Skills and behaviours you will need - senior level

We look at how your role changes when you're appointed to a senior legal role in-house, particularly where you're managing a department as Head of Legal or General Counsel.

We briefly explore the importance of people development, career path management and preparing your team for when you move on.

In a senior in-house legal role, your responsibilities will extend beyond providing legal advice. You’ll need to develop and demonstrate leadership qualities and behaviours.

We consider some of those here in the context of managing your team. This article concludes our three-part skills and behaviours mini-series. The previous pieces are skills and behaviours that you will need in your career as a junior and more experienced lawyer. If you are senior it is worth looking at these other articles as you consider how to manage and develop your team members.

General Counsel and leadership

As General Counsel you're in a leadership role. Your team, and others, will look to you for guidance and inspiration. People will closely monitor your standards, expectations and how you conduct yourself. Your team will look to you to set the tone that will determine how they do their jobs and also how the team is perceived in the organisation.

Your team will want to respect you so it's important that you set high standards for them to follow. You'll also want to create an environment that will enable others to succeed you, either in your role or elsewhere.

General Counsel as enablers

General Counsel are enablers who advise business colleagues about legal factors and risks so that those colleagues can take appropriate account of these in their business decisions. This helps organisations to understand the level of risk involved and manage their response at the correct level. This is sometimes known as keeping the Risks At (the chosen level of) Tolerance, or "RAT".

Managing and developing people

As General Counsel you need to be an excellent people manager. This requires you to establish the right framework and systems for delivering high quality work to your business 'clients'.

Your clients want consistency, clarity and impact, so your advice must be relevant, timely, concise and clear. You need to do this through your team so you need to delegate well, be clear in your requirements and avoid unnecessary micro-management. Understanding and accepting "'right enough' rather than perfect" and "it does what it needs to do and so it is ok even though I would have done it differently" is crucial to your success!

You also need to set high standards so your team knows what is acceptable in terms of their work and behaviour. If you adopt unprofessional or sloppy standards, so will your team.

You also need to allow people to make mistakes but ensure that these are not 'business critical' and are picked up in your team processes in a way that encourages learning and does not penalise people for innocent (rather than lazy or negligent) mistakes. Make sure the harm done to the mistake maker, to the team or to the business is minimised.

You need to hire good people. Having identified where to focus your legal resources, you'll fill any skills gaps by development and recruitment. Being robust in deciding what skills, experience and aptitudes you need to hire can save a lot of problems down the line.

And if someone is not responding well to your expectations and standards you need to reinforce these, look to help them improve and, if necessary, take action to maintain the standards and integrity of your team. Like grit in a shoe, ignoring small problems tends to create bigger issues (blisters) over time so it is best to catch and deal with problems early while they are still small.

As General Counsel, you'll only be as successful as your team. People respond to being respected and challenged. Setting and measuring job competencies and career development goals are worth taking time over. Not only will you want these to be aligned to the organisation’s goals, you'll want them to provide real targets and 'stretch' for the individual lawyers.

As General Counsel you've attained the top legal role in your organisation. But you also need to encourage and mentor those in your team who aspire to the same level. Be generous in your praise, rigorous in your standards and secure enough to challenge and develop others to do what you do.

After all, the mark of a true leader is to create other leaders, even if that means them becoming leaders elsewhere, or one day stepping into your role - under your succession plan, of course.


You’ve made it to the top in-house legal job. Now discover how to stay there, develop your team and prepare the organisation for life beyond your exit.