Leading and developing legal teams

We have gathered together some of the important points and themes relating to the leading and development of in-house teams.

1. Purpose and direction

Whether you’re leading a team or the legal function, there needs to be clarity about what the legal team is there to do. Purpose includes direction and priority. In particular, is the team’s advice focused on those areas that best support the organisation’s objectives at the expense of those that do not? Leaders set the direction of the team and the team needs to know where it’s headed and why. For legal teams this includes ensuring that its work is aligned with the organisational or divisional objectives in the business plan. Direction is especially key in times of change and disruption, which can easily undermine team performance and unsettle team members.

2. Write it down

It’s one thing for the GC and other leaders in the team to be clear about the purpose and direction but it really helps to set this out in a way that’s accessible to in-house clients and to the legal team itself, including new recruits. How this is done depends on style and culture. Look at what other business areas in the organisation do. Mission statements can be useful but the point is to say where the legal team focuses its time and resources and why, how it supports client areas in practice, and what it does, and does not, do. The document doesn’t have to be long and detailed as something short and to the point may be appropriate. The detail can always be fleshed out in service standards and KPIs, as needed.

3. Prioritise

With legal issues likely to arise in pretty much all areas of the organisation’s business, it needs to be established which should be referred to the legal team and which can be dealt with in other ways. Clearly, different levels of legal risk will apply to different matters and the legal team will want to categorise these with a view to focusing on the most significant. This requires prioritisation which takes into account such factors as the importance, fallout and frequency of legal risks materialising, as well as the level of legal awareness in the relevant business area and the type of legal input required. The process of prioritisation should therefore allow the legal team to work with clients to determine the best way to deal with the legal issues that arise – whether that means referral to legal in all cases, utilising self-help options first, training to build legal awareness, or other appropriate options.

4. Educate 

One of the key advantages of an in-house legal team is that it can work with its clients to increase awareness and understanding of legal problems and risks that arise. This helps client areas recognise important issues as they arise and then either refer the problem to legal in a more constructive way than perhaps “this looks legal, over to you” or deal with the problem themselves. The latter may require the legal team to help with training or help devise self-help options that either allow the client to handle all or some issues themselves or act as a filter to ensure that only the most important issues are referred.

5. Relationships and networks

One of the most important elements in the success of the legal team is the strength of the team itself and its relationships with clients and colleagues in the organisation. This is more than being on friendly terms. Strong relationships and networks are based on trust and respect. To earn these the legal team needs to demonstrate their legal expertise of course, but also be efficient, clear, persuasive, pro-active and resilient. Good communication with clients is vital to manage needs and expectations. Clients also need to see the value the lawyers bring to the table and how they support good decision making, whilst also protecting the interests of the organisation generally. Networks are also built by collaboration, working with others to bring about a business objective and helping overcome obstacles that may emerge.

6. Handling the recruitment challenge 

It usually takes a really good business case to get any additional lawyers into the team,  despite increasing work levels and new challenges emerging. How to deal with this?

First, legal leaders are using different ways to get in new resources - for example, using paralegals, flexible resourcing options and technology to automate work, where appropriate. Second, a squeeze on resources emphasises the need to focus only on what is most important as no legal team can afford to be involved in peripheral issues or sideshows. Third, it highlights the importance of training and development. A legal team cannot afford to stagnate. Its people need to be learning and be capable of taking on new work and challenges. Fourthly, where there are new recruits, deciding in advance the type of lawyer needed is important. Is a specialist needed or more of a generalist, level of experience and whether a gap can be filled by an internal move with a new recruit slotting in elsewhere?

Overall, the recruitment and induction process should deliver the best chance of attracting, recruiting and keeping the best candidates and help them settle in quickly.

7. Performance matters

All teams and their members want to know they’re doing well and understand where they need to improve. It’s important to be clear about what good or excellent performance looks like for both individuals and for the team generally. The team will normally be assessed against those measures and indicators established by the GC and agreed with clients. Typically, they’ll include areas such as quality of advice, timeliness, and cost effectiveness. For individuals, they need to know how they are periodically performing against those - for example, in relation to the quality of legal advice (based on client feedback) and influencing and communication skills. For both individuals and the team, measuring performance should encompass elements of both performing to get the job done efficiently and of developing to improve and take on bigger challenges. So far as possible, these measures need to be tangible so that the team can take practical action to perform effectively and see what it takes to perform at a higher level.

8. Career development planning

Many in-house legal teams are small or have flattish management structures. This makes it important for team members to have career plans and to be able to see how they can realise their career goals and ambitions. A career plan can cover developing legal or business expertise, strengthening skills and learning new ones, and setting out new challenges and responsibilities. These may be achievable in the current role while others may require exposure to different roles in different environments - outside the organisation, for example. Many organisations have career development processes in place but, if not, it’s important to develop these for the team. Otherwise, enthusiasm and ambition can be undermined and team members may struggle to see how their role can provide a platform for meeting their career goals.

9. Learning

Developing a team requires a commitment to learning. What does this mean? Any in-house team trades on its legal expertise. In an in-house context this means both knowledge of the relevant law and also of the business or organisational context in which the legal advice is given. Learning should encompass these, of course, and also extend to those skills needed to give high quality legal advice. This means good communication (written and verbal), persuasiveness and constructive problem solving that promotes solutions. In-house lawyers also need certain personal qualities. Integrity and reliability are of course essential. Additionally, they must be efficient, good collaborators and be comfortable with uncertainty and pushback. This requires resilience.

All of these areas of knowledge, skills and behaviours can be learned and developed. Although we learn in different ways, a good learning programme needs to combine experiential and classroom learning, provide guidance and support through challenging and stretching assignments and projects, use mentors and coaches and encourage learning in different environments – say, in non-law roles and in outside organisations, for example.

10. Leading

Leading is not managing although managers should exhibit leadership qualities. Rather, leadership is about expressing certain personal qualities and providing direction. Those not in leadership roles can still act as leaders. What are leadership traits? Here are a few to consider: -

  • Clarity of direction. Leaders provide certainty. They may not always be sure in their own mind about the right direction but they are certain in their dealings with others. This breeds confidence and trust.
  • Big picture thinking. Leaders see the broader scope and resist taking badly thought through short-term steps, even when popular.
  • Self-awareness. Leaders are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They are good listeners and understand the impact of what they say and do on others.
  • Good judgement. Leaders are not rushed into poor decisions, nor do they avoid difficult decisions. They adopt a balanced, thoughtful approach.
  • They act. Leaders realise the importance of doing. Thinking and planning are good but not at the expense of taking action, when required.
  • They work with, and through, others. Leadership is not about self. It is about achieving things through working with others, whether in the leader’s own team or more widely in the organisation.
  • Leaders are aware of the needs of the wider team and are able to provide support to others in the team, including the head of the team.