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Peripheral thoughts on core competencies: is the term sensible for law departments?

A scattering of posts discuss the notion of core competencies (See my posts of March 13, 2006 on Philip Morris; Sept. 21, 2005 on a brand company’s legal focus; Feb. 8, 2006 on British real property; and May 14, 2005 on Bain’s survey of management tools.), but think with me a bit more, starting with a definition.

A law department’s core competencies are those few areas of law that most directly and specifically support its company’s distinctive strengths.

It makes superficial sense that for technology companies patent law is core; for companies with substantial governmental sales that government contracting law expertise is crucial; or that heavily regulated utilities and insurance companies care deeply about regulatory procedures and rate cases. But this thumbnail correlation seems too facile. Large companies, those over a billion dollars in revenue, are not so legally monolithic and simplistic, I believe.

All law departments spend substantial time on contracts, they cope with human resources issues, get sued, keep the train cars of legal issues running on time. Why aren’t bread and butter legal solutions to agreements and talent a law department’s core competencies? Core legal competencies could be the basic legal lifting or it could be the specialized areas of law that apply to a distinctive feature of a company. As to the latter, is antitrust “core” to every market-dominant firm?

And why not consider intimate knowledge of the business a core competency or for that matter delivery of practical advice in an easy-to-understand matter? A competency focused on legal concepts and applications is by no means the only yardstick for a law department.