How in-house lawyers can thrive in cost-cutting environments

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Last updated: April 5, 2023

Navigating work in an organisation going through budget tightening can be a difficult experience for all employees, and in-house counsel are no exception.

Typically, budget tightening will make the legal department busier than ever, with a greater need to keep legal matters in-house and reduce outside spend. Additionally, in-house counsel will often face new or burgeoning workstreams such as: restructuring, supplier renegotiation and employment law matters. So, how can in-house lawyers thrive in this demanding environment? To gather hard-earned wisdom, we spoke with a number of LOD lawyers about their experience and their top tips.

1) Ruthlessly prioritise

It’s glib to suggest that in-house lawyers must prioritise projects – this is permanently and universally true. In situations of high-cost sensitivity, it’s vital that you decide which projects are essential and which are nice-to-haves. How do you achieve this? You need to synthesise several factors, including: high-risk legal matters, organisational values, executive-sponsored projects and commercial contracts over certain amounts, amongst many others. You may have this documented, or you may need to ascertain the various factors and their accompanying decision weight from senior colleagues or leaders in other departments.

One handy heuristic is the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule). The rule suggests that 80% of your outcomes will come from 20% of your effort. You need to determine what workflows constitute your value-laden 20% efforts – for example, these could include key litigation work and large commercial contracts. Part of this prioritisation exercise is also to determine what workstreams should be cut entirely or at least removed from the legal team’s in-tray.

2) Eliminate waste

When working in a pressurised environment, you might find that you will be forced to simplify your work. For lawyers, one clear outworking of simplification is ‘cutting to the chase’ in communication. More than ever, your stakeholders won’t have time to distil the key actions from your words; you have to do that for them. Beyond your communication style, real efficiency gains can be found by avoiding the double-handling of information and wasting time in unproductive meetings.

Efficiencies can also be gained by reducing the number of separate steps in the completion of a matter or deliverable. For example, in a contract negotiation, it can be more efficient to let the contract mark-up (with explanatory comments) do the talking – rather than to first discuss the proposed change in general terms at a meeting (which might then be followed up with the very same drafting which could have been given in the first place!). Consider saving negotiation meetings for the real roadblocks in contracting progress, especially if long lead times are involved each time a meeting is set up.

3) Cut your coat according to your cloth

As budget tightening increases, you have a growth in competing deadlines, all of them urgent. It’s not physically possible to take a perfectionist approach to each task. This isn’t private practice, and you can’t gold-plate everything. The threshold of what is satisfactory and what is the gold standard will vary depending on your organisation and adjudicating the difference takes experience, or guidance from senior lawyers. To thrive and adapt your way of working, you need to learn what to care about, so don’t be afraid to seek out clarity. Your colleagues will normally be grateful for your assistance and willing to share the company line. Recent examples of similar work may accelerate an understanding of what is important and what is not.

4) Don’t over-involve yourself

When it comes to the legal work, don’t get too into the weeds early on. On, say, a contract negotiation, do you really need to attend an internal meeting where the contract spec is being thrashed out, or a negotiation meeting with the other side just on pricing? It may be better simply to receive the conclusion of these ‘non-legal’ discussions, freeing up time for the core ‘legals’.

While it can be tempting as in-house counsel to be across as many business activities as possible, you should resist that urge when your legal in-tray is overflowing or you’re turning your hand to new priorities brought on by budget tightening. Particularly if you work in a large organisation, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in committees, taskforces and other project teams. And while in-house lawyers are encouraged and welcomed when they join these teams (as they bring rigour and clear thinking), you might need to pare these back to keep hyper-focused on getting through your to-do list.

5) Lean on pragmatic solutions

In times of cost sensitivity, legal research aids like Practical Law and LexisNexis can boost your speed of delivery. While it can be tempting to dedicate hours researching and preparing a beautiful piece of legal literature, there generally isn’t the luxury of time to do it. By getting an instant and legally-current position, you can spend your time tailoring the advice to your organisation – using your bespoke knowledge of the law and your organisation to create pragmatic opinions for your business leaders. The advice here is to lean on tactical and pragmatic pieces of technology that are proven already to boost efficiency. Even small gains (like using a piece of tech to coordinate meeting times) are helpful and when added together can net you meaningful productivity dividends.

6) Boost team morale

It can be strenuous working in environments where people are stressed, tired and feeling uncertain. It’s times like these when humour and positivity can make a huge difference. This doesn’t mean you need to be a jester or a huge extrovert, but rather a suggestion to still bring humour, levity, and camaraderie into your team and the wider business. By remaining professional and positive, the people around you will appreciate you and the work you do more as you all navigate tricky times together.


The challenge to survive (let alone thrive) in economic tight times is real. You will be expected to deliver more with less budget – despite the magical thinking involved in that statement – as well manage novel and difficult workstreams. With high focus, a bias towards pragmatism and by leaning on proven technology, in-house counsel can navigate economic turbulence with greater conviction and certainty.

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