REUTERS | Amit Dave

Building and leading an in-house legal team

The latest Centre for Legal Leadership webinar, hosted in conjunction with Thomson Reuters, focused on how to build and lead an in-house legal team. The discussion touched on a variety of topics, including client focus, collaboration, teamwork, recruitment, career development and hybrid working.

Client focus

In-house lawyers must prioritise their activity to ensure that it enables their organisation to deliver on its objectives. You want to develop a team that “runs towards the difficult issues”, as one speaker put it. Good management information can help show what the legal team is delivering and how it adds value. For further information, see Practice note, Data analytics and business intelligence: an overview.

Aim to understand problems from your client’s perspective. You want to be perceived as a problem solver so that when issues arise the legal team is involved early on. Sit with the business teams, rather than with your colleagues in the legal team. Academic, distant, commentator-type lawyers are not helpful to an organisation.

Maintaining a balance between your professional obligations and being helpful to your organisation is difficult. Your job is not always to say “yes” but equally you don’t want the legal team to be perceived as the department of “no” either. Be supportive, provide constructive challenge and trust your judgment. How your advice is expressed is important. It should be helpful, meaningful, actionable and to the point. Really think what the person receiving it needs to know.

Collaboration, teamwork and purpose

Encourage lawyers to reach out to colleagues who can take a second view or provide guidance on specific matters or on difficult judgment calls. Exchanging knowledge and information within the legal team will help it to deliver a joined-up approach to the organisation, while sharing its collective experience and skills allows the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

One speaker regularly uses employee surveys to gauge how their team is feeling. They are particularly interested in the response to the question: “I can rely on people working in my team to pull together in a crisis.” Your aim is to build an inclusive team, where individuals feel valued, and which pulls together in adversity.

When you are a leader, motivating your team and keeping morale high is your responsibility. Going to work should not be dull and dreary; there needs to be enjoyment and a sense of purpose too. Identify your organisation’s purpose and how the legal team fits into it. You need to find a golden thread that runs from the individual right through the organisation.

For further information, see Practice note, Developing effective in-house legal teams: seven key requirements.

Meaningful career development opportunities

External roles are important in small teams with flat structures that offer little in the way of career progression. One speaker has a lawyer in their team who recently became the chair of governors at a school. A flexible approach was needed as the lawyer required more time off than was initially anticipated but the effort was worthwhile as they are learning new skills that they can bring back to their day job. For further information on external roles, see Article, Non-executive directors: my journey to my first NED position.

All in-house lawyers should regard themselves as leaders within their organisations. They must be prepared to get involved and lead projects in areas outside the legal team where they think they can add value. For example, one speaker leads on their organisation’s ESG strategy. For further information, see Environmental, social and governance (ESG) toolkit: UK.

Giving and receiving feedback, and carefully considering how it is delivered, is important. Regular, informal feedback is as useful as the feedback given during an annual appraisal. Make sure that you give praise where it is warranted too.


Good recruitment is a key part of building an effective legal team. It is a time-consuming exercise and you need to have the right people involved at each stage to ensure that you select a candidate who is the right fit for your team. It’s important to remember that you are not necessarily judging what candidates have done in the past but what they have the potential to achieve in the future. Other factors to consider include:

  • Intellectual curiosity.
  • Desire to partner with the business.
  • Personal gravitas (or the potential to develop it).
  • Technical ability.

Hybrid working

Many organisations now operate in a hybrid working structure. Leaders should be mindful of the challenges of hybrid working and be open to different working patterns, where these are feasible. For further information, see Practice note, Hybrid working: the neuroscience of building trust in a hybrid working world.

Legal teams are often spread throughout an organisation, with one speaker operating teams in regional offices across the UK. Although screen-based conversations are functional and effective, it can be difficult to create meaningful relationships when operating virtually. Face-to-face meetings may not always be possible but it is up to leaders to bring people together when they can. One speaker suggested that hosting regular in-person meetings, which operate without an agenda, has helped to foster connections within their organisation.

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