Managing teams across jurisdictions and cultures

This article considers the challenges faced by General Counsels who manage legal teams in multiple jurisdictions. We consider factors such as global team structures, cultural backgrounds, time zones, local recruitment and knowledge management.

Increasing globalisation means many General Counsels are managing legal risk and delivery on a global basis, dealing with multiple legal systems, regulatory requirements and business priorities.

It also means they’re responsible for managing people across wide-ranging cultures.

Structuring a global legal team

If your organisation has grown over time, either organically or by acquisitions, it may now have a decentralised legal function, with local legal teams reporting to local management. However, in our increasingly globalised world, a better model is for the General Counsel to control the organisation’s global legal affairs. Depending on how large the organisation is, this could mean local heads reporting directly to the General Counsel or to regional General Counsels.

A centralised legal team, where one person has ultimate responsibility and accountability for legal risk management, has clear benefits. These include:

  • A cohesive approach to the delivery and quality of legal services;
  • Reduced risk of some areas having inadequate legal support;
  • Enhanced knowledge sharing;
  • Pooling team resource onto international and HQ projects for better local insight and efficiency;
  • Offering scope for career development and skills building for local roles that might otherwise "cap out"; and
  • Cost savings.

Expect some resistance from local management and, possibly, individual legal teams if you opt to centralise your legal function. This can happen especially when local lawyers start working on non-local projects and you cannot move performance management, staff cost and hiring and decisions out of local control. Local management may fear their legal business partner becoming a gatekeeper that inhibits growth of their business unit and works on things that are not a local priority for them in place of things that are. Local legal teams, meanwhile, used to working independently, may fear interference and appearing undermined in front of local management by central decisions and policies that differ from their established local practices.

For these reasons, you’ll need to act sensitively and with clear support from the organisation’s executive. If you can demonstrate savings and efficiencies for the local business and other benefits to local management, such as wider corporate knowledge and insights and help to management in finding non-local contacts within the group, you’ll go a long way to winning their support as well.

Recruiting local lawyers

Consider whether a local in-house lawyer is essential in each jurisdiction or whether you can provide support from HQ, a regional hub or external counsel. Bear in mind the the language skills and level of local legal experience, especially when dealing with civil code, former Soviet Bloc, Middle Eastern or Far Eastern jurisdictions where the way that the law is practiced may be very different from what HQ is used to. This is sometimes called doing a "SAEFty -Same As (HQ jurisdiction) Except For.... Check". If you have significant numbers of commercial contract negotiations in any particular jurisdiction, you’re more likely to need a lawyer with experience in the local market.

Where you do recruit an in-house lawyer or a team, familiarise yourself with how lawyers become qualified in that jurisdiction and learn about the regulatory framework they’re subject to (if any) - which is particularly important when looking at areas of work where legal privilege might be relevant to communications and work done.

You’ll probably need to work with a legal recruitment agency. Alternatively, you may be able to take guidance from a trusted international law firm with a local presence. Consider also speaking with other General Counsels who have legal teams in that country about their experiences.

Be prepared for this process to take longer than it would in your home country, particularly with your first appointment. Rather than rushing to meet local demands and risking a bad appointment, consider whether a secondee from a law firm or an experienced interim lawyer would fill the gap. Having somebody dealing with the immediate issues before your permanent recruit arrives will spare your new lawyer from a deluge of urgent challenges from day one. You may also be able to use a good senior person (vetted and monitored closely) on an interim basis to fact find and get things under control. You can then bring in a permanent more junior person when the role and the longer term needs of it have become simpler and more stabilised.

Consider asking your trusted local lawyers to meet your candidate to verify their credentials and suitability. However, bear in mind they may have their own agenda.

It’s important to involve your local management as well. While the decision as to the right candidate should ultimately be yours, try to ensure local management are happy that your new lawyer is a good personal and cultural fit for their team - but you must be comfortable that their loyalties will still remain consistently with you..

Once you’ve recruited your candidate, it’s a good idea for them to spend time with you at your organisation’s HQ before they start in their country. This will ensure they:

  • Meet the global management team;
  • Understand the culture of the organisation;
  • Get to know the legal department’s strategy: and
  • Learn about your key reporting and legal risk management requirements.

It is important for you to visit them and their management early on and regularly in order to see them in context, understand local issues and management better and to give visible local support to your team member as being part of your team. It is also good to get them involved in team and international projects (see below) from early on. Including working with, visiting and being visited by other legal team members from other sites. Habits formed early tend to stick so make sure they are the right habits!

Communicating and managing across time zones

Good communications across time zones are crucial, so it’s important to plan and budget for this. It is much cheaper to have regular contact than to have something going wrong and it is also normally cheaper than the cost of losing good staff and having to pay interim and hiring fees to replace them. As ever pick the metrics that work for your argument with the CFO!

Meeting your direct reports or, if your legal department is relatively small, your entire team at least once a year will bring significant benefits. If your team is large with a wide geographical spread, consider regional meetings.

Use these meetings to:

  • Review and measure how you manage global legal risk;
  • Deliver legal training;
  • Enable team members to get to know each other better; and
  • Update the team about strategy.

If you have sole lawyers in some jurisdictions, consider meeting with them more frequently, especially with new hires, people on stretch projects and troubled performers. Three to four face to face meetings a year is a good minimum target and this can include having them spend some time each year working from your HQ or at a regional base. You could also consider a “buddy” arrangement, where other members of your HQ team are paired with local lawyers to share knowledge in a day-to-day work situation. Local lawyers in different locations could also be pared with each other.

Another option, as touched on above, is to set up cross-jurisdictional interest groups dealing with areas of common interest, such as IT and technology, as well as legal subject areas such as cyber risk, data protection, anti-bribery and competition law.

As well as creating stronger links throughout your global team, this will create a network that can react swiftly if a global risk arises. Consider asking members of your international legal team to lead some of these groups. This will strengthen their connections and involvement with the team.

Visiting your legal colleagues in their countries will give you deep understanding of local issues. Taking time to meet with the local management team and understand their concerns will enable you to deal with any issues relating to centralisation and demonstrate your support for these colleagues. Be sure to budget for this important leadership responsibility.

Consider also whether time zones can be used to your advantage. For example, could paralegals in one time zone support lawyers in another with research and document review to speed up turn-around times?

If you have a really large team, consider physical or remote role swap/secondment opportunities that enable lawyers in one jurisdiction to gain experience in others - even if they can only do this remotely from their home office desk.

Managing cultural differences

Take time to understand the different cultures your team operates in. This involves going further than merely adapting your communication style and making yourself understood.

It means understanding how people in different countries view in-house lawyers. In some regions, they may be seen as business facilitators rather than risk controllers. In this scenario, you’ll need to consider how to support your local team and help them meet their corporate risk management goals.

Other practical cultural matters you’ll need to take into account include:

  • Different work patterns;
  • Statutory employment rights;
  • Holiday periods;
  • Lifestyles; and
  • Local customs.

Most international commercial lawyers speak good English. However, even with fluent English speakers, indirect communication or colloquial language can cause confusion. It may be useful to hold language and communication styles training across your team to avoid unnecessary breakdowns in communication.

Knowledge management and sharing

A good knowledge management system will help you save money and promote your legal function’s strategy easily and effectively.

Consider setting up a legal department SharePoint site or similar online workspace to store precedents, general know-how and guidance. Make use of other applications and tools that enable team members to post questions to the wider legal team. Encourage team members at HQ to respond quickly to questions from the international legal team to ensure they feel supported.

Get feedback from the international team about what interests them and use your knowledge management system to give them the information they need. Encourage everyone across the team to post documents and guidance that may benefit colleagues in other jurisdictions.

Aligning goals and legal department strategy

Communicate your strategy to everyone in your legal team and align local objectives to global business goals. Be very aware of the SAEFty check as seemingly trivial requirements from HQ to conform local practices to central requirements may create local compliance and/or cultural issues that expose and unsettle local management and can put your local lawyer into a difficult position. "I know dear local director that its illegal and you personally will get fined and possibly be barred from being a director of any other company - but my boss says that a consistent approach is important..." is not a fair conversation for you to require your local lawyer to have.

When planning departmental objectives, take account of global legal risks and priorities but remember that you can’t cover absolutely everything. You’ll need to prioritise, which will mean juggling factors such as risk levels, business value and jurisdictions. If this causes concern among your local legal teams, take time to explain your decisions and discuss any concerns they may have before goals are set in stone and published.


Managing teams across jurisdictions and cultures isn’t easy – there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For this reason, it’s vital to understand local needs as well as global legal risks and to establish trust through regular and meaningful communication.

Angus Haig has written a perspective on this article, please click here to read.