How to build out your in-house legal team
Choosing a team that works in harmony whilst also playing to individual strengths in any profession is no easy task. This is particularly true when building an in-house legal team as juggling personalities and skill sets are at odds with the legal demands of the organization itself.
We talk to Helen Doukas, Head of Legal and Regulatory of Airways, and Shaun Plant, Chief Legal Officer of LawVu, about how they tackle the challenge of building out their legal teams.
Shaun is an innovator at heart and as such he regards the building of his legal team at LawVu as an “opportunity to create something new and innovative, and to redefine what a legal person does within a company or in-house role”. Shaun’s vision is concurrent with the theory of a T-shaped lawyer as he believes individuals should be able to combine their interests and skills from outside of the law with their daily work.
Imagine a lawyer who has a passion for technology solutions working closely with the IT and development teams? Adding technological value but also gaining a clear vision of any compliance, regulatory, or privacy issues that may arise. Or perhaps a lawyer has an affinity for marketing and communications and is involved in campaigns and creating content which allows the legal team to be on the front foot as regards potential external risks the marketing material may cause.
Fostering a team culture where lawyers feel they can play in other parts of the business allows for an in-house team that is more laterally integrated with the organization, which in turn means more efficient, proactive legal solutions.
“It's about delivering added value to the organization,” says Shaun. “And it isn't just turning around a contract in a certain time, it's providing those other skills that you have an interest in that can help the teams grow.”
Helen highlights the nexus between process and culture, and how creating a thriving in-house team requires a foundation where the lawyers themselves have opportunity and transparency in their roles.
“You have to make people feel like they have a structure, they have transparency, they have triage,” she says. “That creates more space. Coupled with development opportunities and, of course team bonding and celebrating success, you create a really nice culture and team.”
First and foremost, Helen points out the obvious - that structure and process are key to the healthy functionality of an in-house team. Part of the process is transparency - having data and information recording systems in place so that work can be picked up by anyone. Lawyers are notorious for working on paper and in their heads. Embracing legal workflow technologies means that information is not siloed, and matters are handled much more efficiently.
Once this process is established, the integration of the wider business strategy into the daily task of the in-house team is next. For the in-house team to work proactively and have fruitful relationships with their other business units, they must understand what it is their company does and where it is going.
Legal knowledge and application skills are no longer enough to be an effective counsel for an organization. What sets an in-house legal team apart is if they prioritize listening to and meeting the needs of senior management and their clients and establishing the legal team's priorities, goals, and targets around these needs, at the expense of lower priority work.
Individuals create a team, and the soft skills of the lawyers themselves are a huge factor in how an in-house team operates. Priorilegal puts it simply but eloquently: “Law is a service industry, and so much of what makes a great lawyer goes beyond technical expertise.”
When hiring for your in-house team, consider if the individual will work well with the team. Are they collaborative, show initiative, and do they demonstrate the ability to make good judgment calls, especially under pressure? Yes, lawyers need to have an extensive understanding of the law, but they are also in the business of people and as such need to work well with others.
Shaun touched on the topic of seeking out T-shaped lawyers or L-shaped lawyers in hires. “I want to be working with people that really engage with me, and people who have different skills and interests that they can bring to the table.”
In-house teams are a far cry from the hierarchical structure of private practice firms. According to Thomson and Reuters, in-house teams face the problem of “flatter hierarchical structures may mean a more challenging climb for ambitious lawyers, and career progression within an in-house legal team is often perceived to be almost impossible unless someone leaves”.
This perspective is not untrue, but a lack of hierarchy does not have to dictate the attrition and retention rates of an in-house team. Being part of a thriving in-house team that serves an organization you align with can be an incredibly rewarding career. Building in-house to facilitate an environment that serves clients and employees is key.
As Helen points out, creating a culture where lawyers feel valued and that their work contributes to their client's needs, allows people to find purpose. And according to Shaun, by harnessing lawyers' cross-disciplinary strengths, “there’s a better way to be a lawyer and a legal team”.
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