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Personal and Professional Skills for Building a Successful Legal Department

Posted in ACC Docket

Guest Blogger: Simon Zinger is group general counsel at Aegis Group plc.

The ability to deliver accurate and technically sound legal advice has been the foundation of in-house legal departments ever since lawyers joined company ranks. While legal know- how continues to represent a primary deliverable for in-house counsel, the growing opportunities for in-house lawyers to demonstrate strategic insight and commercial thinking means that the legal team is now evaluated across a much wider skill set. One important area, which will affect the team’s success or failure within a corporate organization, is whether it functions within a well-structured and managed department. As general counsel, getting this right will primarily be your responsibility, along with leading a team of lawyers who are aligned to the company’s values and work on the basis of a consistent set of skills and behaviors.

To help you build the foundation of a successful legal department, this article provides a blueprint of common skills and competencies needed for the department as a whole, individual lawyers and for you as the department leader. Examining these skills, and including them in a wider personal and professional performance development plan, will promote an effective, service-oriented and value-enhancing legal function. An outline of these skills will also help in-house lawyers follow a roadmap to personal improvement and professional growth within the organization.

The functional framework

Before setting out to develop a skills model, consider whether the overall structure of the legal department is appropriate. This question can be examined in the early phases of the legal department when you are considering your first hires, or at a more mature stage when a team is already in place.

Building and shaping the team

The key initial questions are: (1) What are your company’s key risks that require legal staffing? and (2) What resources does your company have to implement such staffing? Specifically, you should consider: principal legal risks and the expertise needed to address those risks; the legal budget; which issues should be handled in-house rather than by outside counsel; whether there are arguments to hire internal lawyers to reduce outside legal spend; and the jurisdictions in which you do business. Consideration can be given to key markets in terms of clients, business growth priorities, location of management teams or countries with a higher level of regulatory constraints. Once you have defined your staffing needs and whether you have the financial or internal support to hire new lawyers, the next step will be to define the basic parameters for building a team. Your key tasks will be to:

•       Create an identity and mission statement. This provides team members with a sense of allegiance, belonging and commitment to the team’s vision. For younger companies, it can even offer lawyers a sense of organizational maturity and stability.

•          Identify goals and priorities. Seek to set high-level goals that will have a visible impact on the greater organization; however, these need to be more than just “provide high- quality legal services.” Think of what management’s general priorities are and see how the legal department can align itself. For example, set goals around cost reduction, efficiency of service and technological improvement.

•       Evaluate your commitment to reaching goals. Think about how to reach goals in appropriate timelines. Consider functional and commercial dependencies, and engage in open communication with other departments to help achieve objectives. It is important to identify individuals who might influence the success or failure of the department’s mission and daily tasks.

•          Consider the bigger picture. Avoid operating in a vacuum; consider senior management’s wider concerns and priorities (i.e., commercial strategy), and internal and external pressures and challenges of the wider organization. Monitoring the business context helps identify areas where the legal department can proactively help.

•       Promote collaboration. A proper team needs to be a coherent and cohesive unit, not a loose network of individuals. This allows you to create a social unit that aspires towards mutual success, is concerned for the welfare of others and shares accountability.

•          Establish lines of communication. This will provide a feeling of unity, encourage a flow of ideas and lead to support between team members.

Continue reading, Zinger’s “Personal and Professional Skills for Building a Successful Legal Department”, in the June issue of the ACC Docket or by visiting our ACC Digital Docket here.