How to Fight In-House Burnout - A Simple Plan

One proven way to fight in-house lawyer burnout: A no-nonsense plan that aligns the Legal Department with the business.


If you’re facing the fourth quarter with a record-high workload, strategic planning may be the last thing on your mind. (There are those end-of-year deals to close, after all, and the budget is due, and there are six new litigation matters since yesterday, and…)  

However, it is times like these when we need strategic planning the most. 

Indeed, in a Gartner report on in-house lawyers, more than half - 54 percent - described themselves as at least “moderately exhausted.” While that is not surprising, there are two takeaways that stand out: 

  • Exhausted lawyers are overworked, to be sure, but they can be less productive, not more. Moderately exhausted lawyers are nearly four times more likely to postpone or cancel projects; highly exhausted lawyers, are about six times more likely. In short, the more tired we are, the longer the to-do list gets, as projects linger on (until, perhaps, they die on the vine).
  • The best way to combat exhaustion is not necessarily more capacity; Gartner reports that working “in a limited way.” Instead, the study suggests, that the key to reinvigorating the Legal Department is engagement. 

According to Gartner, “highly engaged” lawyers are 70 percent more likely to find new ways to meet business needs; 30 percent more likely to seek improvements to Legal Department processes; and 143 percent more likely to show discretionary effort. (And 17 percent less likely to look for jobs elsewhere.) 

But engagement does not happen by accident, and it does not – according to Gartner – happen by showing growth potential, varying management styles, or even building a positive work climate. 

The primary driver for engaging in-house lawyers, Gartner found: fulfilling work. 

For the Legal Department, fulfilling work happens when the in-house team is in sync with the business; when the work is meaningful and clearly tied to a purpose; when lawyers are advisers and business partners, not the “Department of No”; and when they can demonstrably show their value to the company (and the bottom line).  

That does not happen by accident. It takes a true legal department strategy – a plan that commits the team to deliver on meaningful business objectives, not just fire-fighting. It takes focus, intel and metrics, and it takes some bravery to dedicate resources to prioritizing certain projects (and eliminating others). 

But it doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, you can complete an in-house legal strategic plan on a single page.   

Strategic planning for in-house legal teams should follow the maxims laid out in Harvard Business Review’s critique of arduous and verbose strategic planning sessions, “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning”:

1. Keep the strategy statement simple. Focus your energy on what truly matters to the business. “There is no reason why [a strategy] can’t be summarized in one page with simple words and concepts,” as Harvard notes.

2. Recognize that strategy is not about perfection. In other words, done is better than perfect. You can always course-correct, but as the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Sadly, for in-house counsel, a failure to plan is likely to end in a frenzied to-do list that results in that aforementioned state of exhaustion. 

3. Make the logic explicit. Know the reasoning behind your strategic decisions – for in-house lawyers, the positioning of organization goals within the legal and risk framework – and be able to articulate them. After all, a strategic plan supported by solid research and sound decision-making is far more likely to receive resources for implementation.  


How do you get there?

We've put together a concise, no-nonsense guide, 8 Steps to Your Legal Department Strategic Plan, as well as a strategic plan template for legal departments to use.  

Above all, remember that hope is not a strategy. The work will always be there. It is your job to ensure the work delivers for the business – and keeps your team excited, not exhausted. 

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