February 10, 2021 Practice Points

Five Lists that Every In-House Lawyer Should Consider Keeping

A few simple yet powerful examples that can help you stay organized.

By Michael C. Smith

I like lists. They are simple yet powerful organization tools and aides-mémoire, particularly when there is a lot going on. And there is always a lot going on in in-house legal departments. Here are five lists that may be helpful for in-house lawyers to keep.

Continuous Improvement

The nature and position of an in-house legal department are such that it “sees” a lot of opportunities for improvement within the organization it serves. For example, unforeseen events are often indicative of an improvement opportunity. A root cause analysis often reveals causes that are in nature systemic/procedural, cultural, or behavioral for which better process, “tone from the top,” training, and/or accountability are often the fixes. But there is usually no time to dive into such an analysis when the improvement opportunity is first identified. It is helpful to keep a list of these opportunities so that you can return to them later when/if time permits. Once created, the list also allows for the relative prioritization of the fixes for the various opportunities, based perhaps on the level of risk to the organization and the expected ease of implementation of the improvement. One might prioritize areas with the largest risk or pick off some “low-hanging fruit” for some quick wins. Those priorities may change over time given the needs of the situation. When the priorities do have to change, the list is a helpful reminder to manage the expectations of stakeholders expecting results in areas that have been changed to a lower priority. A sample framework for such a list, although yours can be even simpler and still accomplish the objectives, would have these headings:

  1. Opportunity
  2. Risk Level
  3. Expected Ease of Implementation
  4. Initial Priority
  5. Current Priority
  6. Date Priority Changed
  7. Reason
  8. Candidate for Training by Legal Dept.

Identifying risk is part of the value that an in-house legal department adds. Even if you do not have enough time or resources to implement a solution and mitigate a risk, having a list of the risks you have helped to identify can be useful at evaluation time, or when setting budgets and needed people resources.

IRL Consequences/Lessons Learned

Many humans need a real-life example of a risk realized before they can fully appreciate the nature of that risk. When fulfilling its function of making the organization more risk-conscious, it can be helpful for in-house lawyers to reference real-life consequences of not heeding a risk. Therefore, it is helpful for in-house counsel to keep a list of examples of the consequences of non-compliance with law or procedure. These examples may be inside or outside the organization.  For example, a fine paid by a competitor may have a deterrent effect in your organization if those consequences are communicated. You may gain a deterrent effect without having to pay for it. Communicating consequences also offers a natural opportunity to remind colleagues about the need to understand and comply with general integrity policies and values.


For me at least, the “wins” are harder to remember than the “losses.” At various points in a fiscal year, it can be helpful to have at the ready a list of personal and departmental accomplishments or “wins.” Think evaluations, budget planning/setting, budget adjustment, resource planning, etc. If the in-house legal department is bigger than one, all team members should feed their “wins” into the general counsel so that she has them at the ready when speaking to leadership. If you have them, 1:1 meetings are good opportunities for these discussions.

Checklists/Process Maps

Finding the time to document at least the routine legal processes in an in-house department is often well worth the investment. Developing a checklist and/or process map has at least three benefits:

  1. identifying efficiencies;
  2. vacation/succession planning; and
  3. obtaining understanding, “buy-in,” and support from business units.

These lists can be quite effective tools in managing expectations amongst client business units if they are shared with those business units; even more so if the business units are involved in their development.

Feedback and Recognition

The experts tell us that in order to create a culture of engagement and accountability, feedback, and recognition have to occur timely and often. Provide that feedback and recognition to your colleagues and keep a note of it as well. This can be as simple as dropping a copy of an email providing recognition or feedback into a dedicated folder. When you are asked, formally or informally, to evaluate colleagues, you will have your “file” of real examples at the ready, which greatly increases the accuracy and credibility of the evaluation process.


Michael Smith is a partner at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto, Canada. He is also the cochair of the Environmental & Toxic Torts Litigation Subcommittee. 

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