General counsel, consultants, vendors and others who swim in the law department pool would be better off if there were a generally-used definition of small law departments. Herewith are some of my thoughts on this small step toward standards.
As a starting point, I would argue that number of lawyers stands as the best basis for categorization. Number of total legal staff could serve, but some departments have related functions, like contract administration or claims and their staff of mostly non-lawyers would skew the use of it because of the variability. Also, one of the redoubtable metrics is the ratio of lawyers to non-lawyers, at about one to one, so the lawyer part of that equation speaks for most of the non-lawyer personnel.
To speak of the total spend of law departments won’t work because few law departments disclose the data and outside spend can vary significantly from year to year. Inside spend varies according to cost of living influences. Nor do structural components such as the number of offices create a meaningful distinction.
Law department observers should stick with numbers of lawyers to decide on size brackets. My recommendation is five or fewer lawyers constitutes a “small law department” (See my post of Feb. 7, 2007: survey of several hundred law departments discloses that 80 percent of respondents were in departments of five or fewer lawyers — one third of them were solo.).
Most US law departments are small (See my post of Feb. 15, 2006: six and the single-lawyer department; Feb. 11, 2007: ACC data that 80% of the departments are five lawyers or fewer; May 18, 2007: small law departments hire differently; May 23, 2008: small departments can’t isolate core competencies as easily; and Dec. 5, 2007: some of the downsides of being in small department.). “According to the American Corporate Counsel Association, over 20 percent of in-house counsel are their clients’ sole in-house practitioner; departments of 2 to 5 attorneys comprise about 38 percent; nearly 25 percent represent organizations employing 6 to 20 in-house counsel; 15 percent practice in departments of 21+ attorneys” (See my post of Feb. 9, 2008: ACC data.).