How To Strategically Staff Your Corporate Legal Department

Saturday, January 1, 2005 - 01:00

Max Messmer
Robert Half

Staffing a corporate legal department today is all about doing more with
fewer resources. In addition to the ongoing demands of day-to-day business, many
legal departments have undertaken the complex function of advising senior
executives and ensuring company compliance with new corporate governance and
ethics regulations, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This new role comes
at a time when hiring budgets have diminished, staff sizes have been reduced and
the use of outside counsel has become more limited.

The pressure this situation creates on every member of the legal team could
potentially lead to decreased morale, a drop in the quality of service,
faltering productivity and staff burnout. As a result, it's imperative that
senior attorneys, legal administrators and others responsible for hiring make
prudent decisions and take decisive action to help staff manage heavier
workloads and deal with new challenges.

The secret is to find the right balance between heightened expectations for
productivity and limits imposed by restricted budgets and climbing personnel
costs. For a few legal departments, the answer is simple: increase full-time
headcount to handle the increased workload. But if yours is like the majority of
legal departments, this is not a viable solution in today's economy. Does this
mean you must make do with existing staff and hope for the best?

Not necessarily. Fortunately, there is a third option that provides a
cost-effective way to access the legal expertise you need to maintain
productivity and improve service levels. This approach, known as strategic
staffing, will afford your department the flexibility necessary to handle
current workflow, new demands and unforeseen spikes in activity. In essence,
when you staff strategically, you assess the short-term needs and long-term
objectives of your organization, then assemble the appropriate combination of
full-time and project legal professionals to meet your needs and goals.

The following outline explains the steps involved in creating and
implementing a strategic staffing plan.

Consider The Bigger Picture

Strategic staffing entails taking a fresh look not only at your department's
hiring patterns but also at your firm's operations. At the departmental level,
you must re-examine past assumptions about when and whom to hire. Rather than
immediately searching for a full-time candidate to fill a vacant position,
consider how internal and external conditions have changed since the last time
the job was open. Can you currently afford someone on a full-time basis in this
role? Should a potential replacement have the same mix of skills and experience
as his or her predecessor? The answers can significantly affect your next move.

Regarding the business overall, consider what your company now needs from its
legal department. For example, do you have the appropriate mix of attorneys,
paralegals and other support staff to deal with any changes in liability that
your firm faces? What does a planned expansion into a different geographic
market or the introduction of a new product line mean in terms of new demands
that will be put on your staff? Will it soon be time to re-evaluate employee
compensation packages or negotiate with insurance vendors? Any one of these
scenarios would likely have a major impact on your department's activity.

Analyze Current LevelsAnd Projected Need

At least once a year, you should evaluate your department's daily activities
to identify and quantify workloads for each position. This will help you
understand exactly how your current personnel resources are allocated and where
changes must be made in order to better manage fluctuations.

Identify the frequency and timing of workload peaks and valleys and look for
predictable patterns. Review timelines for quarterly reports, pending contracts
and licensing agreements. Take into account the impact of accelerated corporate
filing and disclosure deadlines, if applicable.

For every task, from reviewing a contract to conducting due diligence for an
acquisition, determine which job functions will be involved (e.g., two
paralegals, one attorney, a legal secretary, etc.) and estimate how much time it
will take each staff member to complete all related duties. You'll quickly spot
any shortfalls in manpower for upcoming projects.

Create A Master Staffing Plan

Once you've completed your evaluation, you need to devise a plan to
accommodate spikes in workload and shortages in talent. The first step is to
look internally. By reprioritizing projects and shifting some duties, could you
reassign one or more core staff members to an urgent project? Perhaps you could
streamline and combine two positions so that one employee could then handle a
mission-critical assignment. You may also want to try creating project teams
that can quickly be reconfigured in response to incoming work.

This redeployment of your existing legal staff may partially offset the
pressure of increasing demands on the department, but this alone is not likely
to address all of your staffing issues. That's why the second step in your
strategic approach is to consider bringing in temporary project professionals to
augment your full-time staff. The use of contract attorneys, paralegals, legal
secretaries and other professionals will alleviate pressure on your core staff
while providing you with immediate access to the specific skills or expertise
required for a given project. By adding personnel on an as-needed basis, you'll
be able to turn labor - your biggest fixed cost - into a variable expense.
Hiring temporary or contingent staff can also help you avoid the damaging cycle
of overhiring and subsequent layoffs.

Contract legal staff may be used for immediate and ongoing projects. For
example, you may decide to hire a contract attorney experienced in governance
issues to establish new performance appraisal guidelines that align with
corporate risk management goals. Or, you may hire several paralegals on a
temporary basis to help out with day-to-day responsibilities so that core
employees are free to address more complex projects. For litigation or lawsuits,
the use of contingent legal staff with specialized technical knowledge can help
round out your team.

Temporary professionals can also be brought on board to bridge the gap during
employee vacations, medical leaves or when you're conducting a lengthy search
for a pivotal position. Using a project professional also gives you the
opportunity to evaluate a potential candidate's work first-hand. This
"temp-to-hire" arrangement allows you to assess the prospect's competency and
fit with your company's culture while determining if the departmental workload
justifies another full-time hire.

Find Qualified Contract Professionals

Local bar associations, as well as professional organizations such as the
Association of Corporate Counsel, the Association of Legal Administrators and
the National Federation of Paralegal Associations may be able to provide
referrals to qualified talent. Meetings and events sponsored by legal and
business groups in your area are other good venues for meeting project
professionals or obtaining recommendations from your colleagues who've used
contingent staff.

Another option is to work with a specialized legal staffing firm that not
only provides highly qualified and well-trained candidates but also manages the
administrative hiring functions and government-mandated payroll deductions
related to the use of temporary staff.

In addition to helping you manage personnel costs, strategic staffing will
enable your department to handle unexpected crises without missing a beat in
terms of daily business processes. As you access specialized legal expertise and
skills when you need them, your department can become more responsive to rapid
changes in the regulatory environment. Ultimately, this will limit your
company's exposure and protect it from liability while enhancing productivity
and boosting your firm's competitive advantage.

Max Messmer is CEO of Robert Half Legal, a
leading staffing service specializing in the placement of legal professionals
with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, California,
Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and
Canada. More information is available at