Five ways in-house lawyers can build successful relationships

When interacting with colleagues outside of your department, discord can arise due to differing expectations and legal knowledge. But, as Robyn Sandilands explains, there are many ways to communicate better with your co-workers to foster more fruitful working relationships.
A smiling young professional woman shakes hands with a professional man.
Photograph: sturti

Being an in-house lawyer can be a fascinating, exciting career. You can develop relationships at all levels of the business, grow a team and be at the heart of decision-making.

It is also a popular and growing career choice; indeed, a quarter of practising lawyers now choose to work in-house.

However, at a time when the ethics of in-house lawyers are under scrutiny and lawyers report mental ill health, there has never been a better time to examine you communicate with your team and stakeholders and assess how to build those relationships for success.

It is my privilege to work with a range of businesses to help them and their legal teams see what they need to focus on and understand what success looks like.

There are teams who communicate brilliantly, where the lawyers support and are supported.

In others, however, lawyers and stakeholders are stressed, there is a lot of conflict and work is largely firefighting.

For businesses, having in-house legal support – skilled professionals on hand to advise and help manage risk – is an enormous bonus. It should be a win-win situation, but increasingly it isn’t.

The reason why, and the secret to ‘success’, boils down to the communication between the in-house legal team and the business.  

Think about how people communicate in your organisation:

  • does the business know how to work properly with the in-house team?
  • does the legal team know what ‘success’ looks like and how to ask for the tools they need to be successful?
  • if there is more than one lawyer – do they work well as a team?
  • are juniors supported and able to grow?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then read on.

Articulate how to work with the legal team

Part of any leadership role requires the ability to set and stick to boundaries.

Articulating these is a crucial part of developing successful, long-term relationships within the business.

The in-house legal team are not there to be blockers for the company. Nor are they there to be a dumping ground for every vaguely relevant (or often irrelevant) piece of work that is emailed to them.

I’ve seen lawyers asked to just ‘sign something off’ or ‘wave it through’ or give a very ‘quick view’ on a highly complicated matter.

None of these are right.

Additionally, lawyers sometimes don’t help themselves by saying yes to every demand or deadline.

Accepting every piece of work that comes your way without assessing if it is important, valuable, risky or appropriate for you or the team is a sure way to becoming overwhelmed and burnt-out.

Here are four ways to prevent these challenges and developing successful relationships with stakeholders.

1. Take the time

The expression “before I can speak, I must first listen” comes to mind. Set aside time to meet with your key stakeholders.

These will likely be colleagues from finance and the c-suite, but it could also involve people from other teams who may have regular legal questions like marketing and communications.

Listen to their issues and concerns and discuss areas where you or your team may be able to help.

Set up regular catch-up meetings – perhaps monthly or quarterly – to keep the discussions relevant.

2. Make your processes transparent

If you find the same issues cropping up again and again, put in place the policies, processes and training to help colleagues across the business understand the work of the legal team.

This way, you’ll be able to empower non-legal colleagues to eventually ‘self-serve’, if possible.

You can also develop a playbook of responses for those lower-level legal problems which keep coming to your team’s inbox.

These can be particularly helpful to enable new or junior team members respond to smaller queries quickly.

3. Implement legal clinics

If an area of the business has regular concerns, you should set up a regular weekly or bi-weekly legal clinic.

Set aside an hour where one of the legal team is available – in person or remotely – to talk through issues and answer questions.

This builds great rapport with the business, showing that you’re open to helping colleagues across the firm and shares a greater understanding of what legal can and can’t do.

4. Regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions

I’ve seen these implemented a few times with great success. A few pizzas, a chat and possibly a discussion on a topic of interest can work wonders to build rapport and improve the team’s status within the business.

It’s wrong for any team to assume that others know who they are and what they do – especially in a larger organisation.

These informal sessions are a brilliant way to develop relationships and, if they include a ‘learning’ element they can be a great training opportunity for junior team members.

Overall, you should encourage everyone in the team to develop relationships. Success does not sit with one person.

In a larger legal team, ensure that there are regular team catch-ups where there is more to the discussion than the to-do list.

Finding the right solution for your team

There is no magic to building relationships, and you don’t have to put in place every suggestion I outlined above.

But by investing some time in listening to concerns, seeing things from another point of view and communicating the boundaries of you and your team, it will have a marked improvement in the surety of those relationships and the success of the team.

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