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In law department management, what is strategic and what is tactical?

“Strategic” often isn’t, as that worn-out adjective is stuck promiscuously on too many actions. A law department that decides to install a matter management system has not made a strategic decision. A law department that sets up a pro bono program has not embarked on a strategic initiative. To hire only certified paralegals isn’t of strategic importance. Yet too easily general counsel magnify initiatives such as these as “strategic.”

My working definition of strategic is along the lines of “a decision with long-term consequences and its steadfast implementation that together alter in a profound way how the law department creates value for its company.” Four strategic decisions depend almost entirely on the general counsel (See my post of Dec. 15, 2005 where I suggest three, with some differences from those below.).

1. How are the lawyers oriented toward legal risk, which is strategic because it has to do with the lawyers’ alignment with business managers (See my posts of May 14, 2005 on quantifying legal risks; June 5, 2005 with a definition; and Nov. 15, 2005 with amplification and references cited.).

2. What is the scope and depth of the law department’s roles? As to this strategic decision, see my posts of Jan. 17, 2006 #1 on the scope of responsibilities of McDonald’s general counsel; Dec. 31, 2006 regarding compliance; Feb. 7, 2007 and intellectual property; and Aug. 27, 2005 on the general counsel as “reputational risk protector.”

3. What balance is struck between producing legal work in-house and buying it from law firms (See my post of Dec. 17, 2006 on ADVO; and June 28, 2005 on the 40/60 split.).

4. How are the lawyers in the department structured to handle the flow of legal work, such as by legal specialty or by operating unit (See my post of May 14, 2006 and references cited.). Related to this are the concepts of core competencies (See my post of March 13, 2006 regarding Philipp Morris and references cited.), centralized or decentralized reporting of lawyers (See my post of Dec. 14, 2005 on “functional” reporting.), and wide spans of reports (See my post of June 7, 2006 about Honeywell’s.).

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