People, team management, development, succession and managing out

This article considers the in-house lawyer as a head of department and manager of people.

We look at team building, provide tips for motivating and retaining great people and look at succession planning considerations including the subject of managing people out as part of your team’s continuing evolution.

As an in-house lawyer in a leadership role, you’ll be expected to understand the principles of people management and development, succession planning and team structure.

You may also, from time to time, need to manage people out of the organisation as its objectives and needs change.

Leading your team

Management is the process of achieving organisational goals by working with, and through, people and other business resources.

As an in-house lawyer in a senior role you’ll be expected to operate as a manager. As well as being a first class legal counsel, you’ll have a big role to play in helping the organisation work towards its wider strategic objectives.

Make a plan

The business will surely have one and, as a leader, you’ll need to distil this into something your team will understand and recognise as relevant. Bear in mind that members of the team primarily involved in solving specific problems at the coalface may not understand the wider strategy as well as you do or understand the way in which that strategy will affect their job.

Building a vision for the team aligned to the business plan is a useful exercise in itself. You’ll need to ask yourself and your team, collectively and individually, some fundamental questions about what your department does and what value it contributes to the organisation. Are you there, for example, to:

  • Support and enable a volume based contract function?
  • Provide subject matter expertise on regulatory issues? or
  • Act as a genuine business support service?

The answers to these questions will help you define your vision for your team and put a plan in place. In turn, they will enable you to shape your team and decide what roles and types of people you need in it.

With these decisions in place, your legal team will begin to understand why it must pull in the same direction as the business. This clarity will feed into individual objectives and create a powerful loop that enhances team morale and individual performance. And that, ultimately, will help increase the value of the organisation.

Driving individual performance

Surveys regularly show that the single most important reason people stay in their job is the quality of their relationship with their boss.

Always remember this when managing employees, no matter how busy you are. Have regular quality time with your team individually and show a genuine interest in their career development, not just the immediate problems at hand.

This is particularly important for team members located at different sites, or even in different countries, to you.

A further challenge is that lawyers are ambitious by nature. They’ll probably be thinking about their next move. The younger the lawyer, the more likely this will be the case. It doesn't help that promotion prospects within in-house legal teams are often limited, as senior people don’t vacate their roles regularly.

Motivating and retaining good people will probably be your biggest team management challenge. However, be honest with your team about the realities of promotion in a smaller legal team and always consider other opportunities for growth and development. These include:

  • Maximising exposure at senior executive level - for example, on major matters;
  • Reshuffling the team.
    This enables lawyers to take on fresh challenges in other areas of the business, build new relationships and learn new law. This can be incredibly motivating as it increases the lawyers’ profiles and adds to their legal and business experience, making it easier for them to take on more generalist and more senior roles in the future;
  • Rotating legal support within the team.
    This allows lawyers, particularly those with narrow expertise, to widen their experience in different legal areas;
  • Offering quasi-management responsibility over individuals outside the team such as secondees, vacation students or external law firms;
  • Offering internal secondments in appropriate areas of the business such as commercial or procurement;
  • Considering reverse secondments at law firms, even if it means the lawyer sits inside the firm for a short period and observes how it provides legal services. Most firms are happy to do this for relationship benefits;
  • Arranging mentoring by senior managers outside the team or the business to provide an alternative sounding board for career development; and
  • Getting team members to take ownership of internal to team activities like planning, budgeting, identifying knowledge and process and systems improvement opportunities for the team etc.
  • Encouraging, particularly at a junior level, ownership of training, corporate social responsibility and other profile-raising activities.

Personal career development should be owned and driven by the employee, and supervised and supported but not driven, by the manager.

Ask your HR department to work with you and your team members to set development objectives, attainable targets and dates for regular review and also work closely with your HR business partner to ensure that these are realistic and attainable within your corporate and team structure and your business and departmental annual plans and goals.

Evolution of the team

All teams go through a cycle of change and evolution. From time to time, you’ll need to reshape the team. This exercise is always easier when you have a plan and a long-term view of the organisation’s strategy and of your team members' growth potential and career aspirations.

For example, will business expansion require new or replacement skills? Will a focus on costs require roles to be merged or outsourced? Will a reshaped organisation require you to provide legal support in a new way?

Succession planning

Succession planning is about finding and preparing people to fill senior positions that, eventually, will become vacant. It provides resilience by ensuring key skills can be transferred seamlessly and prevents a single point of failure where only a few individuals hold critical knowledge.

Succession planning also motivates people, particularly where promotion prospects are limited. Encouraging a junior employee to perform the job of a senior colleague or the team leader (which is a good idea anyway for periods of absence), will flush out individual areas of development and help advance their career.

Managing out

Managing an employee out is never easy. However, it helps if you have genuine business reasons for doing so based on the personal performance and/or behaviours of the individual, a lack of opportunities for that individual and/or some wider change in corporate needs.

Your understanding of the business will often justify your decision to reshape your department and help you communicate this to those employees who no longer fit into the organisation’s future direction. Typical factors in decisions to manage employees out include:

  • Specific challenges requiring unique skills and attributes;
  • Poor performance or behaviour from an individual that inhibits the team’s or clients' work;
  • Exhaustion of growth opportunities; and
  • The employee welcoming or prompting the conversation about moving on.

Managing people out involves difficult conversations. Handle these fairly and sensitively and be aware of any costs that may be involved. Get advice from HR and experienced senior managers. And, of course, always act in accordance with employment law.

The better your departmental plans, objectives, your team members' personal development plans and in year on year performance reviews are, the easier any such process will be.

This is particularly true when the issues underpinning the employee's under performance are a lack of accurate self-awareness or a lack of emotional intelligence. For example, they may struggle both to understand that they have issues they need to address or that they are not being effective in addressing them.

Finally, never underestimate the effects a restructuring process can have on team dynamics and individuals, particularly in smaller departments. Change is difficult for some employees to accept or come to terms with, which is a natural human response.

When managing change, communicate your reasons fairly, objectively and in accordance with wider business goals. Be sensitive to those who may feel vulnerable because of change and don’t forget anyone who’ll have a heavier workload as a result.

Some employees embrace change immediately while others need time to consider the opportunities and outcomes. Your job is to paint a positive picture of the future for the team and the individuals within it so they all pull in the same direction as the business.


Managing and developing people is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of any career. Leading a legal team is no different. You’ll need to produce robust plans and set objectives for the team as a whole and for each individual in particular. Align these with the organisation and its strategic goals.

At the same time, shape each individual's personal development plans. Consider all development and growth opportunities possible to retain talent and motivate good people. As your team evolves and the business changes, issues requiring you to plan succession or manage employees out may arise. Treat these as part of your management duty to set and oversee the long-term direction of your team.