Running an in-house legal department is not an easy job, regardless of whether you are a legal department of one or a legal department of 200.  To start, there is never enough money, people, or time to get everything done.  Second, priorities change frequently so prioritizing where to focus your scant resources is a challenge. Third, the business often considers (wrongly) that the legal department is simply another cost center and/or necessary evil, meaning the legal team is ignored or marginalized – treated like outsiders vs. an integral part of the business.  And fourth, the legal department often lacks strategic direction, reacting to problems vs. planning for them.  I have dealt with (including failing at) all of these issues – and more – as an in-house lawyer, especially as general counsel for multiple companies over the course of a long in-house legal career.  I wish I could tell you that solving these problems is easy, but it is not.  The biggest hurdle is that it’s hard to plan in advance when most of your day is spent frantically trying to dig out from under the incredible amount of work dumped on your desk or when cleaning up the latest catastrophe brought on by the knuckleheads in [insert business group name here].  Still, in order to be successful as an in-house lawyer and create a legal function that fits snugly within the cloak of the company’s strategic goals and plans you must make time for planning.  It’s that simple.  Sure, you can mutter curses at me under your breath or chuck imaginary (or real)[1] rocks at your screen as you read this, but I am just telling you what you need to hear – not what you want to hear.  The good news is that creating a strategic plan for the legal department is difficult but pretty straightforward and something you can accomplish if you set your mind to it (and let others help).  So, hold the rocks and creative profanity for a few minutes as this edition of “Ten Things” discusses how you go about creating a strategic plan for the legal department:

1.  What is it?  A legal department strategic plan is simply a map setting out how the department will get from A to B.  You can make it as simple or as complicated as you want to make it (though I always vote for simple over complicated).  Essentially, it is a written guide to help the legal department better align its resources and activities with the strategic and business goals and objectives of the organization.  It generally sets out the legal department’s mission, goals, strategies, and specific actions – including KPIs – over some period of time (i.e., one year, three years, five years, etc.) that will allow it to more closely align the legal team with the rest of the business.  The benefits of creating a strategic plan for the department include:

  • Direction for the legal team.
  • Proactive risk management.
  • Better alignment (and relationships) with the business.
  • Increased efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of legal services
  • A framework for measuring performance and identifying areas for improvement.
  • Stakeholder confidence in the legal function.
  • A map to/basis to make the case for asking for more resources for the legal team.

2.  How do I go about creating one?  Damn.  I was afraid you’d ask that and right here at the beginning of the blog.  Really?  Okay, fine.  I’ll tell you.  Start with a commitment to create one and see it through to completion.  I know that sounds a little trite, but it is crucial that you (and your team – if you have one) agree that creating a strategic plan is important and a priority of the department.  If you are doing it grudgingly because someone is making you do it,[2] then the exercise will most likely fail or you will create a plan that sits in a drawer and gathers bugs and dust.  Neither is a great outcome.  Second, pick the team that will work on the plan.  Sure, it may just be you and that’s fine, but if you are part of a legal department of any size, the exercise will be far more likely to succeed if many hands are helping with the work.  Start with volunteers, i.e., those interested in the exercise but also look to place a skeptic or two on the team.  They will help balance out the effort and give you a more realistic plan vs. pie in the sky, which you will generally get from the eager beavers.  If you are fortunate enough to have a legal operations person or team, they are definitely on the team.  Third, set a deadline to complete the plan (otherwise it will keep getting pushed) and set regular check-ins to monitor progress, answer questions, give direction, and keep things on schedule. Fourth, don’t boil the ocean.  Your first strategic plan should be simple.  Over time you can make it more complicated.  And lastly, pick a format, i.e., what do you want the work product to look like?  Is it a Word document, a PowerPoint, or a combination?  How detailed will it be?  Will you need charts and graphs?[3]  If you are a member of the ACC, you can access its strategic planning resources, with templates.  Same for members of CLOC.  You can also find plenty of free templates online.  You may not use them “as-is” but they can help get you started.  See, e.g., Gartner, Xakia, Exigent, or Lawcadia.[4]  You can also just bypass the legal department-specific templates and search out generic strategic plan templates, e.g., OnStrategy.

3.  Assess where you are today.  All right, you’re ready to get started on this unforced march to creating a strategic plan for the legal department.  Next step?  Create a baseline, i.e., where is the legal department today.  To do this, you must know what areas your strategic plan will cover.  In my experience, here are some of the most likely areas you will focus on:

  • People
  • Scope of Services Provided Today
    • Litigation
    • Corporate
    • Employment
    • Regulatory
    • M&A
    • Data Privacy/Data
    • Compliance
    • Risk management
    • Corporate governance
  • Scope of Legal Services Needed in
    • 12 months
    • 36 months
    • 60 months
  • Strategic Goals of the Business and How Does/Will the Legal Department Support?
    • Next 12 months
    • Next 36 months
    • Next 60 months
  • Budget/Spending
    • Internal
    • External (outside counsel, vendors)
    • Future needs
  • Operations/Technology
    • On-hand now (and is the department maximizing what’s on hand?)
    • Needed in short term
    • Needed in long term
    • Cost and favored solutions
  • Metrics and KPIs
    • Applicable benchmarks
    • Measurements required by the business
    • Measurements of interest to the department
  • Action Plan/Next Steps
    • Next 12 months
    • Next 36 months
    • Next 60 months

This above is pretty high level.  There will be a lot more to it in an actual plan but these high-level topics will get you started (or at least highlight the different areas to focus on as you build out your plan). It also underscores that strategic plans are not cookie-cutter documents. What works for your department depends on the particular needs and circumstances of your situation.  So, as always, do what works for you and not what the Bobs tell you to do.

4.  Prepare a SWOT analysis.  One simple, yet highly effective what to start developing your plan is to build out a “SWOT” analysis of the legal department. A SWOT analysis is a shorthand way to set out what the legal department is good at (Strengths), what it is not so good at (Weaknesses), where there are opportunities to add value to the business (Opportunities), and what you need to watch out for (Threats).  You can create one for each part of your plan, i.e., one for people, one for technology, and so on.  A 2×2 SWOT matrix is a common tool utilized by businesses all over the world (and if you have worked in-house long enough you have likely seen one – or a thousand). I went into a lot of detail on how to do this in a prior “Ten Things” post on creating a SWOT for the legal department so I won’t repeat the “how to create one” here.  Let’s just say that a SWOT analysis is a great first step in building out your strategic plan for the legal team.  Here is what it looks like:


All you need to do is start filling in the boxes.  Simple and effective.  I like to create SWOT boxes on a whiteboard.  But, I am old.  You can now create them online in Teams, Zoom, using ChatGPT (which is actually kind of cool), etc.[5]  So, however you want to do it is fine.  But, seriously, consider a whiteboard and make an old guy happy.

5.  Get input from others. This one is uber important. Sure, you could create a legal department strategic plan all by yourself but that would be what scientist people call a big f#$&ing mistake (or “BFM”).  So, don’t do that.  Instead, cast a wide net to get input from as many sources as you can.  Not only will you get better information to base your plan on, but you will also engender a lot of goodwill by simply asking different parts of the business for their ideas.  Here is a basic list of people to reach out to for input:

  • Your team (start with these folks) – a legal department offsite is a terrific place to start to gather input from your team.
  • Senior management (the C-Suite and heads of key groups – business and staff – throughout the business).
  • “Super Users,” i.e., people or groups that are big consumers of legal services.  They will definitely have thoughts on this.
  • Strategy team (if your company has a group dedicated to corporate strategy, get their input).
  • Outside counsel (seems odd but they likely have some helpful ideas and would love to share them).
  • Look backward (take some time to mull over the past year or two and what worked well and what didn’t work well and how you will fold either enhancing or improving on those areas into your plan).

You can interview people or create a survey to get input.  And, of course, get your hands on the company’s business plans and goals for the next year and beyond.  Likewise, any long-term strategy documents you can access go on the pile.  Lastly, come up with your own ideas about what matters to the legal department.  If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know this is an exercise I did at the beginning of every year (and still do).  To see an example, check out my “Ten Things” post on critical issues for in-house lawyers (2024 edition).

6.  Where do you want to go?  Regardless of whether you are the CLO, general counsel, or just a cog on the team, a critical component of strategic planning is understanding where you want the legal department to go.  It’s wonderful to get input from different groups and dig into corporate strategy documents.  That is all very helpful.  But, at the end of the day, it rests on the leaders of the legal department to set the course.  So, what are your priorities?  Do you want the team to get bigger?  Do you want more technology?  Do you want more focus on a particular area of the law?  Do you want to be more strategic?  Create better processes?  Do you want to maximize the value of the legal department?  Do you want to be more productive?[6]  Is it all of these or a combination? The choices are almost endless.  But, it all comes down to the strategic vision of the leader of the department (usually with input from other members of the legal team).  Don’t lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, the legal department will determine the direction of the legal department.

7.  What do you need to do to get there?   As you start to sketch out your goals, i.e., what you want to do, you also need to think hard about the “how,” i.e., what steps will you need to take to achieve the goal?  This can be as detailed or high-level as you want it to be (or that time allows).  But the idea here is to not only set out the goal but the steps you will take to achieve it.  For example, you may have a strategic goal to decrease outside counsel spend by 10% year over year for the next two years.  The next step is setting out how you will do that.  For example:

Strategic Goal: Decrease outside counsel spend by 10% year-over-year in 2025 and 2026.

  • Identify work to bring in-house by [date].
  • Identify and then move work to lower cost/high quality law firms by [date]
  • Ask current law firms for an across-the-board 10% decrease in fees by [date].
  • Use generative AI tools to reduce reliance on outside counsel for simple legal questions and for simple drafting work.
    • Create new role in department: “AI Czar” to maximize opportunities by [date].
    • Create policy for use within the legal department by [date].
    • Identify 10-15 most impactful uses for the department and train the department on how to draft prompts and use the tool by [date]
  • Update outside counsel guidelines by [date].
    • Set yearly update process by [date].
    • Provide copies of guidelines every January to all outside counsel and other vendors.
  • Set expectations on cost with outside counsel on every project starting [date].
  • Identify inefficiencies in current vendor pool by [date] and negotiate better deals or move to different vendors by [date].

Goals are great but it will be the steps (and target dates) to accomplish the goal that truly matters.  As you can see, you can make these hyper-granular or more general.  But, you must set out steps that you can measure or, more likely, create KPIs and regular check-in meetings to track progress.  Additionally, you should prioritize the goals so the most important ones get the most attention.  If you have 20 goals in your strategic plan, you already know that you cannot give equal attention and resources to each. Some will simply be more important than others.  Put the most important at the top of the list.  Most importantly, be flexible.  I can tell you from experience that the items on your strategic plan in 2024 will look different come 2026.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  If/as priorities change, roll with the punches.  Expect to constantly update and change your plans (or at least the steps designed to achieve the plan).

8.  Focus on culture.  There will be a lot of candidates for inclusion in your strategic plan.  One area that should be high on the list of priorities is the culture of the legal department.  The right culture is critical to getting things done, in the short term and over the long term.  Consequently, your plan should contain a section on people and how best to attract, train, and keep the best ones and, if necessary, how to identify and manage out anyone that doesn’t fit what you are trying to accomplish.  I’ll be a bit blunt here:  I will take “drive” over “talent” pretty much any day of the week.  Similarly, I will take a good/positive attitude over super-talented but negative (and surly) all day long as well.  Why?  Because drive and attitude will lift the entire department and reflect well on the team overall.  Surly, lazy, and entitled will bring the entire department down and reflect poorly on the team.  Next, I want doers and not order-takers.  Doers are self-starters who do more than is asked, are proactive at spotting and solving problems, and are always raising their hand to help.  Order-takers are looking to do the minimum they have to do to get by and if you didn’t tell them to do it, they are not looking beyond the specific project or assignment.  Lastly,  I want a department of people who are looking after each other, are willing to help others, and – most importantly – do not want to ever “be the problem.”  If you have a legal department full of people like this, you will not only achieve your strategic goals, but you will also have fun doing it and the business will flock to your banner because the legal team is approachable, positive, and built to help them solve their problems.

9.  Keep it updated.  One thing many in-house legal teams forget is that a strategic plan is not static.  It needs your constant attention and must be nurtured and altered as circumstances warrant.  Once you create your plan, set a monthly meeting to discuss it among the leaders of the legal department (or with yourself if you are a department of one).  Track progress, deadlines, barriers, successes, etc.  Make changes as needed, i.e., if something was a strategic goal in March but by September circumstances have passed it by, delete it and replace it with a goal more in tune with the new reality.  In other words, don’t keep pounding away on something that is no longer strategic to the needs of the company or the legal department.  Hit delete and move on.  Lastly, share the progress (or lack of progress) with the full legal team and ask for their feedback on ways to go faster or overcome a barrier.  You will be pleasantly surprised with what you’ll hear – especially if you give them some warning in advance that you are looking for their ideas.

10.  Market the plan.  Once you have created a strategic plan don’t hide it like a Hobbit’s magic ring. Make sure the leaders of the business know what you have created.  At a minimum, you have sought their input on what the plan should focus on.  Now you can let them know that their input had an impact on the strategic direction of the legal department!  A big part of being a successful legal function is understanding that you must market the legal department every day.  A strategic plan is just another great tool to demonstrate the value generated by the department and – more importantly – that the legal department is part of the business, aligning itself with the strategic needs of the business (and is not off with its head up its ass working only on things that no one but lawyers believe are important).[7]  Do the following:

  • Unveil the plan to the C-Suite and other leaders of the business.  Tell them you took their input into the plan but if anyone has additional feedback or ideas, the legal department welcomes hearing from everyone.
  • Create KPIs or other metrics to track progress and report on that progress to the C-Suite and other leaders regularly.  Many won’t care (and that’s fine) but a lot will care and their engagement in your success will pay off down the road as these leaders will “get” the value provided by the legal team.
  • Showcase the innovation of the legal function.  Tell the business of creative ways you are solving problems or are using technology or other business techniques (e.g., Six Sigma) to hone and refine the ability of the legal department to get the right things done as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  • If you are falling behind on a strategic goal, let the business know your plan to get back to “green.”  If there is one thing the business loves is to see a plan on how a part of the business will get things “back on track.”  Use that to your benefit if not everything is green across the board.
  • Solicit their ideas and suggestions.  Let the business know that the legal team values their input and is eager to take advantage of the experience and ideas that senior management can bring to the table.


There is a lot of meat on the bones with this post.  Creating a strategic plan for the legal function is not easy, but it is more than worth the effort.  Besides giving direction to the department, it provides an opportunity to work closely with the business (and members of the department) and tie the efforts of the legal function to the strategic goals and direction of the business.  When the business sees that legal “gets it,” your life as an in-house lawyer will be significantly improved as you will become part of the inner circle and not “those legal guys down in the basement.”  And, it will keep the Bobs happy too, which shouldn’t matter – but it does.

Sterling Miller

May 31, 2024

It has been a slog but book number six is in the hands of printer and will be out in late June/early July.  I am excited and pleased to share the front cover with you for the first time.  The book is called The Productive In-House Lawyer: Tips, Hacks, and the Art of Getting Things Done.  I think you will find it a true resource for yourself and the legal department as a whole.  Still, I will miss seeing the ABA Book Writing Enforcement Team thugs outside my window late at night.  I think now they will release my kitten.  But, here is the cover of the book in its first fully public appearance.  Let me know what you think!

Productivity Book Cover

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available now, including as an eBook!  You can buy a copy HERE.

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale now at the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, or ideas for a post, please contact me at, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at

[1] Not recommended unless you get monitors for free.  If you do, let me know.  You are my new best friend.

[2] Most likely the CEO, CFO, Board of Directors, or (worse) the “Bobs.”  The Bobs (lifted from the brilliant movie, “Office Space”) are big-time consultants hired by the Finance team (or the board) to advise you (legal department) on things they know nothing about. They ask a bunch of questions and then put your answers into a cool PowerPoint and charge the company a ba-jillion dollars for regurgitating what you told them.  If you are really lucky, they have a bunch of benchmarks that bear no semblance to how your department functions but they will measure you against these inapplicable standards as a way of justifying the ba-jillion dollars.  Then, three months after paying the ba-jillion dollars the slick PowerPoint, with “pillars,” buzz-words, and other useless ideas goes into a big bag labeled “Shitty Consultant Ideas” which is then weighed down with bricks and tossed into a deep pond and never seen again (unless you have a mini-submarine or scuba gear).  If it sounds like a racket, it is.  The good news is that the Bobs are generally freshly minted MBAs and fairly useless so you can bullshit them all day long and pretend they are being helpful until they go back to Boston or New York or whatever level of Dante’s Inferno they crawled out from.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

[3] The answer to this question is always “yes.”  The business lives for charts and graphs so give them what they want!

[4] Note that you will need to give them your email and other information so you’ll likely get a lot of marketing emails and calls.  Sorry, that’s the price of “free.”

[5] I assume there is a whiteboard feature with Google Meet but I am too lazy to Google it and find out.  So, the ball is in your court on this one.  Let me know what you find.  Crap.  I probably could have Googled it already.  Damn you irony.

[6] Yes, this is a shameless plug for the new book on productivity coming out in June/July 2024.  Buy it.  And buy a few copies for your team and friends.  You’ll feel better for doing so.  You’re welcome!

[7] There are certainly things that lawyers focus on that are necessary to the success of the business even if the business doesn’t know or care about it.  But in-house lawyers ignore the priorities of the business at their peril.  Most of the effort of the legal team should be directed at understanding business priorities and making sure it is spending most (but not all) of its time pushing those priorities forward – and telling the business about it!