate their value to stakeholders are better at demonstrating their department’s value than their non-measuring peers. Leading companies use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely) framework in selecting and articulating measurable objectives.
Remember, sometimes you must spend to save: Many general counsel focus heavily on budget control. However, an excessive emphasis on cost reduction can harm the value legal departments provide. Leading general counsel are starting to measure and demonstrate how their function adds value outside of just reducing costs. For example, many technology solutions that may require an initial investment can reduce workloads for in-house lawyers and improve turnaround times in interactions with internal clients.
Such a system also allows the department to accelerate contract review processes, which contributes to better commercial outcomes. So keep in mind when evaluating department investments that the cost may be outweighed by the ultimate value or return on investment.
Consider input from the larger legal team: When setting objectives, many general counsel operate in silos and do not consider the broader team context. Dictating initiatives with little input from the team, however, often makes it harder for departments to stick to the outlined objectives. Poor alignment to a common set of objectives can lead to repetitive and unnecessary work causing department priorities to veer off course.
Gathering input from the members of the legal team during the strategic planning process helps flag potential roadblocks and build consensus around department initiatives. While potentially more time-consuming and process-intensive, collecting broad-based input allows the general counsel to move forward with a more fully-informed and cohesive team strategy.
Consider feedback from internal stakeholders: Many general counsel fail to adequately consider how Legal’s objectives rely on external stakeholders’ priorities and resources. For example, Legal cannot build a successful records management program without first understanding how IT stores and accesses the company’s records. Yet many general counsel draft their objectives without formally collecting the input from their strategic partners on realistic timelines and feasible milestones.
General counsel should reach out before setting objectives to understand how other functions play a role in the success of a project and check in regularly to learn if any of the underlying assumptions (e.g., shared resources, target milestones) have changed, and thereby force Legal to re-evaluate progress. Broad-based feedback from internal partners not only sets up the Legal to successfully achieve its objectives but also helps the team forge stronger partnerships across the organisation.