3 key business initiatives where legal departments can drive progress

Kara Wen | February 23, 2023 | Articles

Today’s legal professionals should be strategic partners in the decision-making process at their businesses. Instead of just being brought in to handle problems or to review a contract, you have an opportunity to step up and lead game-changing initiatives.

But it’s not as easy as that. Legal teams are often viewed as the “No Police,” according to Onit’s Enterprise Legal Reputation (ELR) Report. 61% of the ELR respondents see legal teams as bureaucratic, and 73% of respondents in France said they’re likely to bypass legal altogether.

With many departments seeing legal as a roadblock rather than a partner, businesses can suffer. By shifting the approach of legal from being focused solely on reacting to issues to being proactive progress-makers, the reputation of legal can shift, too.

In addition, legal has to adapt to ever-changing environments. This constant state of flexibility means it’s crucial to give consideration to topics that directly affect the people on your team, including diversity, data privacy, and environmental, social, and governance initiatives.

The unique perspectives your legal team brings to the table can be used to strategically lead company initiatives that ultimately benefit the overall health of the business.

Get involved in issues your stakeholders care about

With your understanding of the business’s goals and current legal regulations, your team can lead the charge to drive social change through environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives.

Young professionals — especially Gen Z, who are now coming into adulthood — want businesses that do more than just offer a product or service. In fact, many adults make important decisions based on a company’s values, including 58% who buy from brands, 60% who choose their workplace, and 64% who invest based on how well companies align with their personal values.

At the 2021 Bloomberg Law Leadership Forum, more than 300 event attendees in the legal industry were polled about trends and issues and their impact. One question asked about attendees’ level of concern about backlash from their firm’s clients related to social issues. 38% were not overly concerned, and 37% were only somewhat concerned (not to mention the 9% who weren’t concerned at all).

Your internal stakeholders are also likely invested in maintaining DE&I standards, as the number of racially and ethnically diverse attorneys continues to grow each year.

According to the ACC 2022 Chief Legal Officers Survey, 39% of GCs say ESG issues are a key reason to improve compliance with environmental laws, particularly when it comes to combating climate change. Legal ops can step in to assist GCs with these needed improvements from a proactive standpoint by staying up to date on ESG regulations.
To navigate ESG efforts, legal ops can implement actionable steps that range from small updates to larger, sweeping changes. These include showcasing a commitment to sustainability by implementing recycling in the workplace and other green initiatives, promoting DE&I procedures as listed above, and ensuring the company is following equal pay guidelines.

Build diversity from the top down

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives have been proven to boost morale and engagement in the workplace. Legal teams are in a prime position to provide opportunities for those boosts within organizations by prioritizing education for current employees on diversity policies and capturing qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

By knowing and understanding the current regulations regarding diversity, you can go beyond just meeting standards to proactively building an inclusive department.

Many legal teams consider having a diversity and inclusion program the top priority, according to the CLOC’s State of the Industry Report. Implementing a DE&I program made a significant jump in priorities from 2020 when it ranked fifth out of seven choices.

To foster a diverse team, legal ops can host regular bias training so issues under the DE&I umbrella are frequently front of mind for all employees. To further develop a sense of inclusive collaboration, set up a DE&I committee with legal leading the way and volunteer members from other departments as part of the committee. Diversity and bias training are good ways to invest in your team’s talent and give them the opportunity to get involved in the workings of the company and add their ideas to the department’s strategy.

When it comes to hiring, legal can make sure HR is executing best hiring practices that aren’t just lawful but also mindful. Start strong by recruiting from diverse law schools and posting jobs to diversity-focused sites, not just LinkedIn.

It’s also a good idea to regularly review your team’s diversity stats. That way, you can see if your company is walking the walk and not just talking the talk when it comes to DE&I. Analyze your demographics and also collect feedback directly from your team. Ask questions about how DE&I initiatives are handled to get a sense of how your efforts are perceived. To gauge the climate of your company, ask how inclusive your workplace feels.

Review outside counsel hires and vendors, too. If it’s not immediately obvious where they stand on DE&I matters, you can ask outside vendors to fill out the Diversity Scorecard from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association or the Model Diversity Survey from the American Bar Association.

Now is the time to invest in your people. The current economic situation is turbulent and companies are experiencing mass layoffs. But people are your company’s biggest asset, and when you invest in them, you’ll get great results.

Make data privacy a top priority

Legal is typically viewed as a very traditional department. But by making data privacy a priority, you flip that notion completely on its head. If data privacy feels daunting because it’s a fairly new field legal departments have to contend with, don’t stress — it’s not a departure from your original work of protecting the business. Rather, you’re enhancing that work and embracing a wider scope.

Breaches in data privacy can result in massive fines, as well as a damaged reputation and sense of trust in your business. In-house legal teams and GCs can get ahead of these consequences by managing risks — and preparing for a potential eventual breach in security.

According to the ACC report, GCs rank data privacy, cybersecurity, and regulation and compliance as the most important issues for their companies. A majority of GCs (56%) said their company prioritized investment in new technology to comply with data privacy regulations.

Both GCs and legal ops are in unique positions to strengthen their organization’s data privacy efforts. GCs obviously handle the issues surrounding laws and compliance, and legal ops can get involved with implementing the tech used to help with compliance.

Legal ops can also prioritize ongoing education about data privacy regulations and collaborate with IT to make sure everyone is on the same page. Your teams can also initiate more employee training about the importance of data security — human error is the top cause of data breaches.

Even the most proactive approach isn’t a guarantee your company won’t fall victim to a data breach or cybersecurity threat. Legal teams should have a plan in place for when a breach occurs to ensure minimal fallout for the business.

Legal ops initiatives can take companies to new levels

Consumers care deeply about a company’s social values and inclusion efforts. Your legal team should use their industry experience and knowledge of risk management to create initiatives regarding DE&I, ESG, and data privacy.

This not only appeals to the public, but it also helps avoid unnecessary risks and problems down the road for companies and internal and external shareholders, too. And perhaps just as importantly, these strategic initiatives can help change the perception of legal from a bureaucratic roadblock to a collaborative, engaging, and understanding strategic partner.

To stay on top of what else legal departments are dealing with and looking toward, check out our Top Trends 2023 whitepaper.

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