Leading vs doing: thoughts on leading a team

This brief guide will help you strike the balance between leading a team, planning its strategy and providing expert legal services throughout your organisation.

When you first move up to a senior role in an in-house legal team, you’ll have multiple priorities involving team leadership and departmental strategy, not to mention the provision of a top class legal service through your team. That does not mean doing or seeing to it all yourself!.

Leading and lawyering: a brief guide

If you’re new to a senior role in your organisation’s legal team, you’ll need to strike a balance between leading and doing. You'll need to practice the discipline of accepting things that have been done acceptably even when they have not been done the way that you would have preferred to do them.

Here, we share our tips and suggestions for bringing your legal expertise to bear while, at the same time, managing people and planning strategy.

Know your team

Find out where each member’s skills, experiences (legal, business knowledge and operational) lie and what their aspirations are. You may find resources such as a skills matrix, available at the CIPD website, can help with this. Equally important is to get to know your team as individuals and to mentor those who’ll benefit from that type of support. If you have an good idea of their behavioural profiles too then you can also buddy them up on projects to learn from each other's skills and characteristics while getting the job done (this is sometimes called "two in a box" working).

Build team identity

What values do you want your colleagues to recognise in your team? Ideally, aim for efficiency, business impact and collaboration. Whatever values you decide on, write them down, commit to them and reinforce them whenever you can. Your values will inform everything your team does.

We talk elsewhere about the importance to the wider business and to your own team's identity and sense of worth on focusing on the idea of:

"One team, one answer; grounded in current law; compliant with company policies and processes; contextualised to the business' needs; explained in language that the recipients can understand and accept and in ways that they can and will act on in the way that you intend"

Walk the talk

A snappy mission statement means nothing if you don’t embody the values it projects. If you want to be known for efficiency and innovation, start meetings on time and be a willing adopter of helpful new technology. It can be very hard to energise, motivate and keep a team motivated but it is even harder to recover energy and momentum once it is lost so, no matter how painful, keep walking because the alternative is worse!

Analyse your team’s in-tray

Find out where your lawyers are spending their time, what they are doing, why they think they are doing it, what value they, their clients and you think this is actually adding and which business units they’re working for. It may surprise you, yet will prove invaluable when prioritising work and allocating resources. But do this carefully as even apparently innocent enquiries can provoke fear and suspicion especially among those who are insecure in their roles and who resent and worry about change (rather than look forward to improvement).


Focus your resources on where they’ll have maximum impact. Support the big business objectives, whether that means enabling business initiatives or managing key risks. Remember, prioritising also means pushing back on work that doesn’t belong with the legal team and identifying work that would benefit from being done differently to improve efficiency.

We talk in other articles about the importance of menu pricing what your team do against the business' risk appetite and budget. The answer is not for your team to work harder, it is for your team to be efficient at dealing with the prioritised items in the right order until the budget runs out. Things that are outside the budget do not get done unless more budget is found or other things are re-prioritised as your biggest risk and so your biggest priority is your staff burning out, making fatigue or pressure induced mistakes or leaving.

Share knowledge

As an in-house lawyer you have the advantage of an organisation-wide view. Don’t underestimate the value of this. It will enable you to identify themes that others can’t and develop unique insights. Make these insights available for senior management.

Be visible and accessible

Be an ambassador for your team internally and for your organisation externally. Get involved in project groups and collaborate with colleagues across the organisation. Be a good listener and promote yourself as an enabler. How you’re seen by colleagues goes a long way to establishing how they’ll view your team.

Employ smart people and delegate

Good leaders know that their effectiveness, credibility and reputation are enhanced, not threatened, by engaging smart, ambitious lawyers. So hire great people and delegate to them wherever appropriate. And remember, delegation requires active engagement by you, the delegator.

Keep learning

Don’t forget about your  own developmental needs, particularly in non-legal areas. Build your personal and leadership skills through programmes, groups and initiatives that challenge you to reflect on your behaviours and values and to keep learning. If you don't have one, think about finding a mentor or an executive coach.

Beware of the swamp

Avoid getting swamped by business as usual at the expense of planning and  strategy. Think about where you add the greatest value to your team and your organisation. If you want to be involved on a strategic level, set aside time to think strategically.


To help settle into a senior in-house legal role, take time to learn about your team, your priorities and your organisation’s key goals. Develop your relationship with your team members, establish where and how their time is best spent and always align yours and their activities to the wider strategy. Be visible, accessible and open to new learning and never lose sight of your own personal aspirations.

Please read the commentary from Janice More below:

When you are a lawyer in-house advising a organisation, the skills and behaviours you need to be successful include responsiveness, legal expertise, commerciality, and the ability to prioritise and form good relationships across a network. For success, most of all you need to be a problem solver and solution finder whilst keeping the organisation safe. These skills are quite distinct from the skills needed to be a successful leader – the ability to motivate and inspire others and to be empathic, but nevertheless ensure great performance from others.

Many project focused and M & A in-house lawyers learn leadership skills by osmosis and trial and error when they lead projects and deals and have to ensure that teams (who don’t report to them) nevertheless perform, often under pressure.

Ideally, whenever someone moves into a leadership role, one of their first priorities should be to try to ensure they get some leadership, coaching and communication training whether it’s internal or external. If that is not available then self-help in the form of reading up on current best practice and accessing articles, presentations and videos is essential. Although some people seem to be born leaders, most people benefit from some training and assistance with what works and what to avoid. Mastering leadership skills is immeasurably easier with a foundation understanding of what works.