Learning and development for in-house legal teams

Building and developing effective teams is often critical to an organisation’s competitiveness, given that teams are integral to the way that many organisations now operate.

Many in-house lawyers will typically work as part of a team.

In fact, they’re likely to be a member of several teams - a legal team within the overall legal department, the legal department itself, perhaps a wider divisional team, one or more project teams, management teams and teams involving external lawyers.

One of the challenges for legal teams is how to build, use and retain their knowledge and expertise in a way that best serves their in-house clients, that responds to changing business needs and is resilient to changes in personnel.

In this article we consider some of the key practical steps to help teams do this.

Create a learning environment

The team’s culture needs to be one where learning by the team’s lawyers is not just encouraged but where there are processes in place to support it. For example, by ensuring that there are opportunities to;

  • ask questions;
  • talk about, and reflect on, what went right and where mistakes were made;
  • talk through difficult legal issues to determine an agreed approach;
  • seek external feedback from clients and stakeholders.

It’s important that team members feel able to speak openly and do not fear rejection from the rest of the team. This is where GCs and managers play an important role is setting the appropriate tone for team interactions.

Encourage the right kind of disagreement

An environment where nothing is challenged can be dangerous. Rather, you want there to be scope for disagreement within a ‘safe’ environment. It’s important that mistakes and errors are discussed in order to learn from them, rather than with a view to scapegoating individuals.

Matters relating to individual performance can be addressed by management processes but think about how mistakes can add to the learning of not just an individual but of the team generally.

Assess how the team operates

How effective is the team in operating as a team? Are some aspects working brilliantly, while others less so?

It can be really useful to involve the team in these discussions as the members will often know exactly where things are not working but will also know the solutions as well. They may just need some support and direction to make it happen. This involvement also gives the team a sense of ownership for how they work together. This type of review can easily be periodically built into team meetings

Agree the team’s purpose and processes

Just as it’s important to set a clear vision and purpose for the legal function, this also applies to individual teams. It’s difficult to know where you need to learn and improve if the destination is not clear at outset.

This is more than simply devising annual goals and objectives that align with wider organisational targets. It’s also about agreeing the standards and metrics relevant to the team’s work – quality of work and other service standards, specific goals and milestones, how decisions are taken, client expectations, task performance reviews and formal team assessments. These can all play a useful role in the team’s learning and development.

Have good knowledge management

For the team to learn effectively, it’s necessary for both existing and emerging knowledge to be captured and disseminated amongst the team. There are different ways of going about this.

Many teams will use matter or case management systems to track activity but it’s important to also capture lessons learned and arising issues and themes.

These ‘learnings will emerge from within the team but may also come from clients and stakeholders in the wider organisation and beyond. Technology- lite solutions include the use of regular meetings and catch ups, for example.

Legal teams acquire a lot of information and lawyers have to keep abreast of changes and developments relating not only to the relevant law but also to those in their organisation that are, or may be, relevant to their legal advice.

Knowledge also covers best practice i.e. the ways in which the legal team uses its expertise and knowledge to provide legal solutions. Technology can help here in providing tools to easily store, search and retrieve information that allows the team to use its acquired knowledge without having to over-rely on individual or collective memory or having to unnecessarily repeat the learning process for core legal issues.

Plan your learning and development

Harnessing and disseminating the team’s knowledge and expertise is a key element of the learning process. You may well encounter situations where there’s a need for the team to adopt new methods or systems or to develop its legal knowledge and expertise in a particular area in response to a business development.

Just as individual training needs are addressed through appraisals, feedback and performance management processes, so too is it possible to plan learning across the team, not least as there may be timescale and budget constraints. Where you have several learning objectives you may also need to prioritise, not least to avoid overwhelming the team with new initiatives at the expense of ensuring that learning is embedded into the team’s understanding and processes.

So, having a formal learning plan encompassing teams and individuals can really help, as it avoids an ad hoc approach which undermines achieving your learning priorities and getting the best from training budgets and resources.

Adopt a blended approach to learning

We know that people learn in different ways and adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be effective. Examples of some of the ways we learn include: 

  • On the job
    We’re likely to learn most in situations where we’re taking on a new assignment, role or responsibilities. This stretches us and requires us to develop our existing skills and learn new ones.
  • From working with others
    Key relationships here will be our bosses, mentors, colleagues in the legal team and the wider organisation and business and professional communities.
  • In the classroom
    This includes formal training environments and also online courses and modules. This would also include where you are training others as this often results in new learning for the ‘trainer’.

Understand what makes the team tick

We have different preferences when it comes to learning styles and in our approach to undertaking tasks and projects and working in a team. There’s a risk in thinking that everyone is the same, which can inhibit the team’s opportunity to reach its full potential and can undermine the team’s performance and effectiveness.

Psychometric and behavioural tools such as, for example, Myers Briggs, Belbin, DISC and Lumina (there are many others) can be useful ways of uncovering your own style and preferences and also those of the wider team. These tools can provide information that help shape both an individual’s and the team’s approach to learning and also help with how people are allocated tasks and assignments and how teams are structured.

Embed learning

While many in-house teams are likely to benefit from a blended approach to learning, the challenge is in how to embed this learning into the team. While learning is enjoyable for its own sake, the objective here is to strengthen and expand the team’s knowledge and expertise for the benefit of clients.

To develop a learning mindset in the team, legal leaders need to provide their lawyers with opportunities to learn by taking on new challenges and assignments, both within the team and more widely.

Managers need good management and coaching skills and being mentored, or acting as a mentor should be seen as part of the learning architecture. Learning communities across the legal team, wider organisation and sector are very useful ways of reinforcing and expanding knowledge. Classroom training still plays an important role, now with the advantage of multiple forms of delivery with the expanded use of technology.

Use feedback and review

Feedback is a key factor in developing learning across the team. This means feedback within the team and using feedback from clients and key stakeholders, which can be obtained formally and informally. This feedback helps direct the training and development needs of the team by highlighting areas of strength and weakness.

To be effective, feedback needs to be clear and direct. Most of us learn when gaps in our knowledge or approach are pointed out to us. Of course, ‘negative’ messages need to be delivered constructively but that is a management and communication skill in itself.

Review is also critical. Post-task reviews looking at how things were done and where improvements could be made are important parts of the learning and performance cycle. Missing out this step means that poor quality or bad habits may never be picked up and corrected.

Developing a learning, high performance team necessarily means that the team is more resilient but this also requires addressing failings head on and learning from them.

Remember that it’s not just technical learning

While you’ll want to make sure that the team’s legal knowledge is up to date (cutting edge in relation to its core legal business), there are other areas you’ll want to cover – particularly, the team’s business knowledge and its ‘soft skills’.

Business knowledge means an understanding of how the organisation operates, its goals and priorities; an understanding of the sector generally; and being aware of potential change impacting both.

Soft skills training is becoming recognised as a ‘must have’ as so much of what makes an in-house legal team effective relies both on its lawyers’ expertise and their ability to communicate, persuade, counsel and educate their clients. Again, a blended approach to learning is likely to be the best option here.

Don’t be limited by hierarchies

Of course, an important way in which we learn is by watching and listening to those with experience and expertise that we lack. But in teams it’s important to also recognise that everyone will have something to contribute. So, a less experienced lawyer may lack the technical knowledge of their experienced colleagues but they may have excellent technology skills that will be really useful to their colleagues.

A diversity of skills and experience should mean a stronger, more resilient team so look for ways for all team members to contribute.

The importance of recruitment and reward

Recruiting lawyers into the team provides you with a great opportunity to recruit people with a curious mindset who are keen to learn and develop. The understandable temptation is to recruit to meet the immediate demands of the workload but it’s good to also think about the capacity of new people to become future leaders based on their ability to learn, grow and meet new challenges.

Rewarding learning is another way of emphasising its value. This isn’t simply about giving out plaudits for courses attended and learning hours spent but rather praising those who actively add to the development of the team and themselves through a commitment to share lessons learned and difficulties and mistakes overcome.