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Flying Blind? Half of Legal Departments Work Without a Strategic Plan

January 9 2019 by Jodie Baker

Nearly half of corporate Legal Departments are working without a formal plan, according to Xakia’s Legal Operations Health Check. This survey polled in-house lawyers and legal operations personnel on five continents; it provides valuable insights on the state of strategic planning within legal operations, providing data on alignment, metrics and more.

When accounting for size of the Legal Department, it’s clear that it’s smaller teams that are winging it without a plan:

  • For teams of one to 5, 48 percent have no plan;
  • For teams of 6 to 10, the same holds true – 48 percent have no plan;
  • For teams of 11 to 50, 39 percent have no plan;
  • For team of more than 50, 33 percent have no plan.

All told, about one-third (31 percent) of Legal Departments say they plan at least “moderately well.” Teams of 6 to 10 show the strongest performance, with 26 percent reporting they plan “moderately well,” 13 percent planning “well,” and 9 percent dedicated to continuous improvement.

Interestingly, the largest departments were about three times more likely to admit planning challenges; 33 percent said they plan, but not very well, compared to 12 percent of the smallest teams and 7 percent of teams of 11 to 50.


No Legal Department works in a vacuum; it’s critical that legal operations strategy coordinates with company strategy and other corporate and support functions. Alignment on both of these fronts represents an opportunity for improvement for many legal teams.

When asked how well their legal operations strategy aligned with company strategy:


When asked how well their legal operations strategy aligned with corporate and support functions:


Again, larger teams are more likely to have more sophisticated strategies in place. When examining teams that report aligned “well,” responses correspond directly to size: Teams of 50+ have the most affirmative responses (33 percent), followed by teams of 11 to 50 (32 percent), teams of 6 to 10 (26 percent), and finally, teams of one to 5 (20 percent).

Metrics and Review

Strategies, of course, are designed to be executed. About half of all Legal Departments currently lack metrics or regular review:

  • Nearly half – 49 percent – said their legal operations strategy does not include well-defined and measurable metrics.
  • More than half – 53 percent – said they do not perform any regular tracking against metrics or key initiatives.
  • 43 percent said they do not perform any regular review of their progress toward their legal operations strategy.

Team Attitudes

Even the best, most aligned strategy will stagnate without support from the human beings responsible for its execution. Here, the Legal Operations Health Check provides some optimism.

When asked how all Legal Department members were committed to continuous improvement in legal operations, exactly half – 50 percent – said at least “moderately well.” Another 16 percent are in various stages of development, working toward total team engagement.

Interestingly, small- and medium-sized teams are more likely to show enthusiasm:

  • Teams of one to five, six to 10 and 11 to 50 all are twice as likely as teams of 51+ to say their teams are well-committed.
  • No team of 51+ ranked their team the highest level in this category – well-committed with dedication to continuous improvement.
  • 22 percent of the largest teams said they are not well-committed at all, more than double any other sized team.

Key Takeaways

As 2019 gets underway, Legal Departments should formalize their legal operations strategies to ensure they tackle the most important initiatives. Without a written plan, too often loftier projects are sacrificed for “business as usual”; recall that in a FindLaw survey, nearly half of in-house counsel said they were too busy “fighting fires” to accomplish long-term goals.

  • If your Legal Department does not yet have a plan, Xakia’s Nine Steps to a Legal Department Strategic Plan provides step-by-step guidance and a template.
  • Take the time to meet with your C-suite and business client counterparts to ensure your legal operations strategy complements the organization’s macro and micro plans.
  • If you are struggling to get all members of your team on board, consider your training and communication strategies. This article will provide some tips.

There’s still time to take the Legal Operations Health Check. This online assessment incorporates the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium’s 12 core competencies, the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Legal Operations Maturity Model and Xakia’s experience working with in-house Legal Departments.

The free survey takes about 20 minutes to complete, and it works on a desktop or mobile device. After completing the survey, you will receive:

  • An overall health score, as well as scores for 10 legal operations categories;
  • Benchmarks for departments of similar size;
  • Benchmarks for departments in the same industry; and
  • Recommended priorities and resources.
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