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Embedding a process mindset into the operations of an in-house law department

Updated: May 10, 2023

By Harriet Joubert-Vaklyes and Michael Bolawole

In a post-pandemic world, the unprecedented disruption brought a new willingness for many industries to look at ways things could be done better. For in-house law departments in industries most affected, this forced a fundamental review of the status quo and key operational processes. In-house law departments have been spurred to look at how they perform processes and deliver legal services to the businesses they support. This is a "golden moment" for in-house law departments to embed new ways of working that support improved service delivery.

We hear that many in-house law departments are concerned about being seen as a cost center, and though there’s always opportunity for optimizing costs, the point of diminishing returns comes faster than expected. A more successful approach, particularly in the long run, is to have a clear idea of how your team is spending their time, and what tasks they perform on a day-to-day and month-to-month basis. No doubt, every vendor will want to tell you about their shiny new legal tech tool and how their “out of the box” solution will transform your operations.

Despite this, it is important to remember that the foundation of any successful law department transformation is a clear, consistently updated, and practical guide to both the expectations of the department’s remit and its responsibilities to mitigating the institution’s risk while upholding its values.

That is to say: process is foundational to everything in your department and focusing on it can help you transform into a true business partner within your organization.

According to the Global research from Acritas in 2021 on the state of in-house law departments, 58% of corporate law departments experienced an increase in workload and 29% experienced a decrease in legal budgets/spending. With increasing business demands and market pressures, organizations are asking General Counsels to do more with less. Awareness of internal processes is the first step in acting as a business partner, and process mapping can help with this (For the uninitiated, a process map is a tool to visualize current state and future-state business processes and workflows). Anticipating and proactively addressing tasks that don't add value, while identifying real business opportunities is how an in-house law department can solve the more-for-less challenge. Considering this, integrating process mapping sessions into a review of operational service delivery is critical for identifying improvement opportunities, misallocation of resources, and highlighting inefficiencies.

During a process mapping session, we review and critically assess the status quo. The starting point in these sessions is identifying who typically performs each task, what the proposed outcome of said task is, and the time & resources required.

A typical session will:

1) Assess the scope of the process review: e.g., what specific process are you interested in tackling? “In-house counsel” is not a process. “contract management for procurement” is

2) Outline the current state of in-house law department processes to uncover gaps or "waste" i.e., non-value adding activities

3) Identify pain points and areas of possible improvement: it’s important to remember here that a consolidation of lots of ideas is better than trying to identify the right one on the first go

4) Propose the future state: validate the ideal state with internal customers to ensure you’re not building a process no-one wants/would see value in

The table below provides an overview of some of the top five considerations that should inform your decisions during the mapping process:

Once the process map is complete, your department can conduct a holistic review of ways to improve its overall function. This is where Legal Operations by Shearman can consult on best practices: through our integrated collaboration event, Shearman Acceler8, we can help you identify insights, and develop a bespoke checklist for departmental deliverables.

Behind every successful in-house law department is an awareness of its internal processes, a roster of (useful) legal tech, and the ability to scale its operations up or down as the business demands. The first of these is perhaps the hardest to invest time in, but the most crucial as market pressures and staffing levels change over time.

Legal Operations by Shearman is uniquely positioned to assist in this endeavor and is dedicated to finding the best way of doing things, whether that means simplifying the overall end-to-end process, or introducing new technology and overseeing the requisite change management. From a full-spectrum vendor and contract management review to a general process mapping session, Legal Operations by Shearman can support you in your process improvement efforts – large or small.

To learn more, contact our team: or visit our website at


About the Authors

Harriet Joubert-Vaklyes (l) is a Process Innovation Senior Specialist at Shearman & Sterling. She works with business development and delivery teams to document, reengineer and improve their processes, and implement a wide range of solutions. Harriet has ten years of experience in the legal field, including project management, knowledge management and automation, and process improvement.

Michael Bolawole (r) is a Legal Project Coordinator at Shearman & Sterling. His role focuses on providing pricing, budgeting, and matter management support. Michael is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and uses his varied experience to support and lead process improvement initiatives.