7 top tips for leading and developing legal teams

Executive coach and former lawyer Anne Waldron offers practical tips for successful team development.

Watch a Formula 1 team or the Red Arrows work together and it’s obvious to see what great teamwork looks like. There’s a perfectly executed plan, and each member of the team plays a specific role and makes a particular contribution.

But how does this apply to a team of experts - like lawyers - who have individual areas of expertise, often work on cases alone, and tend to work as colleagues in a flat structure? What can in-house legal teams do to maximise their performance as a team, rather than as a group of individuals?

As an executive coach and in my former life working in the law, I’ve worked with many legal teams, both in-house and in private practice. What I’ve observed is that effective teams do a few simple things that make a big difference. Obvious and common sense perhaps - but less often common practice!

1. Be clear on vision and objectives - what are we here to do, and how?

Teams need a sense of direction and some common objectives. Even if specialist lawyers or legal teams are working on different cases - so there’s no ‘one’ project or goal to unite the team - it’s important that everyone understands the bigger picture.

Team leaders should provide regular updates on the organisation’s high-level business priorities. And senior lawyers need to brief more junior colleagues on the context for the work. At a micro-level this is about setting clear goals and timelines.

A shared sense of purpose is also about having common values supported by behaviours that bring those values to life. This isn’t about fluffy statements and vague aspirations. It’s about leaders and managers being clear about what they expect and what that looks like.

2. Encourage behaviours and mindset to bring vision and values to life

The head of legal in a large international company told me that ‘the business wants people they can talk to, who are flexible and don’t need to be right all the time; people who get things sorted and don’t patronize their colleagues in the business’. She went on to explain that she is very clear with her team about the behaviours they need to demonstrate: ‘I need my people to be proactive, to build relationships in the business, to reach out, interject, get involved’. She models this behaviour and shows her people what it looks like.

Mindset is also important. For example, most lawyers and in-house teams would recognise the need to be ‘commercial’ - but in practice this means thinking in a different way. As a senior counsel told me, ‘A lot of lawyers take great pride in being technically excellent - but they can’t ask the ‘what if?’ question. They tend to hide behind the legal stuff. I encourage my team to learn to resist the urge to say ‘no’ and to trust their business colleagues to make the right decisions. You have to get the team to adopt this thinking style and get them to ask themselves the questions ‘why is this a problem? What’s the risk?”

Your team will have its own vision and purpose - the important thing is to develop and encourage the behaviours and mindset that will support it.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Lawyers are expert communicators - and masters of controlled communication - but will often focus on communicating technical advice, assigning work and legal updates, overlooking how important it is to communicate some of the other things that are at the heart of the work of teams.

Would someone else want to know this?
Talk about the bigger commercial picture, the context for the work, and share information about what else is happening in the business and in the team. Ask yourself - is this something someone else needs to know? Or would appreciate knowing? And if so, what is the best way to communicate that?

What’s the news?
People appreciate being kept in the loop and being included when there’s news. One of my clients, newly appointed as a head of legal, instituted a weekly email to the whole team, sharing news, for example on new team members. She was amazed at the positive reaction to something so simple - evidently this hadn’t been done before.

Updates versus discussion and consultation
Don’t confuse updates and sharing information with discussion and consultation. Use time efficiently and don’t waste time in team or one-to-one meetings with updates or information that could be shared in an email or report.

Listen and invite other perspectives
Communication is a two-way process. Whatever your role, make a habit of asking more questions, listening more and inviting other people’s views. This is vital for managers and leaders but important for everyone. If people feel they’ve been listened to, they are much more likely to get behind you - even if they don’t agree. As a deputy GC told me, ‘You must consult, otherwise people will resent what they will see as arbitrary decision-making by management. You can persuade people to agree to most things if you consult’.

4. Get the team together - but with a purpose

Team events
The notion of ‘teamwork’ can conjure up images of ‘away days’ in country house hotels or more zany ‘team building’ activities - dreaded by many, more often than not seen as passably enjoyable, but losing any meaningful impact as soon as everyone is back at their desks. These kinds of event can be good as social glue but don’t in themselves create great teams or teamwork. Don’t waste money on expensive conferences and away days just for the sake of having them. These events work best if there’s a clear purpose and, crucially, some follow-up afterwards.

Think about organising a workshop or event that everyone can participate in and learn from. One in-house client runs MBTI (personality type) workhops for her team: ‘People find themselves fascinating - and into the bargain will learn more about each other. Everyone is on an equal footing, and things like this help get over the silo effect.’

Team meetings
It’s important to get people together regularly so they know what’s going on and feel part of the group - and to avoid the silo effect. But team meetings need to have a purpose and be interesting, otherwise people will find them a waste of time, and even resent being there.

Some people are more naturally comfortable and enjoy these opportunities for coming together - get them involved in setting up team meetings and soliciting ideas for interesting topics for discussion. Invite different people to contribute and rotate the chair. Make sure there’s an agenda and an agreed time boundary - and don’t allow team meetings to become lengthy reporting sessions. Manage the tendency of extraverted types to talk a lot (they like to process their thinking externally) and invite quieter colleagues to share their ideas - don’t assume that introverts have nothing to say or contribute.

Consider inviting colleagues from other parts of the business to attend from time to time - and ask if the invitation might be returned.

5. Get the best out of the individuals in your team

Motivating and inspiring people to give their best is a key responsibility of leaders and managers. You have to remember that people are individuals, and not just cookie cutter versions of a homogenous team or group called ‘lawyers’.

What motivates professionals
We often think of motivation as something you do to people using external levers like pay and progression. Although these factors are important, real motivation is intrinsic - what most professionals want above all is interesting work, challenge, learning, and a high degree of autonomy. One of the most important things to remember is that not everyone is like you. You can’t assume that other people will be interested in and motivated by the same things that you are. Talk to people and listen to them. Invest the time and take the trouble to try to understand where they are coming from. Open questions like ‘what do you really enjoy doing?’ or ‘what’s an ideal day at work for you?’ will elicit lots of useful information.

Play to strengths
People perform best, and are energised and happiest, when they are playing to their strengths. This means doing something they are good at and enjoy doing. Doing something we are capable of but don’t enjoy doing drains us of energy, and if it’s the main focus of our work, will leave us feeling pretty miserable.

Just because people have had similar technical training doesn’t mean they will have similar strengths. Some people enjoy big picture thinking, others enjoy a lot of interaction with people, some people love running meetings and public speaking, others would rather be left to work in solitude.

Recognition, thanks and praise - the no-cost motivators
Lawyers tend to be quick to pick up on the mistakes colleagues make but often forget to say anything positive or, more broadly, to recognise the contribution that colleagues have made. As one GC client reflected, “When people give you their work to review you have to notice this and give comments and do something about it - even if your ‘own work’ is more important”. Public recognition of a job well done is a very strong motivator.

6. Create opportunities for development and growth

Find opportunities
Even in a flat structure there’s a lot you can do to develop people in a team. Training courses and CPD are fine, but it’s through experience that people really learn. It’s important to give people different opportunities to do different things. Take the time to talk to people about what they want to learn to do next, or what they want to do more of or less of. Are there broader projects in the business where this person could make a contribution? As a head of legal client told me, ‘There are lots of opportunities to grow - I encourage people to take on project work in other areas and to try to think beyond fixed parameters’. Are there diversity or mentoring programmes in the wider organisation that people can get involved with - and meet others from the business at the same time?

Develop a feedback culture
Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Feedback is important, not only to make sure we don’t keep repeating mistakes, but also as an engine for learning and growth. Develop a feedback culture in the team. The Red Arrows critique and review every flight, as soon as it’s happened - get into the same habit by doing post project reviews routinely. All you need are three simple questions - and a group of people willing to listen, explore and learn. What did we do well? What could we have done differently or better? What have we learned?

Don’t save one-to-one feedback for the annual performance review. Think of feedback as communication, a learning conversation. Focus on asking questions and stick to the facts - behaviours you’ve observed, and the impact you’ve noticed this had on you and others. And don’t wait to be given feedback. Ask for it. Focus on something specific, for instance, ‘I’m keen to develop my skills at chairing meetings. I’d really appreciate your comments on what I did well or less well at this morning’s meeting’, rather than ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’

Develop a coaching style
Coaching is a powerful process that enables people to reach their potential and perform at their best. You don’t have to be a professional coach to coach your colleagues or direct reports. What you do need is a belief in the resourcefulness and talent of others, and a willingness to ask questions and listen, rather than telling people what to do. It’s a profoundly respectful and empowering style of management and working with others. So the next time someone comes to you asking for advice, try asking a few questions to encourage your colleague to think the issue through for herself. What’s your / the client’s objective here? What steps have you taken so far? What are some of the other perspectives here? What are the various courses of action open to you? What are the pros and cons of those?

7. Keep the bigger picture in mind

Doing specialist work in specialist teams can mean we get quite narrow in the way we think about things. Encourage yourself and others to keep the big picture in mind: the wider organisation, the market, the external political, economic and social environment. How does what I do impact on all of this? And how does it impact on my work and the team’s work? Who else do I need to reach out to? What other perspectives do we need to keep in mind? What are the questions we need to ask ourselves? In the words of one in-house client ‘I want us to be involved, to be reaching out, to be interjecting, to be relevant - that’s what we’re here to do.’

As a leader you need to bring people with you - as a team but also as individuals. You set the tone and take the lead in encouraging the behaviours and ways of thinking and working together that will set your team apart. But this is not just down to the leaders and managers. Every member of a team has an opportunity to contribute to creating an environment that encourages people to perform at their best and is an inspiring place to work. 

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