REUTERS | Ognen Teofilovski

Leading and managing in-house legal teams

The Centre for Legal Leadership’s latest webinar, hosted in conjunction with Practical Law, looked at leading and managing in-house legal teams. This post highlights the main themes covered in the discussion.

Leadership is a mindset

Being a leader is about more than simply being a manager; it’s a mindset. Leaders need to be curious and show interest in both their colleagues and clients as they set the tone for their team’s culture.

A contributor mentioned a senior executive who reminded them that they should be showing up as a leader in their organisation every day. For example, if they got into a lift in the morning, they should be saying hello to everyone present. If they were not saying anything, they needed to question why that was.

Being more than “just a lawyer”

One benefit of being a leader is that you can influence other areas of the organisation. Be prepared to accept a little bit of “mission-creep” in your role as being involved at the start of a project is preferable to being brought in at the last minute. By taking this approach, you can also influence your team’s mindset and make them more outward-looking.

A speaker defined their role as being a “player-manager” who spent about a third of their time doing legal work and two thirds managing the team. They highlighted the value in simply being available to your team and walking around talking to colleagues. It’s also important to commit time to regular 1-2-1s, team meetings and drop-in sessions. However, this “always-on” mentality can be quite draining, so remember to take time out to protect your own wellbeing.

Setting the strategy

Leaders must create a vision for their teams to follow that is linked to the organisation’s strategy and values. Make sure you are clear about what you want your team to achieve and this, in turn, will influence your recruitment strategy. Look to hire driven, ambitious people and build a team with broad-based legal skills who can develop relationships with key stakeholders across your organisation.

Empowering the team

Once you have hired your team, tell them your strategy, and trust them to get on with their jobs. Trusting your team and giving them autonomy will help them feel empowered. Although it is important to retain oversight of the team’s workload, make sure you avoid micromanagement.

Developing the team

Encouraging development can be a challenge for smaller legal teams and those operating within flat management structures. One way is to give your team the time and space to participate in activities that may provide them with boardroom-type experience. For example, by becoming the trustee of a charity or a school governor.

Giving your team the flexibility to develop new skills is particularly important if you cannot offer them an increase in salary. Be creative and allow your team members to build their skills, with appropriate supervision. For example, by allowing them to take on responsibility for unfamiliar areas of law.

Offering secondments to different parts of the organisation can be useful too. Also look to develop your team members’ soft skills. For example, if your organisation has a strategy or leadership programme, make sure you tap into it.

Overcoming “imposter syndrome”

You may be a little nervous when you take on your first leadership role, so give yourself the time to build up your confidence gradually. The speakers suggested several approaches that may help, including:

  • Mentoring. Mentors can be incredibly useful. They can act as a sounding board to bounce ideas off and discuss key issues with.
  • Networking. Networks are vital. Identify your industry sector network and tap into it.
  • Coaching. If your organisation operates a coaching network, make sure you access it.

Dealing with difficult situations

Leadership inevitably brings challenges, and it is important to deal with difficult situations in a sensitive, empathetic and emotionally intelligent manner. As a leader you may face difficult conversations connected with:

  • Restructuring.
  • Reducing headcount.
  • Workloads.
  • Performance management.
  • Conflict between team members.

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