Best Legal Departments 2012: From Singular to Plural

Corporate Counsel

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One size doesn't fit all. Everyone knows it's true, but somehow this truth hadn't penetrated our Best Legal Department com­petition. For six years, tiny law departments, if they wanted to vie for this award, were forced to compete against the largest law departments in the land. And the staff of Corporate Counsel had to try to compare them.

We've done our best, but it hasn't been easy. When you're picking one department, and you've got several hundred lawyers with vast resources in one corner, and a team of three dozen attorneys with far fewer re­sources—but lots of resourcefulness—in the other, it's tricky. You don't want to reward the big department just because it's big. Nor do you want to penalize it for that reason.

Best Legal Departments 2012:

Finalists have been our fallback. If they couldn't all be winners, at least we could name the others finalists. We've usually had three. When we weren't sufficiently impressed with three, we named two. More often we were exceedingly impressed and wished they could all be winners.

Then it finally hit us: They could. Now they are.

This year, for the first time, we've chosen four Best Legal Departments. They range in size from a department that features 140 attorneys in the United States to a department with just one. We didn't go looking for a department that small just to make a point, but we're kind of glad it worked out that way. This year, size really didn't matter.

What do these departments have in common? At first glance, not much. One general counsel's problem was a billion-dollar verdict that her company was facing; another was dealing with a contract dispute over a killer whale. One GC was buried under 5,000 pending legal actions; another inherited a department that sued first and asked questions later.

But when you look closer, there are common elements. They all have strong leaders who are passionate about what they do. They've assessed their company's needs, prioritized, and created systems to make their department more efficient. And they've convinced their colleagues to care deeply—and given them opportunities to take on additional responsibilities. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that these general counsel were eager to share credit.

These four weren't the only legal teams that impressed us. We saw much to admire in the other finalists. And we hope to pre­sent snapshots in the coming months, so stay tuned.

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