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Core competencies and what differences emphasis on them ought to make

A previous post offers four definitions of core competencies for law departments (See my post of May 23, 2008.). What difference do the definitions make? Many, I submit.

First, however, a comment on legal-team size. Is it possible for small law departments, say those with two-to-five lawyers, to nurture core competencies as much as larger departments might? No, not as likely. When there are only a few lawyers, they are likely to be generalists. Even so, small departments too ought to gravitate toward some basis for deciding their priorities and building their skills.

Services de-emphasized. If a core competency is a strategic decision to press the pedal on some areas of law, then a law department logically ought to throttle back its efforts in other areas. Some brakes include triage, de minimis standards for what the department will handle, assigning low priority to certain work, self-help by clients, clients and law departments turning more to outside counsel, and delegation. Decisions regarding non-core activities help define the role of the law department and go far to shape client satisfaction with the law department.

Years of experience of lawyers. Does a concentration on core-competency work require more senior (read, expensive) lawyers? Not necessarily. The notion of core services does not necessarily mean that the legal work put on the pedestal is particularly sophisticated. Junior lawyers can also contribute on core services.

Knowledge management. To the degree that a law department targets certain areas of support as core, the department can build around that core various systems, training, guidelines, and quality control.

Outside counsel. If you narrow the work done inside to core work, won’t you find yourself retaining more external counsel? Or retaining different firms than before, on different terms? Possibly both, if you retain firms to handle peripheral work; but as you climb the skill curve of core competencies, you use law firms in those areas less (See my posts of Dec. 5, 2005: reverse the pyramid of what work should go outside; and May 21, 2008: experience curves.).