The role and reach of corporations’ chief legal officers continues to expand, with 78% of them reporting directly to their company’s CEO, and their scope of responsibilities expanding, particularly for issues of privacy, cybersecurity, and compliance.

These are among the findings of the 2021 Chief Legal Officer Survey released today by the Association of Corporate Counsel, in partnership with the governance, risk and compliance company Exterro.

The survey found that of 19 corporate functions, the one that most frequently reports to the CLO is compliance (74%), followed by privacy (45.6%), ethics (42.5%), risk (39.7%), government affairs (25.9%), and human resources (20%).

An area of responsibility that continues to grow for CLOs is legal operations. Sixty-one percent of legal departments now employ at least one legal operations professional, the survey finds — a 6.7 percentage point increase over last year and a 39.4 point increase since 2015. Twenty-one percent of departments now employ at least four legal ops professionals.

Even as the pandemic continues, 32 percent of law departments plan to take on more lawyers in 2021, a slight increase over 30 percent from 2020. Interestingly, 49 percent of those departments that expect to add lawyers in 2021 also anticipate sending more work to law firms and other legal service providers.

The survey asked CLOs what changes they had made as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all of them said that they had made changes to their employee safety policies and travel policies. Seventy percent said they had made changes to their overhead budget due to economic and financial uncertainties.

In light of the increased focus over the past year on racial equality, CLOs reported taking a number of measures to support racial diversity, equity and inclusion. These included both internal changes focused staffing, training and organizational policies, and external changes focused on vendor diversity and community engagement.

Asked about the types of legal technology they plan on adopting over the next two years, CLOs most common response was contract management (67.%), followed by document management (41.4%), e-signatures (33.5%), and workflow tools (32%).

While the full survey covers much more than I have discussed here, it ends with five observations:

  1. The CLO is a key business partner to the C-suite and board.
  2. Many legal departments plan to hire new staff, despite the pandemic, including lawyers, paralegals and legal ops professionals.
  3. Legal operations is now imperative.
  4. Data privacy continues to impact organizations, with 80 percent expressing concern over changing data privacy laws.
  5. Issues of corporate responsibility — particularly environmental, social and governance (ESG) and diversity and inclusion — are central to strategy.

Conducted from Oct. 1, 2020, to Nov. 29, 2020, the survey analyzed data from 947 CLOs across 21 industries and 44 countries. It includes individuals who hold titles such as CLO, general counsel, director of legal, and head of legal.

It is available on ACC’s 2021 CLO Survey page.