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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

October 2015 edition

Power to the people

Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC

Susan HackettThis two-part article will discuss five different "people practices" that law departments should be thinking about as they examine the kinds of talent, staffing, and development challenges they face today and tomorrow. Part One features two practices of note and Part Two, in an upcoming edition of Corporate Counsel Connect, will feature the remaining three.

It's often easy to forget that the most powerful weapon in any legal arsenal is the people who make up the team. If your team is running on all cylinders, there's no stopping you. If it's not, it may not matter how good the tech is or how much money you have to throw at the issue.

So I thought I'd offer some thoughts on great "people practices" that should be top of mind for readers concentrating on value. If the team members as individuals aren't themselves happy, efficient, and productive, then no products and services to support them will be effective. Additionally, if the team as a group is neither evolving nor is the right talent present, then nothing else – including software, department structure, or outside counsel – really matters (and this applies equally to those of you in smaller or even solo departments, not just the big teams).

Practice 1. Tame your team's "lone wolves"

The lone wolf syndrome has two unfortunate faces: the first problem is that lawyer training (in legal education and again in early practice) often requires new and rising lawyers to figure out how to work and succeed with minimal instruction (we place a high value on independent thinking, logging lots of hours, and self-initiative). Indeed, lawyers are often pitted against each other in their formative years: in many law firms, it is planned that only a portion of those hired will be kept, and there is no incentive or reward for collaborating with others.

The second problem is an adjunct of the first. Watching lawyers work, you'd often think that they're in the legal trucking business: wherever they may be, they have their heads down, their pedals to the metal, and they're driving a long-haul desk for a living. They are less likely to work "socially" or to expose themselves to what others are doing or thinking. They trade emails instead of calling or walking down the hall to work through an issue; they work longer rather than smarter hours because that's what many supervisors understand and reward.

The result of such lone-wolf behavior is antithetical to strong and collaborative teams. Lawyers who are skeptical of the value of others' contributions simply don't play well with others, even if they're really nice people. Lawyers who refuse to examine how they work see no need for improvement or innovation, and, finally, lawyers who believe that legal analysis trumps the possible contributions of every other discipline that could be called upon to solve a problem can't collaborate.

Recommended practices: If you're interested in driving value ...

  • Change your performance, competency and evaluation standards to include and prioritize collaborative and teaming skills.
  • Require lawyers to develop project teams that include not only a variety of skills and diverse participants, but people from outside the legal discipline – maybe from the larger corporate team?
  • Develop a practice of asking teams to share their findings, practices, success strategies, and even pitfalls and failures with the rest of department; it may build interest and respect for how others are working and the lessons they've learned, not to mention the chance to collaborate to find better solutions.

Practice 2. Find career path stimulation for your team members in the second half of their careers

So many law firm leaders understand the importance of helping newly-minted lawyers become successful practitioners: they support their law school talent pipelines, and institute training regimens and evaluation cycles that are designed to carefully cultivate new lawyers. In short, new lawyers get what they need to develop as outstanding professionals. But somehow, those firm leaders forget (or run into a wall when they consider) the importance of continued career path attention and support as lawyers mature and advance. The traditional picture of successful lawyer is one who is highly experienced and successful as a substantive practitioner, and once there, case close. Rinse and repeat. But what used to be the tradition is no longer the reality. Most mature lawyers need "re-invention" as much as new lawyers need initial training.

The mature lawyer problem comes into much sharper focus for in-house leaders: their "baby lawyers" are usually several years into practice and highly experienced before they take their first in-house job. And so, as more and more general counsel consider career paths and professional enrichment for their teams, they are faced with assessing development options for mature lawyers. This becomes problematic as many of these lawyers, like their outside peers, don't see the need for more professional development than the standard/on-going CLE mandated by the profession. The need for in-house professional and career development support for mature lawyers is real, however, as more in-house lawyers run head-first into relatively flat career trajectories. In fact, in-house lawyers suffer disproportionately from internal immobility with far greater frequency than their outside peers whose careers can take a variety of different directions (while the in-house lawyer hired to do 7th year IP work may still be doing essentially the same job in their 14th year at the company).

Recommended practices: If you're interested in driving value ...

  • Help lawyers acquire new skills outside of legal disciplines: management and executive skills, financial and accounting knowledge, industry and business expertise. All of this can increase their value, as well as their mobility (either inside the company or elsewhere if they leave), as well as improving their satisfaction with their roles.
  • Consider whether your evaluation practices promote and support professional development, or merely point out deficiencies. Define shortcomings in an evaluation, but also offer the opportunity for the lawyer to take courses or develop expertise with the company's support. If your evaluation process includes regular check-ins (not just annual assessments of success and failure), you will likely be working together to assure success, rather than setting the trap for failure.
  • Look for opportunities to encourage lawyers to lead professional development programing within the department for others – nothing teaches more about any subject than the pending obligation to teach others about it! When the team sees each new professional development milestone as one that is a shared responsibility and one that requires engagement with others in the department, everyone learns more and increases their respect for the learning process.

Nothing is more important to the success of your department and the value of the services you provide to your client than your people. When you think outside of the box about how you can motivate them, improve their lives and job satisfaction, and find interesting ways to advance their skills and careers, you are building a stronger department and building the arsenal that not only protects, but better executes your company's business goals.

Read about People Practices 3, 4, and 5 in an upcoming Corporate Counsel Connect issue.

About the Author

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence, and success. Comments welcome to

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