Best Practices for Building Strong Legal Departments

Diversity, working well with others key factors for winning teams.

Lawyers by nature and training often aren’t the best team players. They tend to seek autonomy and thrive on competition. Law schools and law firm experience can cement these traits, rewarding individual contribution over team accomplishments. Yet success in the in-house legal world often depends on being a good team player. To meet the dual responsibility of protecting the corporation and helping business unit clients achieve their goals, general counsel must build a culture based on teamwork at two levels—within the legal department itself, and in partnerships with its clients. The ability to work well with others is crucial to the four factors former Qwest General Counsel Rich Baer identifies as the hallmarks of great in-house counsel:

•    They help clients communicate more effectively

•    They help clients think more critically

•    They build consensus throughout the organization

•    They serve as the conscience of the company

Building a strong legal team starts with hiring people with the ideal mix of legal expertise and people skills, and then retaining those who best adapt to the collaborative culture. On the following pages, general counsel share their best practices for legal department team building.

Hiring hints

“Building a strong legal team starts with hiring the right lawyers,” says Janice Block, general counsel of Kaplan Higher Education.

Other general counsel agree. But in recent years, the recession put the brakes on legal department hiring in many companies. Now that the economy is picking up, some GCs will be filling long vacant positions or even adding new ones. It’s a critical opportunity to strengthen the team.

“In the era we are in, you get so few opportunities to bring somebody new into the legal department that you have to get it right,” says Cameron Findlay, general counsel of Medtronic, a medical technology company.

While strong legal skills are an obvious prerequisite when assessing job candidates, that is only part of the equation.

“When you make a hire, it’s not just about credentials. A lot is about personality,” says Mike Evers, head of Evers Legal Search and an insidecounsel.com careers columnist. He notes that because advancement opportunities in a legal department often are limited, it’s important to hire those who have a psychological predisposition to be happy in that environment.

“You want talent and ambition, but not so much ambition that they will be a problem,” he says. “When you know not everyone will succeed you as general counsel, you need to make an assessment of who will be happy [with that] and who won’t be.”

General counsel say they try to determine whether a job candidate will be a team contributor. Rich Baer, former general counsel at Qwest, calls it a search for “emotional intelligence—people who relate well to other people, which is not necessarily the strong suit of many lawyers.”

In a similar vein, Block says she hires lawyers who are “committed to being team players, to listening to our clients and being responsive and accessible to them, to constantly learning and developing professionally and helping our direct reports and teammates do the same.”

The ability to assess those traits in a job interview is more an art than a science, but Jerry Okarma, GC of Johnson Controls, has one technique:

“If I interview someone and hear, ‘I, I, I’ —‘I did that public offering,’ ‘I won that case,’ I put my pencil down and say ‘Really, you did that stuff by yourself?’ We are not an ‘I’ company. We take a team type approach to things. If they come in and say how great they are, it makes me nervous.”

Findlay similarly listens closely when an applicant is describing cases he has worked on.

“There are some who will claim all the credit and others who will give credit to others and almost be embarrassed to talk about their own role,” he says.

Picking candidates with the right attitude, Findlay adds, can impact the morale of the whole department.

“Practicing law can be so much fun when you have colleagues you like,” he says, “and it can be miserable if you have colleagues you don’t like.”

Rules for Retention

Keeping that great new hire happy in his or her new position isn’t always easy. It’s complicated by the fact that legal departments tend to be relatively flat organizations, with limited advancement opportunities. The recession further complicated this, because lawyers haven’t moved from company to company.

“If you are a talented young lawyer in an in-house department, you look up and say, ‘My superior will be in this job another 10 years. What kind of opportunity does that give me?’” says Cameron Findlay, GC of Medtronic.

Part of a GC’s job is to manage expectations by reminding lawyers of benefits of an in-house career, Findlay says. There’s no pressure to drum up business or to meet a billable hours quota. “But in-house departments are flat organizations and you don’t move up every year like you do in a law firm,” he says. “[In-house lawyers] need to think of professional opportunities as not just being upwards, but also side to side and diagonal.”

Business structures like Medtronic’s that contain mini legal departments within the business units, in addition to the corporate legal staff, are particularly suited to those lateral moves. “This gives us the opportunity to move someone out of M&A into a business unit where they are closer to the business and have leadership opportunities,” he says. “This sets them up well to come back [to legal] with a better understanding of the business or to stay there and move up in the business unit.”

Global legal departments can offer enhanced development opportunities with the added attraction of a new cultural experience. Jerry Okarma’s department at Johnson Controls, for instance, supports three diverse global businesses. “It’s a great opportunity to get experience in different business units and areas of the world,” he says. “You don’t have to leave the company to move along your developmental path, both personally and professionally.”

Other large company GCs cite variations on this theme. At Cisco Systems, general counsel Mark Chandler encourages lawyers to rotate into business positions. He notes that of 30 attorneys who have taken non-legal jobs in the company during his tenure, 20 rotated back into legal—a testament to the department’s culture.

“We create an environment where people are able to contribute in different ways to the growth of the company,” he says. “Everybody can make a difference. It’s a nonpolitical environment where people are rewarded for inclusiveness.”

At Qwest, former GC Rich Baer found a way to provide new growth opportunities within the legal department with a program that moved six to eight attorneys a year from one discipline to another.  Commercial litigators might work in the regulatory section, while regulatory experts worked on commercial contracts. This experience both deepened the department’s bench strength and provided an incentive for attorneys by allowing them to develop new skills.  

“To a lawyer, everyone we moved was a great success in the new job as well as the old job,” Baer says.

Spreading the Word

Beyond hiring good people and motivating them with growth opportunities, general counsel of great legal teams set a tone, have a plan, and communicate, communicate, communicate with their teams.

It may sound basic, but it’s critical, particularly when trying to realign a department around new goals and objectives. Take the case of Michael Going, general counsel of CNH America. He took over the top legal spot in June 2007, determined to change the mindset of the team “from a risk-averse in-house law firm approach to one that understands what the business is trying to achieve and why we are trying to achieve it.”

From the outset he made his expectations explicitly clear with a slide presentation that defined his vision for the department and his expectations of everyone in the department, from himself to his administrative assistant. It’s an explanation he goes through with new hires and continuously reinforces with those already on the team.

“You have to get them out of the comfortable groove they’ve been in,” he says. “You have to tell them what is expected and coach them into new habits of doing things. Some will rejoice, some will welcome being able to use their left hand in this new approach. Some will take a while to learn. Some will be unwilling to do this new approach.”

In Going’s case, the task is complicated by geography. Of the 35 lawyers in his department, he is the only one based at the corporate headquarters in Burr Ridge, Ill. Others are scattered from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Brazil, Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Switzerland and Australia.

That keeps him on the road a lot, so he can “continue the drumbeat,” as he puts it. “Leading by example is the tried-and-true way of helping people change.”

Cameron Findlay came to Medtronic as GC from Aon, where it was easy to stay in touch with the lawyers in his department with brown bag lunches and casual chats in the hallway. “Almost everyone was on one floor in one building in Chicago,” he says.

Findlay misses that daily contact in his role at Medtronic, with 125 lawyers spread around the country and around the world. He still hosts brown bag lunches for those who, like him, are based in the Twin Cities, but he also reaches out to other locations with quarterly all-hands webcast meetings and biannual all-hands global in-person meetings. On the off years, he plans to start regional all-hands meetings.

“It’s so important to people to know what is going on,” Findlay says. “It prevents rumors from running rampant. I always err on the side of communicating in all directions—up, down and sideways.”

At Johnson Controls, GC Jerry Okarma’s department constitutes 64 lawyers in more than a dozen offices, more than half of those outside the U.S. Just getting people to relate to being part of a global legal team is the first challenge, Okarma says.

“If you say to someone, ‘Welcome to the team,’ they would say, ‘What team are you talking about? There are four lawyers here with me in Brussels, I’m assigned to a business team, and you tell me I am one of 64 lawyers on the global legal team.’”

As a result, Okarma has learned that he has to factor in location, business unit and overall function when he tries to team build. He hosts quarterly global communications meetings where he talks about the state of the business, where the department stands on its objectives and what challenges it faces to make all the lawyers feel part of one legal team. Below him, the global GCs have regular WebEx or conference call meetings with the business unit teams, and there are annual in-person regional meetings.

Not surprisingly, the legal department at tech giant Cisco Systems makes extensive use of the company’s TelePresence video conferencing technology to keep a dispersed department in close touch. This has enabled the department to encourage flexible work arrangements that contribute to a low attrition rate, according to GC Mark Chandler.

“People need flexibility in their personal lives,” Chandler says. “We encourage people to schedule work in accordance with their personal needs. Remote connectivity through WebEx and TelePresence, which provides the ability to do high-definition video from home, enables that.”

Chandler also conducts all-hands meetings via TelePresence, which allows dialog among the dispersed team members. “The ability of TelePresence to create interaction has been a huge shift that allows us to get people together around the globe and build them into one team,” Chandler says.

He adds that he typically spends three to four hours a day keeping in touch via TelePresence, which he says is almost the same as an in-person meeting.

“Sometimes I can’t remember whether a meeting was in person or on TelePresence,” he adds.

Sidebar: Teamwork Tool

Pro bono projects can be a valuable tool in keeping attorneys challenged and happy by offering them an opportunity to learn new skills while meeting their professional responsibility to give back to the community. They also provide opportunities to build teamwork.

At Exelon Corp., where pro bono work is rewarded and a wide range of pro bono projects are offered, GC Darryl Bradford cites the “Wills for Heroes” program as an especially effective teambuilding exercise. That program brings Exelon lawyers together to write wills for Chicago Police Department officers and their spouses. Afterward, the legal department sponsors a social event for the volunteers.

“It makes you proud to be associated with a department that will do those types of things,” Bradford says. “It can have a dramatic impact on helping your law department jell.”

Sidebar: Evolving Expectations

Johnson Controls GC Jerry Okarma, who has been practicing law for 34 years, thinks it’s tougher today to keep people happy in their jobs than it was 20 years ago when people were satisfied with a big paycheck and an impressive title. He attributes that in part to the demanding work-life of today’s in-house attorneys.

“If you talk to big company GCs, we are all learning that it’s not just the title and the dollars, because people are being asked to spend so much time working. So they have to like the company and the job,” he says. “It is so demanding physically and mentally that people don’t think it’s worth it if all they get is a business card and a paycheck."

He also cites generational differences. “People from my vintage will say to themselves, ‘When we were coming up, we kept our heads down and someone would notice, something good would happen.’ People would go through a career never asking for a raise or a title change. Now people want earlier and more direct discussion about where they are and where they are going, and how everything you ask them to do ties in to help support that objective.”

Okarma has addressed those demands by creating a more formalized career development process, anchored by a spider chart illustrating where the supervisor and the employee each think the employee is in his or her career development path. Objectives are based on a discussion of the chart.

“Before we had a formal approach, many times an attorney’s objectives for the next year did not address the issues of what the person needed to improve and what the person needed to do to move to the next level,” Okarma says. “This has helped us a lot.”

Okarma notes that because of the recession, his plan’s effectiveness is yet to be tested.

“During the meltdown, we didn’t have the pressure of people being recruited away,” he says. “Now that we are coming out and people are hiring again, we will get a sense of how effective we are at making people feel good about their jobs.”

Sidebar: Outsiders In

Legal departments today often rely on outside resources to meet temporary staffing needs. Contract attorneys and seconded law firm lawyers work side by side with full-time employees. But should they be considered part of the team?

Mike Evers, who runs a contract attorney service called Evers Counsel in addition to Evers Legal Search, believes that makes sense.

“Your team doesn’t have to be limited to the traditional legal department team because the department doesn’t look like that anymore,” he says. “It’s hard to find a legal department today where the team doesn’t include adjunct team members.”

Michael Going, general counsel of CNH America, likes to consider his department a “virtual law firm.”

“I view it as a seamless team consisting of internal and external legal support and now adding contract employees plus legal outsourcing,” he says. “If you treat [contractors] like you treat other attorneys, give them exposure to clients and encourage clients to go directly to them, and make sure they understand what you expect of them, it goes a long way to achieving what you want to achieve.”

Jerry Okarma, GC of Johnson Controls, also says his department treats contract attorneys the same way it treats full-time employees. “Staff meetings, off-site meetings, quarterly communications meetings, trips to a Brewers baseball game—whatever it is, we include them,” he says.

Contributing Author

Mary Swanton

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