By Jamy Sullivan, JD, Executive Director, Legal Practice Group, Robert Half Corporate legal departments — long limited by their reputation as the “office of no” — are enjoying a new, more dynamic identity today. In the former space of rule enforcers, I’m seeing sleek business units seamlessly integrated into the fabric of organizations. “Legal” is today’s strategic partner, advisor and counselor to boards and CEOs. The great news for the legal profession generally, and legal departments specifically, is that after about a decade of decline, law school enrollments are up, so the talent pipeline is growing.
An intriguing development in this evolution of the legal department is the emergence of the legal operations role, which is taking center stage at both law firms and corporate legal departments. Legal operations professionals — one of the most in-demand roles in the legal field — navigate the complex moving parts of today’s legal work, including controlling costs and integrating technology seamlessly into legal practices. Other duties might include process improvement and legal optimization, compliance and risk management, and project management. Delegating some non-legal aspects of corporate operations to a role like this enables legal departments to focus more on substantive legal work, ultimately improving overall effectiveness. As the legal profession increasingly digitizes, and with legal leaders stressing the need to stay competitive for clients by adopting more digital strategies, the legal operations role necessarily marries legal expertise with technological proficiency. Legal departments across the board must embrace fairly sophisticated digital and tech skills these days. Supporting roles like paralegals and case clerks all the way up to the attorney level are being evaluated for their understanding of generative AI and large language learning models. And what we’ve seen from our own research is that, like other professionals, legal employees are pretty optimistic about what AI can bring to the table. In fact, just 16% believe it will have a negative impact on their career. So legal departments are forging ahead with AI, alleviating routine tasks, improving productivity and freeing up legal staff to do more substantive work. AI is a red-hot topic in the legal field, but legal departments are not always sure what skills they need right now. So as talent solutions professionals, we can educate them on the types of candidates and skills they should be looking for and where to find them.
Another big change I’m seeing in legal departments is a fresh focus on employee engagement and well-being. What a difference since I became a legal recruiter 22 years ago! It’s great to see organizations recognizing the importance of work-life balance, avoiding burnout and providing flexibility for legal professionals. This shift has not only enhanced employee well-being, but companies are finding it also improves client relationships.   The most recent Salary Guide From Robert Half backs this up with data showing retention and engagement isn’t just about compensation — although getting that right is essential. Employees look at the complete package. When they can see you are investing in them, you’ll continue to see the return on that investment in staff who are more engaged, more available and more loyal to your organization. Committing to employees’ career development is a great way legal departments can show employees they are valued and connected to the department and organization's overall success. Help them internalize how a learning new skill or pursuing a new experience tie into the bigger picture of company success and motivate them to go for it. You can also improve engagement by investing in mentorship and reverse mentorship programs. Give employees the opportunity to build relationships and learn from each other so the value they get from work isn’t just defined by their job description and day-to-day duties. This is particularly valuable for hybrid or remote employees who might otherwise feel isolated or disconnected. You can also demonstrate your commitment to your legal team by getting them help during busy times. Scalable staffing models are an effective way to meet deadlines with pending projects, launch new initiatives, fill staffing gaps, cope with an unexpected uptick in work and avoid burnout with current staff. A contract talent solution could be the best investment you make for your legal department! Finally, keep all lines of communication open, top to bottom. We know in this market landscape, things will continue to evolve very quickly, especially with technology advancements and market disrupters tumbling one after the other. As long as legal department leaders are agile, quick to pivot their strategies and communicate often, adapting to change will be a much smoother road. Learn about the current legal hiring outlook with The Salary Guide From Robert Half.