The In-House Experience: Management and Delegation
This week, Richard Dalby discusses top management tips when managing in-house legal teams.
A successful lawyer does not necessarily make a good manager. Maybe an obvious statement but the skills required are very different. However, for the in-house lawyer, most senior roles within a business include an element of responsibility for others in the legal team. This role is often undertaken with no additional formal training and, in some cases , with the view that lawyers in the department will more or less take care of themselves. This is not the case and not the way to obtain the best from a legal team or the individuals within it.
Being a good manager takes a substantial amount of time and effort and a good deal of that time is spent on non-legal matters. If you have the aptitude and the desire to become a good manager then many of the necessary skills can be learned, but time spent developing and controlling others will almost certainly be at the expense of your own purely legal work. So, if you are not a natural manager, either by inclination or choice, then delegate the task because it is one that needs to be done.
There are many fundamentals of successful management but these are a few which I think are particularly useful in an in-house legal environment.
Management of Team Performance
In an earlier article I wrote about the importance of measuring a legal team’s performance, using transparent and easily understandable metrics,* and of sharing the results of such with the rest of the business. It is also important to manage the flow of information and ideas throughout the team and to solicit and act on feedback from appropriate colleagues and users of the legal services **. Some of the following may be helpful for optimum team management:
- Hold regular, short but speedy, catch-up meetings. These should only be “need to know” sessions and no longer than 15/20 minutes in length. Encourage attendees to be punchy and only to mention current and pressing items. To this end managers could conduct them “on the go” or, at least, without taking the time to be seated.
- Be inclusive, invite all members to team meetings; legal, para-legal and administrative. Also bear in mind differing working hours and patterns and any members of the team who are located elsewhere. Make it as easy as possible for as many people to attend, whether in person or remotely, and vary the times and locations periodically. The more isolated the working environment of an individual the more important are the efforts to include them.
- Have occasional longer meetings (with chairs) and identify specific topics for consideration. Create an open agenda and welcome contributions. Where appropriate ask members of your team to give presentations on specific matters they have worked on or new areas of specialisation they have gained. Encourage open discussions on lessons to be learnt from good, and not so good, experiences. Embrace the “what can we do better next time?” approach.
- Invite guest speakers from the rest of the business to come and address your team and offer to do the same in return.
- Propagate an atmosphere of partaking in social, as well as business-driven, events. Demonstrate to others that you and your team want to be a part of, and contribute to, the success of the business.
- Communicate and share knowledge and news within the team and throughout the business as a whole using technology and online systems.
Management of Individual Performance
One of the most difficult and time consuming challenges of effective management is, not surprisingly, that of spending enough time on individuals, both with respect to their workload and their career development. Periodically, and at least at the end of every year, team members will want to know how they have performed and how they will be rewarded for that. I have discussed previously the importance of measurable targets and recognition of achievement *. Other important management issues are:
- Frequent one to one meetings which should be a genuine opportunity to discuss what the individual has been doing, to review positive accomplishments as well as to follow up on things that haven’t happened. If you have an agreed set of performance metrics these can form a starting point for review, both quantitative and qualitative, and with a reference to ongoing targets. It also gives the individual the chance to discuss their own aspirations and progress towards them.
- An in-house team tends to be fairly lean in terms of resource and this, generally, means that opportunities for promotion and betterment are few and far between. A manager should be honest with team members about this. If there are fair and agreed rewards for hard work and achievement individuals will understand that a business cannot create promotion chances out of thin air.
- Consider possibilities for movement out of the legal team and into the business at large. Other areas will not be good at recognising these chances and it is something the team managers and individuals will almost always have to identify for themselves. If an opportunity is found, and a way to get there established, it is more likely that other parts of the business will be prepared to, at least, consider it.
- If your business is part of a large group there may be opportunities to swap people around other legal teams. This is notoriously difficult to get right as you need to find two people of similar levels of experience wanting to swap at the same time for a similar period. It can be a great development opportunity for the right candidate especially as it will give experience of other parts of the business and even other parts of the world but it has its own issues in organisation and administration.
Recruitment & Training
Recruiting and training the right people for the roles needed by the legal team and by the business is vital:
- It is important to accurately identify what skills and expertise the team and business actually need before recruiting. Implicit in this is to recognise that the person you take on will grow and develop over the following months and years and a good hire will take into account the medium and long term needs of both.
- Try to avoid always recruiting less experienced versions of yourself. It is tempting, consciously or otherwise, to think that your own skill-set is an optimum mix for your business but be open to the value of different strengths for the team as a whole.
- Ongoing legal training for professionals is, of course, a requirement and for good reason so ensure that you have systems in place to check compliance and that individuals are choosing courses that are of value to the business as well as to their careers. If your business can support it look at the possibility of tailor made training put together and carried out by external advisers. They will usually be keen to develop the relationship and will gain a better understanding of your business and you, in turn, will obtain added value bespoke training.
- Non-legal training is every bit as important as legal training in maximising the effectiveness of the in-house team. Look for opportunities to broaden understanding of the business and the industry sector generally. Use external and internal resources for this and, if you send individuals on courses, ensure they give feedback to the rest of the team when they get back.
Using an up to date and accurate work in progress chart can allow a manager to delegate fairly and effectively.
Delegating effectively means giving the individuals the ability and authority to complete work in their own way. Micro-managing is a common weakness in legal managers. Once you have recruited the right people then allow them to take responsibility and credit for their work and as a manager don’t try to re-write every piece of work into your own style. Your team members should feel confident enough to know their limitations and when they need to seek guidance. A proper system of team and individual meetings will help to monitor this.
Project Management Techniques
In most cases the legal team will comply with the project management methodology adopted by deal makers but there are opportunities to contribute to these and to take a lead in adopting new practices where appropriate. For example:
- On “big ticket” deals consider the putting together of a task force and get them to agree deal parameters before meaningful engagement with the other side. A task force should include representatives from both finance and legal so that their key terms can be identified and discussed internally and included in documentation from the outset.
- Consider tying down key deal terms from the outset. Identify in writing the best case and fallback positions that the team would be prepared to accept. These targets can be agreed with senior management and even committed to writing (perhaps in a sealed envelope only to be opened again when the deal is finalised). The team will then have a mandate to work towards in negotiations and achievements above and beyond the targets can be recognised. It also helps prevent “spillage” on key issues during difficult negotiations.
- Identify and constantly re-visit the best reasonable alternative to any potential deal so that if things are not going your way you always know your way out, even if that alternative is simply not to do the deal. In simpler, smaller deals consider using short form, legally binding, deal memos. These can cover the main commercial and legal terms but allow for speedy legal conclusion. The legal team can then also consider whether to follow up with long form contracts if appropriate.
Obviously the above are merely suggestions based on the writer’s own in-house experience. Each team is unique and each will require their own tailored solutions to help them meet their specific business needs. Hopefully, however, it is of use to stand back from time to time and look at methods and processes and consider whether’ and where, there may be room for improvement.
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