For our 2023 global report, Under Pressure, we spoke with 332 in-house leaders worldwide to get a feel for their challenges, priorities, emerging issues, where they’re investing, and much more. This year, our report revealed an intensifying battle for in-house counsel to balance proactivity and strategic work with constant firefighting.

Reactivity dominates

Toughening economic conditions, shrinking budgets, and fast-moving regulatory change are reducing some in-house teams to the role of first responders, with 44% of legal leaders citing a lack of time to plan for the future. Coupled with buoyant labour markets and a lack of career development and training opportunities, this pressurised environment has made staff morale and retention the number one emerging issue for legal leaders worldwide.

Our 2023 data shows that leaders’ number one strategic challenge is “prioritising large volumes of work”. We also know that approximately 40% of in-house lawyers are “busier as the legal team has less budget for outside counsel”. Resources are diminishing, and problems are increasing, which can lead to chronic firefighting.

Finding relief from firefighting

While these findings might feel familiar, the report identifies several new trends, which present a contemporary picture of how in-house teams are looking to drive greater efficiencies to combat this highly pressurised environment:

  • investment areas: “Outsourcing workstreams” has risen from fourth to the second largest investment area by in-house leaders. Investment in lawyers remains the largest investment area for in-house teams.
  • use of data and tech: there is a 38% year-on-year increase in leaders who agree (or strongly agree) that they use data to boost the value of their legal department. Further, we’ve seen a greater than 20% year-on-year increase in those leaders who have an informal tech strategy, or are in the process of developing one. Data fluency and tech strategy were also the hallmarks of those legal teams perceived as “valued” or “highly valued”.
  • operational efficiency: 33% of in-house leaders cite “ensuring operational efficiency” as a key strategic challenge. This growing focus shows that leaders are turning their minds to better managing workloads and trying to rise above putting out spot fires.
  • approach to AI: 61% of in-house leaders are focused on learning about the possibilities of AI but have not taken definitive action. This is a watching brief that requires attention – it’s not a passive set and forget approach. This area is developing rapidly, so it demands considered and continuous thought.

Conclusion

Whilst a tendency towards firefighting seems built into our nature as lawyers, we’re seeing in-house leaders keen to make time in their day for the most important and not just the most urgent. This isn’t just good for strategy; it also alleviates the intertwined issues of staff morale and retention. Further, as clearer and more pragmatic AI solutions are rolled out over the next twelve months, we expect to see a shift from reflection to real action. Scalable applications will be a key tool for legal leaders and their teams to step above the firefighting challenge. To fully understand these trends, insights, and expert recommendations, delve into the full report.